The Overrated Series: Ray Donovan
The Movie Won’t Fix The Problems The Series Had
I honestly hoped that when Ray Donovan was cancelled way back in 2020 that I was done writing about a series that in my mind (and no doubt many others) represented everything that was wrong about Peak TV. But the movie that fans and creator Live Schreiber have been trying to make is finally going to air later this month which will no doubt satisfy those who somehow thrilled to everything Ray did.
I’ve never truly understood why this series had a devoted fanbase and why this series pretty much became the backbone of the network much the same way Homeland and Shameless did throughout the 2010s. I’ve written numerous articles expressing my problems with the series over the years and by now even those who don’t watch the series know the details. So in this article I’m going to focus on what I consider the most fundamental flaws with Ray Donovan, why this series was still loved by a rapid fanbase despite –and maybe even because of it — and why the series will probably never be wrapped up in a satisfactory manner even if it hadn’t been cancelled prematurely.
First some history: Ray Donovan debuted in 2013, immediately following the final season of Dexter. I have no doubt the intention of Showtime was to draw a clear link between the past of the network and its new future. The strategy never made much sense then or now. Dexter Morgan and Ray Donovan are monsters with similar demons and none clearly want to do anything about them. But I’m pretty sure that Dexter would have gotten a clear picture of Ray by the middle of Season 1 at the very earliest. He would have admired how Ray seems to get paid to utilize the worst aspects of his Dark Passenger and he would respect how much Ray cares for his family. But by a certain point I’m pretty sure Ray would have ended up on Dexter’s table. (I’ve actually considered writing some fanfiction to fit this narrative.). He’d understand that Ray is damaged and he might have some regret about doing it, but Ray’s a killer the same way Dexter is. He just gets paid to make the bodies disappear.
Also running almost contemporary with Ray Donovan was a series with a similar theme: ABC’s Scandal. Olivia Pope may find a way to get her clients out of trouble with far less bloodshed than Ray does on a weekly basis, but the basic premise is the same. (Indeed, Ray Donovan would complete the circle in its last two seasons when the series moved to New York and Ray began a stint helping political candidates clean up their messes.) That said, I’m certain Olivia and Ray would view each other with mutual disdain. Ray would have no use for all the airs Olivia puts on that she is working for a higher purpose and Olivia would have no respect for Ray’s bluntness as well as his willing to sacrifice any client for his family’s own good. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that Donovan is superior in that he has no illusions, but it still doesn’t make either a good series.
Indeed, one of the biggest flaws with the series is Schreiber’s portrayal of Ray. I realize that at his core the viewer is supposed to feel some sympathy for Ray because of how damaged he is given how his life has been. But Schreiber’s portrayal almost from the beginning of the series to the end as completely unemotional bordering on contemptible towards everybody in his life has been one of the great flaws in the history of television. Even Dexter Morgan knew enough to put up a false face of cheerfulness before the rest of the world and the people he loved. Ray not only doesn’t bother with that, he barely seems to care about his family in any sense of the word. I suppose in a way he loves them in the fact that he wants to protect them and keep them out of trouble, but he has done so by controlling every aspect of their lives and seems ungrateful when they try to do any kind of independence. Everything the family does is viewed as an inconvenience more than anything else. And it’s not like he ever shows it in a way that respectful to the people he cares about. This is a husband who, as viewers recall, reacted to his wife’s diagnosis of cancer, by having sex with his next door movie star neighbor while she was on her deathbed and then denied it when his daughter confronted him on it after the fact. Ray doesn’t have any real humanity or any real interest in self-growth. (I’m actually going to get back to that in a minute.)
I’d say Ray is the most contemptible characters on the series, but of course there’s Mickey. I have never understood any aspect of Mickey’s character almost since he debuted. In every possible way Mickey is a bigger monster than Ray is, and if anything far less self-aware. Jon Voight is one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, but there is absolutely nothing for him to work with in this character. Season after season Mickey makes mess after mess not only for himself, but for everyone he comes in contact with, especially Ray’s brothers and his children. In all candor, he ran out of any real purpose by the end of the first season and yet he’s still around. I’m honestly not sure which part of his character is more unbelievable: the fact that he keeps getting out of prison despite him ending up there every season or that anyone else in his family has anything to do with him. At the end of the first season Abby learned that Mickey had known that Ray had been molested by the same priest that had molested his other brother and he tried to laugh it off. She called him ‘the wolf’. Next season, her son was hanging out with him. And Mickey has, if anything, less self-awareness than Ray does. In the Season 7 premiere Ray went to his father in prison and did one of the hardest things he ever did: he forgave Mickey for everything. Not only did Mickey not accept the apology, he demanded that Ray forgive him for putting him in prison. Even after everything he’s done, Mickey will always think he’s the wounded party.
