Ray Donovan and The Flaw in the Antihero

How Showtime’s Hit (?) Weakens All Peak TV

In an essay I published earlier this year, I put forth the idea that, for better or worse, the era of Peak TV is linked with the rise of the anithero. However, the reason that many of these series don’t have huge audiences is that, for every Breaking Bad or Mad Men, there are at least three or four Chicago P.D. or Sons of Anarchy, series with leads that could be antiheroes, but are really just despicable people who do bad things with no real goal in mind. And nowhere has this ever been more clear than with the series that seems to epitomize scum than Showtime’s Ray Donovan.

There are many, many problems with this series, but to try and list them all would sound like a litany, so I’ll limit my complaints by sticking to the problems with the title character. First of all, there’s his job. On more than one occasion, I have said that Olivia Pope is basically Ray Donovan with a better wardrobe. There is, however, one key element that raises her marginally above Ray. At least, in Olivia Pope’s world, there is at least the facade that by covering up the crimes and misdemeanors that the powerful do, she is trying to hold on to the idea that the people need to believe that their politicians are above reproach if the system is to work. (Of course, that was before she started rigging elections and killing vice presidents, but let’s set that aside for now) Ray’s sole job is to make sure that the celebrities and power-brokers in Hollywood don’t get sent to jail for doing the same horrible things, which even the most liberal among us can only say isn’t the same thing at all. In fact, given what we have learned about the level of sexual harassment and assaults that some of the most prestigious names in Hollywood have been responsible for, this is one area where more light needs to be shed, not less.

Second, there is the issue of Ray Donovan, the character. I was going to say ‘the human being’, but having watched the series on and off for five years, I have yet to see any truly human aspect to him. Hell, Dexter Morgan demonstrated more character growth in his relationships that Ray ever has. He doesn’t have a single friend to speak of, he barely talks any more than he has to even members of his own family, he doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field he works in, and whenever any question is asked him, he’ll either lie or straight deny it. Now I know that Liev Schrieber is a great actor. I’ve seen him do impressive work in film and on stage. But Ray Donovan barely shows any range at all, even when it comes to changing the tenor of his voice. Some people may be drawn to this minimalism, I like my characters to show at least some emotion.

And he treats his family, who are supposedly the people he is doing this all for, with an equal amount of disdain. He’s always hated his father, Mickey (and the way that this series has utterly wasted Jon Voight is another crime in itself) but as utterly contemptible as some of the crimes Mick’s committed, it doesn’t remotely justify how little he seems to care for everybody else. Terry, who suffers from Parkinson’s, and who has been Ray’s most loyal confidant, barely gets more than tolerated, and its clear Ray has been using his gym to launder money — a move with almost got him sent to prison. Bunchy, a victim of sexual abuse in his youth, has been given little freedom for his life, and its clear Ray sees him as a burden. His son has been dealing with delinquent issues, and was willing to join the marines to get away from him. He has got to great lengths to sabotage every relationship his daughter had. And his treatment of Abby (Paula Malcomson, also wasted), his wife was loathsome, as he cheated on her throughout the series, and never really listened to her pleas for help. In an interview for the series, Eddie Marsan, who plays Terry said: “They (the Donovans) can’t survive without each other, and yet they’re utterly toxic with each other.” Most of this is Ray’s fault.

And this became even clearer this season, when Abby, who had been stricken with cancer last year, began a final descent. Ray utterly refused to accept her diagnosis, wouldn’t listen to her decision not to continue treatment, had an affair with his next door neighbor while she was dying, and then, in order to get her into a clinical trial, infected a patient with meningitis, only to learn that his daughter had helped Abby kill herself. He then spent the entire fifth season half drunk (its also pretty clear that Ray is an alcoholic), pushing every member of his family away, and not accepting any responsibility for anything he’d done. I imagine the partisans of this series (whoever they are, I don’t know anybody who watches this show) will say there was some kind of redemption for him, in the fact that in the end, he helped that same kid receive treatment. I would remind those people that in order to do that, they probably destroyed the doctor’s reputation, which probably endangered or killed God knows how many people, and basically had Ray end up killing somebody. No doubt, people will say he sold his soul. There was never one there.

This is a horrible, utterly without any redeeming features series, and yet, for reasons which boggle the mind, critics and some audiences do seem to like it. Liev Schreiber has been taking Emmy nominations away from any number of deserving actors, including fellow Showtime thespians Paul Giamatti and Michael Sheen. Now, I’ll admit the Best Actor category is flooded with similar characters, but at least some of them are entertaining and have more of a range. I can’t imagine what people see in Ray Donovan, the series or the lead.

And now, the show has been renewed for a sixth season, where the main difference is Ray will be operating out of New York, not Los Angeles. (He had to relocate when his reputation was made public in LA.) But he showed absolutely no sign of either changing or even acknowledging he has to change. The main difference is he’ll be working primarily for Sam Winslow, a studio head who, from the moment she met Ray, has been completely able to manipulate him to do what he wants. (One of the only enjoyable things about this series was watching Susan Sarandon tear into this role like a coyote into a T-Bone.)

All that Ray Donovan has ever been able to do is gather an immense number of great actors together, and waste their talents playing contemptible and horrible people. There’s something grimly fascinating about the show, I admit, but its the fascination of a slow motion train wreck. The series will probably begin filming Season Six any day now. If I run to Liev Schreiber by chance in Manhattan, I’m going to walk up to him, and punch him in the face. It’ll be worth it, even if I know from this series how good a brawler he is.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.