First Watch: Ray Donovan – “The Bag or the Bat” (Season 1, Episode 1)

With its veteran show, Dexter, getting ready to retire, Showtime has drafted a rookie series: Ray Donovan. Written, produced, and created by the same incredible mind to bring us Southland (my favorite cop show; RIP) Ann Biderman. The freshman drama has arrived to record-breaking ratings — outperforming Dexter’s series premiere. The title character, played by Liev Schreiber, lives in LA as a ‘fixer’— he makes things go away for the rich and famous, keeping them out of trouble with the law and other dangers. Showtime continues onto another criminal main character with daddy issues.

If you’re going to follow Dexter, you have to open strong. So how does Ray Donovan begin? Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight)—Ray’s father— is released from prison and executes a priest. Mission accomplished.

Ray gets his own introduction: a phone call from a stereotype. Or a basketball player; it’s difficult to tell the difference in this case. The stereotype woke up next to a dead woman, who apparently partied to hard the night before— he needs a fixer. Ray immediately calls his team: Avi (Steven Bauer), Frank (Michael McGrady), and Lena (Katherine Moennig). Avi reminds me of “The Wolf” — very professional and “curt”. The situation is handled before Ray kisses his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), good morning. If you notice an accent on Abby, it’s because the family is  full of Southies—the colloquial term for a person of South Boston.

Ray’s kids—Conor (Devon Bagby) and Bridget (Kerris Dorsey)—provide us with exposition, and, while it’s not naked, it’s crudely covered. We learn about Ray’s brother’s— Terry (Eddie Marsan) used to be a professional boxer until blows to the head left him with Parkinson’s, and Bunchy (Dash Mihok) was molested by a priest as a child (giving much more meaning to the scene where Mickey forces a gun into a priest’s mouth), leaving him an addict and emotional wreck. Who we don’t learn about is Mickey, who the kids believe to be dead. Nothing says “I want you out of my life, dad” like telling your own children their grandfather is dead.

Business must be good because (that house is huge) Ray gets offered a job from a client, Stu Feldman (Josh Pais): follow Patrick’s mistress, Ashley Rucker (Ambyr Childers), to make sure she isn’t cheating on him. Yes, a man hired Ray to make sure the woman he’s cheating on his wife with isn’t cheating on him; a level of hypocrisy only achievable in Hollywood. While spying on Ashley, Ray discovers she has a stalker. Up until this point, it’s established, while Ray’s profession is inherently dirty and dishonest, he is a good person: a good father, a good boss, and a good husband. As a good person, Ray feels honor-bound to alert Ashley of her predicament — even if, in doing so, he blows his cover and the assignment. As it turns out, Ashely is an old client of Ray’s, whom he feels he has to protect. She offers to “thank” Ray, who rebuffs her — until he doesn’t. Oh well, at least he’s still a good person.

The episode quickly and repeatedly establishes one warning, parallel to “Ray is a good person”: don’t piss Ray off, he’s dangerous. He does the obvious thing — threatens the stalker’s life — but then forces the man to bathe in green dye. I can’t think of many practical reasons to do this (other than a creative show of force), but there are many symbolic reasons; Shakespeare comes to mind.

Ray, eventually, becomes aware of Mickey’s early release from prison and the news sends him into a high-stress panic. Ray warns his wife and reminds his brothers of what his father is: poison. If family is blood, then Ray spent several years and thousands of dollars expelling this poison from his family’s veins, only to have it seep back in with as little resistance as the first cankering.

Ray’s story seems to be the inverse of Michael Corleone’s from The Godfather. Michael and Ray both become criminals to defend and support their families, but everything Michael does is to serve his family, while Ray often puts his work before his family. Michael willingly follows the path of his father, while Ray denies his father’s existence. But maybe it isn’t fair to compare the two, since Ray’s world seems to be crashing down upon him. The Godfather 2 might be a superior study: Michael’s grip on his family, to prevent them from leaving, crushes them. Ray might not be the one destroying his family, but they have certainly slipped out of his grasp and into the clutches of his father.

Ray Donovan is incredibly acted. Schreiber and Voight give chilling and dangerous performances, while the supporting cast creates a world full of interesting characters. Unfortunately, those characters and plot are all introduced at the same time—leaving a mess of story lines around the major conflict, and important characters are all but forgotten. Many critics believe there are two kinds of stories: character-driven and plot-driven. But that’s not true; a story needs both characters and plot to develop fully into a dramatic masterpiece. The choice a writer is expected to make when beginning a new story is which to introduce first. You have your stories that begin with character development first—The Wire, Firefly, and Doctor Who— then, you have the plot heavy beginnings—Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Weeds, and Game of Thrones. This is not to say there are not certain scripts which mix the two well; a well crafted story will blend character and plot into a beautiful mosaic until no viewer could know the difference. Ray Donovan tried to introduce plot and character simultaneously, but too many characters, all with different plots, have cluttered the audience’s minds; what is supposed to be a balancing act becomes a juggling act. Many characters could have been introduced in the next episode and sub-plots could have been developed slower. I remember every scene with Ray or Mickey, but the (I’m assuming) deep and interesting side characters—Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould), Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson), and Ray’s brothers—are an afterthought, or worse: not a thought at all.

Ray Donovan, if paced correctly, will only get better. I’m definitely willing to give it the chance it deserves to fill Dexter‘s shoes.

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