I just finished the pilot episode for Showtime’s new series Ray Donovan created by Ann Biderman (who created Southland and won an Emmy for NYPD Blue). It’s a quality episode directed by cable mainstay Allen Coulter written by Biderman. I’ve read very little critical response, but the show set a Showtime ratings record for a new series premiere (topping Homeland). That’s even more notable considering this episode was available to stream online a week before it actually aired.
In brief, Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is a “fixer” (think Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf) in Hollywood who helps the rich and famous with certain problems, including stalkers, transvestite prostitutes, dead hookers, cheating mistresses and whatever else his clients might need. Ray has relocated to the west coast from South Boston and lives with his wife Abby (Deadwood‘s Paula Malcolmson) and the cable-requisite older daughter and younger son (see also: Mad Men, Homeland, Dexter, The Sopranos, The Americans). Ray is good at his job and makes a pretty nice living, but he has other family problems involving his brothers Terry and Bunchy (Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok) and most importantly his dad Mickey (the hammy Jon Voight).
I liked Ray Donovan and I’m interested to see exactly where they go with it. The cast is pretty great all around and the story, apart from the return of Mickey (who has been in prison) seems sort of unfocused and could zip off in any number of interesting or weird directions, or it could just sputter and stagnate. That’s the reason for this post, the fact that this pilot is so jam-packed with character traits, flaws and reveals as well as supporting cast members and potential plot threads. I get that the first episode of a show needs to introduce us to this world and these characters, but my goodness, is there a lot of stuff here! Rather than give an in depth recap, I’m just going to list everything good, bad, cliché or otherwise that “The Bag or the Bat” throws at us and marvel at how coherent and interesting it remains.
- In the opening sequence, Mickey is released from prison. His first order of business? Kill a priest.
- Said priest, we come to find, is responsible for molesting Ray’s younger brother Bunchy when he was a kid.
- As a result of this abuse, Bunchy has emotional problems, alcohol problems and money problems (he just got a $1.4 million settlement, which makes him feel awful)
- Ray’s other brother Terry has Parkinson’s disease, which he developed from boxing.
- Also, Ray comes to find out that he has a half-black half-brother (is that redundant? (is that racist?)) named Darryl (Pooch Hall).
- Oh, and Ray also had a sister named Bridget, who jumped off of a roof when she was high on drugs and died. Ray has a soft spot for broken/troubled women. Ray also named his daughter Bridget and he just now tells her about how her aunt died.
- Ray helps an athlete deal with a dead hooker (she overdosed) and an actor deal with an image-destroying decision to pick up a transvestite prostitute. We see the actor talking to Ray’s son later.
- Steven Bauer plays Avi, Ray’s inexplicably Russian assistant.
- Ray is hired by Purell-using Stu Feldman (Josh Pais) to spy on his mistress Ashley (Ambyr Childers). It turns out, Ashley and Ray have a past and they share some passionate kisses (and a little more later as Ray drives her home).
- Oh, and Ashley is epileptic, a pop singer and is apparently obsessed with Ray.
- Also, Ashley is being stalked by a creep whom Ray threatens with the titular Bag or Bat. The creep chooses the bag, which is filled with green dye for him to actually dye himself green. Later, when that fails to deter him, Ray goes to town on him with the bat.
- Apparently Feldman is the only one who can get Ray’s daughter into a good school (somehow…I think). When Abby asks Feldman about it, he says no because he thinks Ray is screwing around with Ashley. Ray breaks Feldman’s arm.
- Ray gets leads on situations from Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson) who is a Hollywood lawyer/agent/player/something.
- Lee’s business partner Ezra (Elliott Gould) is apparently the man who brought Ray to LA and is, according to Ray, the most important person in Ray’s life. Ezra also appears to be going nuts, threatening to confess all of the cover ups and walking in the waves with a suit on.
- Ezra’s wife has just died and he is in a relationship with Denise Crosby, who shows up at the memorial service (to plead for a recurring role?).
- Ray also has issues, which may be substance induced (?). He sees a bad-green-screen vision of his brother (I assume it’s his brother, or is it him?) in a car with a priest. He also sees a picture of Marilyn Monroe and it talks to him, telling him to save her. Like I said, troubled women.
- Mickey shows up in LA and informs the audience that Ray “set him up” and that he was supposed to have this Hollywood life. It seems he wants protection from anyone asking questions about the dead priest.
- Mickey snorts some coke and goes to visit Abby. Maybe they talk about how to improve their accents.
You can see that there is a lot going on in Ray Donovan. Even though I liked the episode, I think that could be a problem. It doesn’t feel like they’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, but it also doesn’t feel like they know exactly where this is all heading. The show is piling it on a little, giving Ray a bad dad, an abused brother, a brother with Parkinson’s, a dead sister, a new half-brother and a wife he doesn’t always get along with (and sort of cheats on). Not to mention his unorthodox occupation. The biggest story seems to be the Ray/Mickey relationship. Unfortunately, a father and son not getting along isn’t particularly new, but I’m sure there is a lot of backstory we aren’t getting yet.
With all of these potentially important side stories/charcters, I’m interested to see how it comes together, if at all. There is probably a lot more to Ray than we might suspect (maybe he’s a secret genius). I’m fairly optimistic about this series based on the little I’ve seen (and the lot I’ve heard) about the quality of Biderman’s Southland. Plus, this is the first season of a Showtime series meaning it has to be pretty good (based entirely on Dexter and Homeland, and the quality of The Tudors first season relative to the rest of that series). I’m guessing it will be good, but it will take a few more episodes for me to be sure. The real question is, will the network regret the lazy title Ray Donovan? Also, will That Thing You Do!‘s Jonathon Schaech get a chance to do more (of that thing he does)?