Following last week’s car crash of an episode, ‘Ray Donovan’ had me on the ropes, ready to throw in the towel and bail on the once-promising series after just three episodes. I’m glad I stuck around, because Sunday night’s “Black Cadillac” was the series’ best effort to date, and the first sign of hope since the pilot that this series might be worth watching.
It’s abundantly clear that the key to ‘Ray Donovan’, both now and going forward, is how convincingly the characters come off as “real people.” For better or worse, the series seems committed to shoehorning in a heaping helping of broad, almost slapstick humor, mostly from Mickey but also from this whole cast of colorful side characters. Layer on the “fixer” stories that crop up each episode and seem to linger on (we saw a brief glimpse of young Marvin at the top of this hour), the ongoing family dramas within the Donovan household and at the boxing ring, and the over-arching central narrative involving the FBI and Mickey’s time in prison, and there’s just not a whole lot of time to watch these characters live their lives. Some crisis is always happening, somebody is always yelling at someone else, and in the rare moment when that’s not the case, Jon Voight is invariably filling the time by doing something ridiculous and creepy.
Which is a shame, because the beauty of television is that it allows premium cable dramas the luxury of doing nothing, of setting their own pace and controlling their tone. “Black Cadillac” worked because for the first time, ‘Ray Donovan’ took advantage of this, dialing its pace down and smoothing its tone out. And for one hour, finally, this series felt like it was set in the real world and involved real people.
“Black Cadillac” followed three character-driven stories. First, Ray grudgingly agrees to take a day off work to accompany his wife Abby and their children Bridget and Conor to a walk-through at swanky Bel Air Academy. This provided some much-needed balance in how the audience views Ray and Abby.
This series is told from Ray’s perspective, so the audience is naturally on his side and against Mickey (and his sympathizers, including Abby). We’ve been told (by Abby) that Ray’s not the best husband, but have hardly seen it – again, the show is too busy keeping all of its plates spinning to really show a substantial slice of their everyday life. But here, as Ray constantly deals with work calls while making a half-attempt to remain engaged in the open house, the audience can sympathize with Abby. At one point, a man wronged by Ray’s boss Ezra talks tough to he and Abby (later, upon finding himself alone with Ray, the man meekly apologizes); at another point, Ray actually leaves the school to take care of a surveillance issue, returning with scratches on his face.
Stuff like this is what makes the larger stories work. Now the audience has context to why Abby would be so trusting of Mickey, despite Ray’s stern warnings. She wants to feel like she has a family, because life with Ray is just waiting for him to get his next call and leave. We’ve seen some of this in previous episodes, but I appreciate the time that “Black Cadillac” took to tell what seems like a minor story.
Elsewhere, Mickey, Ray’s brother Bunchy, and half-brother Darrell take a road trip to Palm Springs to visit Darrell’s mother Lydette, ostensibly to collect some money but really because Mickey wants to hook back up with her. They find her happily married to a windbag movie producer, warmly grateful to Mickey for what he did for her (which led to his imprisonment, at least as I understand it), but committed to her husband and her new life. Mickey’s acceptance of this was a nice touch – I was afraid he was going to lose his mind – but my favorite moment involved Bunchy and a reluctant Darrell playing in the pool. Again, it’s not the big moments that make a TV show, it’s the small moments that build up to them. That 30-second scene tells me more about their relationship than the tedious monologues of the previous episodes ever could.
Finally, my favorite part of the hour was the tiny story involving Ray’s other brother, Terry, having dinner with the nurse he met last episode. He plans to heat up canned spaghetti, but Potato Pie from the boxing ring steps in and makes a homemade meal for them. The date starts slow with stilted conversation, but picks up once the spaghetti is revealed. Rather than passing it off as his own cooking, Terry calls Pie in from the kitchen and has him pull up a chair at the table.
Small moments. That’s what defined “Black Cadillac”, and I hope that’s what will define the direction of ‘Ray Donovan’ going forward. Because when this series takes its foot off the gas, it’s actually really good.