‘Ray Donovan’ Pilot Recap: “Don’t Let the Wolf in the Cave”

It’s a pet peeve of mine when movies and TV shows are simply titled after the lead character, especially when that character is fictional. (I’ll give a pass to a bio-pic based on a real person, like ‘Patton’ or ‘Lincoln’.) For example, on Sunday, the Showtime network premiered its latest drama series, called ‘Ray Donovan’. What does that title tell us about the show, other than that it has a character named Ray Donovan in it? Who is this Ray Donovan guy, and why should we care about him?

If the producers of the show wanted to be honest about what they’re doing, they should call it ‘Mystic River: The Series’. The problems with this are: 1) They’ve transplanted the action to Los Angeles, away from Boston or the Mystic River, and (more importantly) 2) They probably didn’t want to pay for the official rights to adapt the Dennis Lehane novel, famously made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. To be fair, they’ve changed up some of the details and added a number of complications to differentiate the story. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the writers have read ‘Mystic River’ or at least seen the movie.

Liev Schreiber stars as, you guessed it… a bloke named Ray Donovan. Originally hailing from Boston, Ray and his family were a buncha Southie mooks with ties to shady dealings and so forth, who all packed up and moved to La-La-Land to make better lives for themselves and get away from Pops (Jon Voight), a career criminal who’s spent the past two decades in prison. Now Pops is sprung on parole and making his way out to the left coast, and Ray ain’t too happy about that.

Ray is basically the Sean Penn character. He’s the brains of the group with an obvious criminal past, who’s tried to go straight (or mostly so) to do right by his family. Paula Malcomson from ‘Lost’ and ‘Deadwood’ plays his wife Abby, the Laura Linney role, with the thickest and least convincing Bahston accent. Ray’s also got a couple of brothers. The one called Terry (Eddie Marsan) has Parkinson’s, because… well, basically because it’s a tic that gives the actor something to do to make an impression on camera. Younger brother Bunchy (the Tim Robbins character) is a total fuck-up head-case, owing to the fact that he grew up as a young boy in Boston, and therefore was of course molested by a priest, as Hollywood would have you believe is a rite of passage here. A confusing flashback suggests that Ray may have also received the same treatment, but he seems to have gotten over it better.

Merging the narrative with a little Tarantino, Ray works as a “fixer,” like Mr. Wolfe in ‘Pulp Fiction’. He’s very good at his job and caters to a high-end clientele. If you’re a rich professional athlete who’s just woken up in bed next to a dead floozie and have the girl’s blood all over your dick, you call Ray and he fixes it for you. If you’re a famous movie star about to open a big romantic comedy, and you get caught picking up a cross-dressing hooker on Santa Monica Boulevard, you call Ray and he fixes it for you. Creatively, he fixes these two problems by putting the movie star in bed with the dead floozie, because it’s a much smaller career blow in Hollywood to be tied to the suspicious overdose of a young girl and race off to rehab afterwards than it is to be gay. The best parts of the pilot episode, called ‘The Bag or the Bat’, involve the cool-headed, ever-professional Ray and his small team of helpers devising solutions to crises like these.

The pilot episode is almost overwhelmed by plot threads. In addition to those I’ve already described, Ray is hired by a douchebag movie producer to spy on his mistress, a young Disney pop starlet who was a former client of Ray’s and develops an unhealthy infatuation with him. When Ray discovers that the girl has a stalker, he “fixes” that problem not by notifying the police or getting a restraining order, but by breaking into the guy’s house and forcing him to dye his entire body green. (It doesn’t work, so Ray has to return later to beat the shit out of him.) The girl returns his kindness by making a spectacle of throwing herself at him and nearly wrecking his marriage. Meanwhile, Ray’s aging mentor figure (Elliott Gould) is losing his mental faculties and threatens to come clean about all the bad things they’ve ever done. Ray learns that he has a black step-brother sired by his racist father. Instead of a dead daughter (as in ‘Mystic River’), he grieves over a lost sister, who allegedly tossed herself off a building while high on drugs. (I suspect there’s more to that story.) Looming over everything is the coming threat of Papa Donovan, which Ray insists will ruin all their lives.

I should probably mention that the first thing Pops does after getting out of prison is to track down and shoot the molester priest in the face. As you do.

Somehow, the episode juggles all these storylines without making too confusing a mess out of them. Still, it has far too much going on, and I’d hope that later episodes will apply the brakes a little.

For all that, the show is kind-of OK. Schreiber does well playing the glowering, quiet menace. Aside from those who overdo their accents (including Jon Voight, sadly), most of the performances are pretty good. The episode has a nice sense of atmosphere and could possibly grow into something interesting. I’ll probably watch again.

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