Ray Donovan Series Premiere Review

Rating: 7.4

Do you like Jon Voight acting wacky, terrible accent work, and a frankly uncomfortable amount of talk about priests molestations? Then do I have a show for you!

‘Ray Donovan’, which premiered on Showtime tonight, stars Liev Schrieber as the eponymous character, a fixer who with the support of his team extract celebrities and well-paying clients from sticky situations. Voight plays Ray’s father Mickey, who in the series’ first scene is released from prison five years earlier than Ray expected. The two have history that’s rocky to say the least, and it’s made clear to the audience that Mickey is a very dangerous man, though only Ray, who set him up to go to prison in the first place, seems to grasp how serious this situation is.

I didn’t know what to make of ‘Ray Donovan’ prior to watching it, and now having watched it, I still don’t know what to make of it. There’s something almost Tarantinian about the way the pilot goes out of its way to make light of certain situations. There’s the requisite establishing of Ray’s credentials via a sequence where he calmly gets two clients out of seemingly impossible jams (woke up next to a dead girl // caught with a transvestite, if you must know), but the entire episode is dotted with scenes that are treated as overtly comedic. Ray admits to his wife that he has a black half-brother, and they both have a hearty laugh. Ray’s client and friend Ezra (played by the incomparable Elliot Gould) has a breakdown when his wife dies and ends up wading aimlessly in ankle-deep water at the beech, drawing the ire of high-strung Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson) who hustles down to the water to try to coax him back to the party. When Mickey meets Ray face-to-face at the end of the hour, his first words to him are a priest joke, the 3rd or 4th such joke of the episode.

I’m familiar with the concept of dark comedy, of course, and in many ways I’m relieved that ‘Ray Donovan’ isn’t a joyless, depressing slog through a swamp of emotions (though there’s still plenty of time for it to become one!). But I had a difficult time gauging just how seriously ‘Ray Donovan’ wants to be taken by its audience.

There were a handful of fairly powerful moments in this pilot, particularly the father-daughter scene near the end, and some rather heavy (especially for the first hour) family dynamics. These scenes were juxtaposed with John Voight ogling a breast-feeding woman and dancing in his motel room while wearing only a towel.

So you can see why I’m having some trouble processing this whole enterprise. I think I’m going to need a few more episodes to get a handle on what exactly ‘Ray Donovan’ wants to be – and maybe the series itself needs some time to find itself, as well.

But I’m willing to wait it out. Despite Voight’s odd character, he’s giving the kind of performance you’d expect John Voight to give. Same with Schrieber, who is awesome throughout but particularly when Ray opens up and allows himself to express some emotion.

My biggest concern going forward is that we’re headed towards a situation where Mickey fools everyone on the show into accepting him back, turning them against Ray. The series CLEARLY wants the audience to be repulsed by Mick (the aforementioned breast-feeding ogling, etc.) and root for Ray, but if the dynamic remains this black-and-white it could become problematic. In particular I’m thinking of the character of Abby, Ray’s wife, who appears to have fallen for Mick’s con hook, line, and sinker. If she starts working against Ray, that character could become borderline unbearable for reasons beyond her awful accent.

That’s all looking ahead, though, and there’s no reason to get ahead of the series at this point, especially since to my mind it’s still unclear what this series is going to be. In fact, there wasn’t anything necessarily *wrong* with this pilot, and I’m still hopeful for ‘Ray Donovan’ going forward.

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