And this goes on throughout the entire family. Bunchy (Dash Mihok) should be sympathetic because of being molested by a priest. In the first season he kidnapped that priest put all his brothers freedom in danger, and then seemed peeved when Ray shot him. Terry (Eddie Marsan) developed Parkinson’s after years in the ring. In Season 5 a special treatment seemed to help him — until he decided in Season 6 to start bare knuckle brawling. Darryl (Pooch Hall) the illegitimate son worshiped Mickey even when one of his girlfriends gets killed by his actions. This goes on to the next generation. Bridget, after helping save a young boy’s life and marrying him, started cheating on him the following year — just like her father. All of the characters get each other in trouble when the find themselves immersed in Mickey’s machinations. In the seventh season Darryl said: “I’m a Donovan. I want to be like you.” And Bunchy - always considered the slowest- says: “I don’t know why you’d want to be anything like us.” It’s a question the series should have asked years ago and even now has no answer.
The theory seems to be that it’s the Donovans against the world. The fact that more often than not the world is in the right is irrelevant. The fact that Ray more often than not will burn any professional relationship he has in order to help his family also seems irrelevant. I’m honestly surprised no one has flat out said that this fixer can’t be fixed because it’s been clear since at least Season 1 Ray is broken beyond repair and won’t do anything to help himself. This is a man who, after jumping off a building and nearly drowning in what was so clearly a suicide attempt, called one of his clients to get him out of jail rather than go to therapy. Yes I know he started seeking treatment in Season 7. It’s too little, too late.
In the entire series run the only purely sympathetic character is Ray’s wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson). To call her long suffering is to say Ray is broken -it’s technically true but far underplays the situation. She endures all the torments of her husband, all his infidelities, all the family trauma, mainly because she thinks she has too. Her husband keeps cheating on her, but when she forms a friendship with a cop, she is shunned by the family. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she seemed determined to face the end, something her husband denied. (Of course rather than show her affection, he did everything he could to get her into a special treatment program including dosing the most likely candidate with drugs. I guess that’s love.) Abby chose to end her life in one of the few genuinely heartbreaking moments in the series. To this day I think she chose to kill herself rather than live one more day as a Donovan. And considering that Ray showed his grief by shunning his daughter and beating up his family, it’s hard to say she was wrong.
So why do so many people love Ray Donovan? It’s a question I’ve never been able to really answer. There have been a lot of good actors in the cast over the years — among the recurring cast members are Elliot Gould, Susan Sarandon, Katie Holmes, Alan Alda, and Ian McShane — and perhaps there are some viewers who, just as in Scandal, get a vicarious thrill looking behind the scenes at the truly horrendous behavior of the rich and powerful. And there’s a very strong possibility that this series appeals deeply to an elder demographic than so many of the other Showtime series — the cast does sways towards veteran actors rather than younger ones unlike so many TV shows. But maybe its because the series is formulaic in a way so many of the series in Peak TV are — there’s a formula to how each season plays out that really hasn’t changed much since Season 1. The fact that all of the problems should have been wrapped up somehow by Season 2 at the latest doesn’t seem to disturb people. (Then again, the original showrunner Ann Biderman left the series under circumstances that remain unexplained to this day. It is always possible she had plans for the series that her replacements have basically ignored.)
And who knows? Maybe after everything that’s happened Ray Donovan the Movie will wrap everything up in a satisfactory fashion. For all the problems I had with Scandal over its run, the last two episodes did a lot towards some kind of resolution. But the thing is I don’t believe it. I think there is only one possible ending for this story: Ray has to kill Mickey. For seven seasons Ray keeps trying to avoid doing this, and now that he (spoiler) knows why his sister killed herself — a story the series had kept quiet until Season 7 — its hard to imagine a scenario that he could ever just let Mickey live.
Because after everything Ray has done over the last seven years, there’s no happy ending for him. He pretty much assured even the possibility of that would be destroyed in the last minutes of the original series. He has failed as a husband, as a father, and as a brother. He thinks he’s good at one thing only — cleaning up messes, and Mickey is the ultimate one. I don’t really know what happens if this turns out to be the case, but there’s no real way his history with Mickey ends in anything other than violence. The trailers for the movie seem to suggest that’s what will happen.
Dexter — which everyone agrees ended badly — was given new life this past year. Somehow, even if the movie is a success, I don’t see a revival of Ray Donovan in the future. It isn’t just Ray, but the entire series that was broken and nothing can be done to fix it. This movie may bring closure, but I don’t think it will end well. For either the characters or those who watch it.