Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan arrives in the All-American tradition of good/bad heros: Tony Soprano, Walter White, all the other deeply flawed, often murderous family men who have been at the center of so many of the best recent series. Unlike those hereos, Ray's unwanted sidekick is his killer father: Jon Voight runs away with the show as Mickey Donovan, whom we meet when he gets out of a Boston-area prison -- and races to commit a murder too stunning to reveal. That is one hard-case bad dad.
Immediately gripping, Showtime's Ray Donovan is nominally about the title character, a Los Angles fixer who uses whatever semi-legal and thuggish tactics he needs to get clients out of scrapes. Dead coke-head woman in a famous athlete's bed? Call Ray. But the real drama is broader and deeper. Ray tries to remain some kind of sane and decent husband and father while surrounded by his own dizzyingly troubled father and brothers. In real life the Donovans would be the unlikable neighbors you avoid; as screen characters they are irresistible. They are walking, talking ethical disaster areas. And the series' deepest subtext may be our own fascination with morally dark worlds and families: in the land of killer parents (hello, Livia Soprano), the good-hearted thug is hero.
In the transplanted L.A. family, Ray has taken care of his siblings. Eddie Marsan is touching as his brother Terry, who runs a boxing gym – a poignant line of work for someone trembling with Parkinsons. Brooke Smith has lovely scenes as a physical therapist with a crush on the socially inept Terry. The alcoholic brother, Bunchy (Dash Mihok), was molested by a priest as a child and is still haunted by it; so is the plot, which involves Bunchy's ordeal. (I hope at some point the show answers this trivial but annoying question: what kind of name is Bunchy, anyway?)
Schreiber, always a magnetic actor to watch, makes Ray deliberately elusive. The first four episodes offer only intriguing clues to the path that led to his current profession. But we never doubt his determination to protect his family, all of them fish out of water. Now living in a wealthy neighborhood, his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), still has her pronounced, New England working-class accent. In one of the series' terrifically observed small touches, Abby pretends she was deliberately making a joke when her adolescent daughter, Bridget (Kerris Dorsey, Brad Pitt's daughter in Moneyball), corrects her grammar.
Ray's world intersects Hollywood players, including the lawyers he works for (Elliott Gould and Peter Jacobson). But his own less delicate work involves baseball bats and, in one unpredictable scene, green dye.
Set against Ray's moral balancing act is his thoroughly
despicable father, a character Voight plays with such energy and conviction he leaps
off the screen. Mickey is crude, selfish, dangerous, and when he comes to California, with his tacky gold chains and self-satisfied smirk,
he instantly messes up Ray's life.
Ray Donovan is a terrific and hard-nosed show (created by Ann Biderman, who also created Southland) that lures us into a dark world where heightened drama and crime are simply part of television-family life.
The series premieres on Sunday but you can go the Showtime site and watch the entire first episode, free, here.
Or take a quick look at the trailer.