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Ray Donovan S01E01: "The Bag or the Bat"

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"Ray Donovan is a man who can fix anyone's problems... except his own!" is the obvious logline for Showtime's new drama Ray Donovan, a noir-ish character study loaded with subtler versions of the cable network's sex-and-violence hallmarks. With Dexter taking its last stabs this season, there's a lot riding on Ray Donovan to become a hit (the network needs something other than Homeland to tout, and "Showtime, the home of Homeland and Gigolos!" just won't do). But that won't happen right out of the gate if Ray Donovan's sleepy pilot episode, "The Bag or the Bat," is any indication. This is a series that's going to take its sweet time building toward something special, if it does so at all, and I'm more inclined to let the internet tell me when/if that happens than I am to watch it myself just in case. 

It's a shame, too. Because Ray Donovan is built like a quality show with a solid pedigree. It's got a great cast and an accomplished creator in Ann Biderman, who birthed Southland and is an Emmy winner from her days on NYPD Blue. A quick glance at the show and you'd think you were looking at a future Emmy winner, but while watching the premiere I found it to be one of those things that sounds good on paper but fails in practice, like catapulting all your garbage out of sight. At times the pilot was good, at times it was shockingly bad, but mostly it stayed within that region no television show wants to be in: uninteresting.

You can tell what Ray Donovan wants to be. It wants to borrow from The Sopranos and its fascinating anti-hero protagonist, it wants to roll around in the Golden State's dirt on the other side of the law of LA Confidential, and it wants to tell the untold stories of Entourage, the ones that take place after Vinny Chase has left the party and it's time to pick up the dirty drawers and rolled-up dollar bills from the floor. Unfortunately, those influences don't seem to come together in Ray Donovan

But where the premiere did work was in a few characters and performances, specifically anything dealing with the main conflict between Ray (Liev Schrieber) and his recently jail-sprung father Mickey (Jon Voight). It took me two viewings to appreciate the effectiveness of Schrieber's anti-acting as the guarded, calculating Hollywood fixer, and his minimalist performance is bound to be picked at by many. But the mystery behind Ray's dying eyes and just-hit-by-a-frying-pan stare is going to be the heart of the series, and it's one of the intriguing things Ray Donovan has going for it, even if the stoic anti-hero is nothing new. Even better, Voight was born to play the role of Mickey; Angelina's dad was maniacally diabolic in the first hour, and despite putting a pistol in a priest's mouth and pulling the trigger, he was easily the most charismatic of the entire bunch of characters. Ray Donovan sizzles when Voight is on the screen.

Unfortunately, Voight isn't on the screen all the time. Because of Ray's quiet demeanor, supporting characters were saddled with overcompensating ticks, ailments, and addictions that defined them, in place of good old reliable personality. Ray's buddy Ezra (Elliot Gould) has a mind that is turning into motor oil. Former Disney pop star Ashley (Ambyr Childers) has daddy issues that manifest as sexual advances. Mickey is an ex-con. Ray's brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) was molested by a priest when he was a kid, and these days he's an alcoholic. Ray's other brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) has Parkinsons from keeping his boxing gloves down too often. Ray's younger sister committed suicide. Celebrity lawyer Lee (Peter Jacobson) opens his mouth and a stream of profanities and high-blood pressure gushes out. And Ray's muscle Avi (Steven Bauer) has a really thick accent! Okay, they're not all that bad, but there's a lot of telling instead of showing in the way these characters are handled. Ray Donovan's Los Angeles isn't a place full of polished celebrity glamor and crisp dollar bills, or even regular folks making it in the world. It's a circus of addicts, freaks, and lowlifes passing suitcases full of dirty money back and forth. 

That all fits into Showtime's tired penchant for loving f*cked-up people and situations for the sake of sensationalism instead of storytelling, which dumbed things down for me. "The Bag of the Bat" was a parade of attention-grabbing arm-waving. Let's recount what happened, which we can assume amounts to a typical day in Ray's life: A priest was murdered, a pro basketball player woke up next to a dead girl, an action star got busted picking up a transvestite, a guy masturbated to a woman doing yoga, a bar fight broke out, Ashley's sexual advances on an adulterous Ray were interrupted by an epileptic fit, Ray discovered he had a grown-up half-black brother and wasn't pleased about it, Mickey danced in his underwear with his black girlfriend, Ray dyed Ashley's stalker green, Mickey watched a woman breastfeed for no reason, Ashley stalked Ray by showing up at his wife's yoga class, Ashley gave Ray a blowjob while he was driving, a Marilyn Monroe picture asked Ray to f*ck it, Ray had a dream about a kid (probably Bunchy) giving a priest a blowjob in a car (that's two driving BJs if you're keeping score at home), Ray also dreamed about his sister's suicide, Ray broke a guy's wrist in the pocket of a billiard table, and Ray used Ashley's stalker as a batting cage. 

That's a lot of weird shit to happen in one episode, and I'm all about weird shit, but it felt empty and crammed-in just to provide talking points. Ashley was already messed-up enough; did the writers have to give her epilepsy, too? Was Ray on something harder than alcohol to make that 2-D Marilyn Monroe talk, or was it just time for something completely odd to happen? Are Ray's dreams anything more than memories, and if so, isn't there a better way to show that his memories are haunting him? It all seems like laziness and mountains of studio notes asking for "More! More! More!" instead of a focused television series, a trademark that's all too common on Showtime nowadays (Homeland's first season being an exception). 

And that's probably the toughest part of reviewing the premiere of Ray Donovan. There's no real sense of a series here; it was sold as a show about a Hollywood fixer, yet the first two problems he encountered (the girl who overdosed with the basketball star and the action star who likes chicks with dicks) were resolved and forgotten after about 10 minutes. Will future episodes see Ray spend more time "fixing," or will his clients just contribute short snippets to fill the hour and deliver the scandal quotient? There's nothing entirely new or fresh about the series so far, provided you've seen any hard-boiled detective movie ever. 

But this very well could be just me. Though Ray Donovan doesn't feature any silhouettes of dames smoking cigarettes, it broods like film noir, a cinematic and narrative style I've never really been a fan of. In the premiere, characters rattled off dialogue with all the flavor of plain yogurt. Violins whined as montages featured characters just driving in cars (or pretending they were driving while a screen simulated the street going by). And many scenes awkwardly collided with each other head-on. To me, noir has always postured as graceful, but here it felt clumsy. So far, Ray Donovan does a lotta trippin'.



NOTES


– It's early, but the show already has a problem with female characters. Abby is a yelping wife who's grumpy with her hub-hub, Ashley is an exploited piece of meat, and Lena, Ray's assistant who we've barely met, only has the label of being a lesbian. Though to be fair, every character we've met so far is messed up, and there's time to turn things around. This is one very macho show.

Ray Donovan has plenty of cursing, but it's not the right kind of cursing. Most of it comes from Peter Jacobson's Lee, and it lacks any biting poetry. It's just cursing. Lazy cursing. 

– A lot of the character issues I mentioned could've been solved with better dialogue. Punch up what the characters are saying, and it helps define them. But too many people speak in the same voice—the writer's voice, which is unfortunately bland—and it'd hard to separate them as a result.


What'd you think of Ray Donovan's series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2? 

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 7/27/2014

Season 2 : Episode 3

Next Episode

AIRS ON 8/3/2014

Season 2 : Episode 4

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