Judge Jason Panella is known as a critical cleaner.
Family can be a killer.
Some brilliant moments aside, Ray Donovan: Season One feels like a collection of great actors in want of something to do.
Facts of the Case
Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber, Scream) is a Hollywood fixer—he works for an L.A. law firm to clean up the messes of the California elite. He's a pro at it, too, cracking skulls and fixing PR disasters with equal aplomb. Thankfully his mentor and boss (Elliott Gould, M*A*S*H) pays really well.
But things haven't been rosy for Ray these days. His kids Conor and Bridget (Devon Bagby, Ironside; Kerris Dorsey, Moneyball) are turning into rebellious teenagers. His wife Abby (Paula Malcomson, Caprica) is struggling with Ray's emotional distance. His brothers Bunchy (Dash Mihok, Silver Linings Playbook) and Terry (Eddie Marsan, The World's End) are having a rough time running their boxing gym. And Ray's gangster father Mickey (Jon Voight, Deliverance) has been released early from prison and is trying to re-establish himself as the family patriarch. This is bad news for Ray—he put his dad in jail.
The 12 episodes of Showtime's Ray Donovan: Season One run between 45 and 55 minutes in length.
There's a lot to like about the first season of Ray Donovan. There's a great cast attached to the show, it has a memorable visual aesthetic, and it has showrunner Ann Biderman (Southland) doing some really careful work with characters. But I like the idea of Ray Donovan more than I actually like the show; every captivating moment was balanced out by something truly groan-worthy.
Ray Donovan seems like a crime drama at first glance—you have crazed Irish mobsters, scheming FBI agents, and the grit and grime of the Hollywood underworld. As the season progresses, though, the show reveals itself as a quiet character study sun-baked in a neo-noir crust. (Let me add that this is a nice-looking show, and it makes the most out of the shadows that creep in at sunset.) The focus on the show's characters is where Ray Donovan really shines. Over twelve episodes, Biderman and her writing staff drop in and sit back with Ray and his family, letting the characters open up at their own pace. This sort of thing doesn't always pan out, so I applaud the writers for actually making it work.
The central character is inscrutable, and the first season slowly (slowly) peels back a few layers to examine what makes him such a tortured individual. From the onset, it's clear that Donovan is really good at his job and seems to care about his wife and kids. But that's all we learn about him; Ray hides everything else behind his seething, intense demeanor, which alienates the people he cares about. The irony, of course, is that he's built his persona to protect these same people. Ray operates under a strict moral code that's clear only to him, and he's unwilling to articulate why he hates his father so much.
Ray Donovan also spends a lot of time developing the title character's family. His wife Abby and their kids know what Ray does for a living, but his persistent aloofness has worn them down. Even with an angsty male protagonist, the show benefits from Biderman's touch—Abby and the kids feel like real people. Ray's siblings get a lot of attention. Bunchy was molested by a priest when he was a child, and the intervening decades have seen him spiral into addiction and depression. Terry isn't much better off—he took too many blows to the head as a boxer, and the resulting neurological damage has made him awkward and standoffish. We learn more and more about these characters, and the cast (especially Marsan) does such a good job inhabiting the Donovan family. The show thrives when it is exploring family, especially how parents have an influence—intentional or not—on their children.
But the rest of the show? Ugh. Ray Donovan walks and talks like a premium cable drama, even though it can't stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its better-regarded peers. Many of the episodes utilize the ol' case-of-the-week format, dividing Ray's time between a client and his familial problems. So far so good, but the cases—and some of the problems that stem from them—feel utterly disposable, which is aggravating considering how much time each episode devotes to them. Some episodes even pile on boring plotlines, running three or four at the same time. It?s a shame that Ray's job sucks the life from the show, since two of the most intriguing supporting characters—Steven Bauer's (Scarface) ex-Mossad agent Avi and Katherine Moennig's (The L Word) Lena—appear primarily in this context. The crummy writing even bleeds into the central storyline, which becomes a collection of hoary mafia tropes in no time. Even Voight's Mickey gets tainted—he's a black hole of awfulness, a collection of terrible character traits bumbling around in a track suit. Voight adds a few grace notes to the performance, but it mostly feels like he's phoning it in.
Still, Ray Donovan isn't a bad show, and I think it's one I'd recommend if you're a patient viewer. My biggest disappointment with this first season is how much generic stuff I had to wade through to get to the meatier material.
Showtime's release of Ray Donovan: Season One features all 12 episodes on three discs. The 1.78:1/1080p transfer is excellent, with no noticeable noise or anomalies. The level of detail is absolutely fantastic, something emphasized by show's high contrast. The show spends a lot of time juxtaposing sunlight and shadow, and there's an impressive amount of nuance to the color palette. Blacks in particular are rich and varied. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is also excellent and clear, though the show is quiet enough to not really show off the various channels. Showtime really drops the ball on the extras—this release is enhanced for the Showtime Sync app, which uses your mobile device to detect what you're watching and toss out trivia and other little goodies. Hopefully you have an Apple device, though, since the app is iOS-device only. That's it, though—no other extras.
The good stuff (and it is good stuff) in Ray Donovan: Season One is packed in with a lot of filler. If you have the tenacity to wade through the Sopranos fan fiction to find the buried treasure, this is worth it. If not, I completely understand.
Case dismissed for inconclusive evidence.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Showtime Sync
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