A Lot of Problems With TV are Its Fault
A couple of weeks ago, while I was dealing with my predictions for various awards groups, I came across an item. Ray Donovan would be getting a TV movie to wrap up its run which came to an abrupt end in 2020 when it was cancelled before an expected an eighth season — which presumably would’ve wrapped all of the issues facing the Donovan family — was allowed.
Now normally, I’m all for prematurely cancelled series getting a movie or a limited series to wrap up issues that it never got to deal with and bring closure to its devoted fanbase. Certainly I was over the moon when Deadwood finally got a TV movie to close things out in 2019 and was more than fine when Veronica Mars got a new run. (Though in that case, I’m not sure the fans really were when it ended.) What bothers be about Ray Donovan getting this kind of treatment is that I never understood why people would be that loyal in the first place and more to the point, I was never entirely wild about the trends it brought to Peak TV.
Over the past several years, I’ve said more than my fair share of nasty things about Ray Donovan, so rather than regurgitate my old woes, I’m going to concentrate on what the series may have done to hurt the Golden Age.
No one is denying that part of the Golden Age has been its focus on antiheroes, which were usually bad white men. They were at the center of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad to mention just the most famous ones. Showtime had actually been altering the trend for much of this period by focusing its series on difficult women: the most popular were Nancy Botwin on Weeds and Jackie Peyton on Nurse Jackie, but there was also more pleasant characters on United States of Tara and The Big C, which won Emmys for Toni Collette and Laura Linney respectively. And their most successful drama launched during this period focused on an anti-heroine Homeland which focused on the brilliant work of Claire Danes at the center. That’s not to say there weren’t series focused on antiheroes of the Tony Soprano-Walter White archetype — Dexter and Shameless are the biggest success stories of the network. But there was generally far more variety on Showtime in general.
This came to a screeching halt when Ray Donovan debuted in the summer of 2013. From the start, the entire series always rubbed me the wrong way, and I wasn’t alone. I’ve never entirely understood what the appeal was of this character who had all of the worst aspects of the antiheroes of this age with no apparent virtues. He was monotone, philandered repeatedly, seemed to have no moral center, had no attachments even among his large family (something more antiheroes lacked) and was utterly humorless. Liev Schreiber is a great actor, but I’ve repeatedly questioned what he really saw in taking on such utterly flaccid and unredeemable character, who every time he took a step forward, immediately took three steps back.
Ray Donovan premiered just as Dexter and Breaking Bad were departing and Mad Men was going into its final stretch. From this point, the tone of the age changed. Now there came an avalanche of series where there were antiheroes with fewer redeemable qualities and less interesting stories. House of Cards made its debut around the same time, and Netflix would be a series of shows that more often than not would feature bad white men with little influence. I really can’t imagine Ozark existing without Ray Donovan and probably not Mr. Robot. And those were just the more successful ones. Shows with an awful white protagonist became so common that around this time, The Good Wife began to satirize them (no doubt as an in-joke for the fact that the Emmys would recognize cable series with these kinds of characters at the center but not often superior network shows).
Now, I’ll admit that there is a fair amount of the blame that can be laid at Shonda Rhimes’ doorstep for this, but this is the rare occasion where I actually consider her versions the lesser evil. Say what you will about Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, but at least they tried to be different (women of color at the center, steamy sex, ridiculous twists) Ray Donovan and so many of its ilk were formulaic shows that never tried to be different and descended into messiness with each successive season. There was at least some spark in watching Olivia Pope work; there was no joy in seeing Ray do his thing.
There have just been so many formulaic antihero based dramas ever since Ray first picked up the phone in his L.A. apartment, and a lot of the luster has dimmed from the Golden Age because of it. We still get great shows — The Americans, Better Call Saul, Stranger Things — but I have to admit, they’ve become harder to find. Given all this, it’s kind of frustrating that a formulaic hit like Ray Donovan is getting wrapped up properly, and not a brilliant series like GLOW, which is pretty much the antithesis of everything Ray Donavan stands for. I have no doubt they’ll be a fairly big audience for it; I’m just not sure who it is and why they felt so devoted it in the first place.