I’m not ashamed to admit that after watching the first two episodes of Ray Donovan when the series initially premiered on Showtime that I tuned out and never looked back. Despite being a Liev Schreiber fan, the show’s premise—a fixer who can fix everyone’s problems but his own—seemed a little too cutesie, and the writing and characterization felt like it was trying a bit too hard to be the next The Sopranos. So when Showtime sent us the first season for review, I decided that I’d give the show a second chance instead of trying to pawn it off. I’m glad I did. Ray Donovan, like a few other notable shows, takes a while to find its footing as it walks a delicate line with a number of social topics (not the least of which is pedophilia by Catholic priests) and starts off with a few broad characterizations before finally deciding to settle in and flesh out some of the key supporting characters. At which point, Ray Donovan becomes Showtime’s best series, hands down.
That aforementioned cutesie premise aside, which really is the basic theme of the show, Ray Donovan sows enough dramatic seeds in the first half of the season to make the tail end of the season downright satisfying television. The series kicks off with a very apt portrait of what Ray (Schreiber) does for a living: when a famous married athlete wakes up next to a call-girl that ODed while he slept, Ray helps leave the scene of the scandal and then ties another client, a macho movie star suspected by many of being gay, to the incident thus solving both clients’ problems in one deft move. The former isn’t tied to a death and infidelity, and the latter gets morbid proof that he likes the ladies and his upcoming heterosexual blockbuster isn’t sabotaged by homoerotic headlines. It’s a win-win.
Ray is good at his job, and with the help of his associates Avi (Steven Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moennig) he makes the problems for Ezra Goodman (Elliott Gould) and Lee Drexler’s (Peter Jacobson) rich clients go away. Considering how blatantly illegal Ray’s actions can get depending on what’s needed, it’s not surprising that he and his employers have attracted the unwanted attention of Federal Agent Van Miller. To make matters with the feds even worse, Ray’s father Mickey (Jon Voight) receives early parole, dredging up hard feelings over how Mickey raised Ray and his two brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok). Along with certain buried secrets Mickey’s presence threatens to unearth, his interference with his family life makes Ray increasingly anxious to have him disappear. Unfortunately for Ray, the decision to recruit an old enemy from the past (James Woods) to solve his problems backfires and creates an even bigger mess.
The above summary only scratches the surface of the first season’s larger plot, and it doesn’t even account for Ray’s own marital issues as his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) struggles with her husband’s rejection of Mickey as a member of the family, or his son (Devon Bagby) acting out in violent ways and his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) romancing an aspiring rap superstar (Octavius J. Johnson). On top of that there’s an Alzheimer’s subplot, Ray’s former client and now pseudo-stalker, Mickey’s bi-racial son, Bunchy’s sex-abuse induced alcoholism and emotional damage, and Terry’s attempt to create a real relationship with a married woman. The show throws a whole lot of stuff at the wall, but the writing is strong enough that most of it sticks even if it’s not all necessarily equally engrossing.
Ray Donovan feels like Showtime’s under-hyped ringer; it’s consistently excellent after it finds its stride in the fifth episode, and it’s satisfying in a way that a few of Showtime’s other programs haven’t been in a year or so. If the writers can continue to develop the characters in meaningful ways (especially the entertaining rapport between Lena and Avi) without making the circumstances of their collective crises get ridiculous, then Ray Donovan’s title as the best series on Showtime is all but guaranteed.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
There are none.
"Ray Donovan: Season 1" is on sale June 10, 2014 and is not rated. Crime, Drama. Directed by John Dahl, Michael Uppendahl, Tucker Gates. Written by Ann Biderman, David Hollander, Brett Johnson. Starring Dash Mihok, Eddie Marsan, Jon Voight, Liev Schreiber, Steven Bauer, Paula Malcomson, Katherine Moennig.