Showtime is at a crossroads. The very popular Dexter is embarking on its final season, but Homeland has emerged as one of cable's best dramas and added a certain level of prestige to the network's roster that it needs to maintain if it's ever going to be the next HBO. Now is not the time to launch a tepid new drama, and a lot of Showtime's future hangs on its new offerings this year; the network needs something to tout alongside Homeland, and Gigolos just isn't cutting it. Enter the anticipated Ray Donovan, one of two big dramas launching on Showtime this season (the other one being Masters of Sex), and which the network desperately needs to become a hit. I've watched the first two episodes, and I'm here to let you know whether you'll dig it or not.
Ray Donovan... finally a series about the former United States Secretary of Labor!!!
No, sorry. It's about another Ray Donovan. This Ray's a "fixer" in Hollywood, meaning he's the dude you call when you've done something really bad—like woken up next to a dead chick or picked up one too many transvestites—but don't want people to know about it (a.k.a. a regular Saturday night!). He's part The Wolf from Pulp Fiction and part private eye. But Ray has problems of his own, chiefly his dad Mickey, who just left prison and holds a grudge against Ray for being somewhat responsible for putting him in there in the first place. Ray's relocated-from-Boston family also includes two troubled brothers, his angry wife, and two kids.
Who's involved in the show?
Ann Biderman created the series, her second after Southland. She's also the proud owner of an Emmy for her writing on NYPD Blue. Liev Schrieber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) stars as Ray, Jon Voight plays his dad Mickey, Paula Malcomson plays Ray's wife, and Elliot Gould, James Woods, and Rosanna Arquette are also on board.
When can I watch Ray Donovan?
If you want to be proactive and don't mind blurred-out naughty bits, you can preview the entire first episode now. But the series debuts Sunday, June 30 at 10pm, right after Dexter's Season 8 premiere.
Who's going to like Ray Donovan?
This one's for people who can't get enough of guys acting tough and situations being rough and other weird stuff! There's some talk of it being tonally on the same menu as The Sopranos, as it's also a deep look at characters with unfortunate and violent occupations, but it's also a modern-day noir. Fans of other Showtime fare will find its blunt attitude toward violence and sex quite familiar. On the Showtime Breast-o-Meter, there are fewer boobs than there are on Californication, but more boobs than there are on Inside the NFL.
What doesn't need fixing about Ray Donovan?
Despite being sold as a show about a fixer and all the Hollywood problems he encounters, the main attraction in the pilot is Ray's tenuous bond with his immediate family (he has a wife and two kids), his brothers (he has two, one who's an alcoholic and one who's stricken with ALS), and especially his father, a tough son of a bitch whose beef with Ray should provide the real meat of the show. Ray Donovan is also surprisingly weird! The pilot features dream sequences, flashbacks, and bizarre character ticks that hint at something more, though it's unclear whether they'll pay off or just weird for the sake of being weird. Among a very solid cast, Jon Voight is particularly memorable as a menacing walking corpse.
(Disclaimer: People are never this happy on the show.)
What needs fixing?
While watching the first two episodes, I could never really wrap my head around what type of show Ray Donovan was trying to be; it hits you over the head with one strange plot after another instead of letting them breathe naturally. Yet even with so many different things happening, the pilot episode frequently felt like a tiring watch because Ray lacks a commanding personality, and context is often abandoned for sensationalism. Stuff just sorta happens, one scene after another. If you like your shows happy, Ray Donovan definitely isn't for you. It's about as joyful as a wet birthday cake. And judging by all the coincidental happenstances, Ray Donovan thinks all of Los Angeles is contained within a square mile. And one more thing: actor-y Boston accents everywhere!
So... should I watch it?
I'm probably in the minority on this one (surprise) but I didn't think the pilot was that great, and the second episode wasn't much better. I just didn't care for any of the characters, except for Mickey, who I'm supposed to hate, and the odd pacing pushed my brain toward Sleepy Town. However, if we judged every series only according to its pilot, we'd have nothing left to watch, and many other critics are handing Ray Donovan glowing reviews. So we have to take a guess at what's in store for the future. In this case, the electric tension between Ray and Mickey has a lot of potential and could carry the entire show. You might want to wait to see what people say a few episodes from now before jumping in right away. Then you can binge if it gets better.
Show me a trailer, dummy!
What drink should I have on hand to watch Ray Donovan?
My favorite, the Sazerac, would be perfect. It has a rye whiskey base so you can feel like a tough guy, and a touch of absinthe for the weird parts. Plus, it gets you ripped while still making you feel like a distinguished gentleman.
Ray Donovan premieres Sunday, June 30 at 10pm on Showtime.