by ELEANOR MORROW
creator Ann Biderman
Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) resides in Los Angeles with his wife, his son and his daughter. It took me roughly the entire pilot episode of the show to properly describe RD, but finally I found the right word: he is unhappy. It takes the entire sixty minutes to realize this, because Ray possesses many things other people desire: financial wealth, an active sex life with a narcoleptic woman a few years older than his daughter, the ability to impose his will on absolutely anyone.
One night after his wife tells him not to come home he ends up at his downtown apartment. He starts thinking about his past - later in the episode he tells his wife, "Whatever you can imagine, it was ten times worse." His sister killed herself by leaping from a great height. His brothers are an alcoholic and a overmedicated diabetic respectively; both are completely destroyed by whatever Ray through as well, coming out somewhat better for the wear.
Ray is a fixer of sorts. It's a lopsided match to run him up against the type of people he finds in the show's premiere - the garden variety L.A. asshole who populates the corners of their own pool tables. Stalkers, egomaniacal executives with three dogs they never pet, self-obsessed movie stars. These predictable antagonists simply do not provide a fair fight, and that Ray liberally uses violence to handle these frivolous people must on some level be his addiction, since the meagreness of the individuals themselves does not require it.
Ray Donovan tries to be a comedy in the same way The Sopranos was, but even when it lends a lightheartedness to the stories - a dead coke whore! a movie star who loves transvestites! - it never actually makes you laugh. Part of this is the script, a dreary and directionless affair by show creator Ann Biderman that contrasts Day Ronovan's life with the activities of his father (Jon Voight) who has recently been paroled from a Massachusetts prison.
The problem is also in Schreiber's face. While Gandolfini wrought so much out of a litany of facial expressions, tics and sighs, Schreiber must pretend to be relatively unaffected by the lightness of the world that surrounds him - otherwise he would be made inconsequential as well.
Schreiber breaks this veneer only once in the show's pilot, when he confesses to his Jewish mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould). (The irony of an Irish Catholic confessing to a Jew is a bit too on the nose as well.) "He's the reason we have all this," Ray tells his wife in a rare moment of honesty. It is the only thing that reminds us Ray could not really exist without others, and that he can barely live without the ones who are gone.
Jon Voight tries to play the role of Ray's father with great aplomb. He snorts cocaine with his alcoholic son and an African-American prostitute; he murders members of the clergy like it's something a man his age would have the energy to enjoy. I have to admit that Voight is in fantastic shape for age, most likely due to his preemptive vasectomy.
Assembled in one gym near the end of the episode, the family feigns having some kind of relationship with each other, but the all male coterie seems to flail without women. Voight is as poor a cinematic father as he is a real life one, appraising his sons like an alligator observes a swimming child. Ray grabs his and threatens him - for the fifth time in a single hour-long episode, he has told someone that he will kill them if they come near someone that he loves.
The real issue here is that there is no place for a moral tough guy in modern day Los Angeles. If Ray is an asshole - and the show works overtime to prevent you from realizing that he is a tremendous one - then why do we care if he suffers? If Ray is a criminal, then his internal machinations are useless. But if he is moral, if he does have some kind of inner compass he is working to realign, then his penchant for violence and adultery becomes even more unforgivable. He should move to Iceland.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her friend Sheila.
"Hello" - Schuyler Fisk (mp3)
"Sunshine" - Schuyler Fisk (mp3)