Just Because He’s Part of the Lexicon Doesn’t Make It Less of A Mess
When one does an assessment of television in the 2010s, I am drawn to the conclusion that one of the bigger surprises came when Showtime managed to surpass HBO in pure creativity. From its biggest hits Dexter and Homeland to its radically daring comedies such as The Big C and Episodes, Showtime has more than come out of the shadows from HBO.
But the greatest flaws of the network have been its consistent embracing of shows that have a filthy approach not just in characters, but in its approach to entertainment in general. I’m thinking primarily of Don Cheadle’s led series House of Lies and Black Monday, and the overriding disgusting work of Shameless. (I’ve since reassessed my opinion of the latter, but I still feel it’s been on the air far too long.) But in my mind, the series that most represents what can be wrong with Showtime — and in a larger sense, many of aspirants to the Golden Age — is Ray Donovan, a series that almost since its inception in 2013 has been one of most critically attacked series on TV, even as its title character has somehow become part of the lexicon.
There are so many problems with this series that it’s hard to comprehensively list them all, but I’ll focus on what I consider the major ones, and most of them have to do with both Liev Schreiber as the lead, the title character in particular, and the issues surrounding the Donovans in general.
First of all, Schreiber is a great actor. His portrayal of Orson Welles nearly two decades ago in RKO 281 held a great movie together. Given a character with meat on its bones, as he has been able to demonstrate in such astonishing films as The Hurricane, The Manchurian Candidate and Spotlight, he can do great things. And he has a very expressive voice, as his work in two very different animated movies last year Isle of Dogs and Into the Spider-Verse more than demonstrated. So I can’t for the life of me see why he would have signed on for a series where he has to play a character so stone-faced and unemotional that not even the phrase ‘a range from A to B’ applies. Yes, I realize his character is deeply traumatized, but I can count the time he’s expressed genuine emotion in more than six seasons on one hand — and I wouldn’t have to use all the fingers. Maybe that is part of his draw as a ‘fixer’ — he does things coolly and calmly, but I seriously long for the days of Dexter Morgan, who at least was willing to put up a façade.
And make no mistake; Ray is a truly horrible human being. I’m not just saying that because of the work he does or the violence he unleashed — though that is a huge part of the problem — but for someone who says over and over, he’s doing this for his family, he treats them like shit. He cheated on his wife multiple times during the series — including when she was dying of cancer. He treats his brothers, who are, if anything, worse off than he is, with fairly less humanity. His son joined the military to escape him, and his daughter has been abducted multiple times because of his actions. And yet whenever they suffer as a result of his actions — which is also nearly every episode — he barely has to decency to apologize for what he’s put them through. And when things are going badly, he will lie right to their faces. Abby, the one truly empathetic character in this entire series, clearly didn’t want to suffer from the disease any more in Season 5. And rather than acknowledge her wishes or even spend time with his wife, he decided to go bang a woman next door, and poison someone who was in line for clinical treatment. I honestly think Abby killed herself because it was the only way she could escape his toxicity.
Which brings me to another critical point — Ray is terrible at his job. For someone who’s the person you call when you have a problem you can’t solve, he tends to not only create more problems than he ‘fixes’ but will throw over his client at the drop of a hat to help his family. He’s had affairs with clients, he’s betrayed them, and he’s killed more than a couple. I don’t know why anybody would hire him at this juncture. He almost makes me yearn for the simplicity of Olivia Pope. Say what you will about the horrible things she did; at least she protected her clients and had a moral compass, however skewed. Ray just lurches from job to job, more looking to beat people up and break things than out of any desire to make things ‘better’.
When you’ve got a lead this unbearable, you really need some good supporting characters, and this is the other major problems. There isn’t a single sympathetic character in the bunch. Which is even more remarkable because there should be. Bunchy was abused by a priest as a child, and has clearly some level of disability. Terry was a fighter who took one too many punches and now has Parkinson’s. Bridget, Ray’s daughter has been broken by her father’s problems, and is clearly the most self-aware of the whole bunch. Yet season after season they do undeniably stupid things. Bunchy keeps his nearly $1 million settlement in a box by his bed, and gets robbed of it at a Subway. Terry underwent a procedure to have his Parkinson’s treated, and last season got in an underground fight club and had it broken. Bridget romantically pursued her high school teacher even after his repeated denials of her advances, and as a result he lost his job and got beat up by her father for his trouble.
I haven’t even mention Mickey (Jon Voight), the loose cannon ex-con who seems to do everything in his power to screw his family’s lives up. He surpassed his value as a character at least three years ago, and for some reason the writers won’t get rid of him. Almost all the problems the Donovan family has are related to him, and yet every time he ends up in jail, they decide either to bail him out or arrange things to let him go.
Even whatever comedy there is this show is unpleasant, and usually has to do with another characters messy philosophy, non sequiteurs, or just some kind of stupid fight. There isn’t any relief from the toxicity of Donovan’s and their horrible attitudes.
So how has this series made it to Season 7? I’m honestly not sure who’s watching it or why they’re watching it in the first place. If it’s hoping that Ray will have some kind of epiphany, I just don’t think that’s ever gonna happen. He’s been through some kind of therapy twice. In Season 4, he stopped drinking for six months (in addition to all his other sins, he’s clearly an alcoholic) and went to therapy for abused people. He gave up both of those by the end of the first episode to help a ‘friend’. In Season 5, after assaulting his family in reaction to his wife’s euthanasia, he went to court order anger management for the entire season, and basically slept through it. In Season 6, after trying to kill himself after seeing a hallucination of his wife, and later suffering several panic attacks, he called his boss in order to get out of being committed. Now, he finally seems to have agreed to some kind of psychotherapy with guest actor Alan Alda. TV Guide, apparently with a straight face, compared it to Tony Soprano. And we all know how much good that helped Tony. The message — and the series hasn’t even tried to be subtle with it — is that the only person Ray can’t fix is himself. Thanks, but I got that by the end of Season 1.