Appreciating the layered pleasure of Showtime’s ‘Ray Donovan’

On the surface level, Showtime’s long-running drama series, Ray Donovan, provides an easygoing pleasure, detailing the life of a Hollywood fixer (Liev Schreiber) who tables his personal troubles in order to tend to the wild nature of the rich elitists who sully their lives on a daily basis. Think of George Clooney’s Michael Clayton, but operating in more lethal means of force, or “fixing.” In and out of trouble 95% of the time while using unhealthy and mostly illegal methods, Donovan always finds a way to get the job done, and that’s fun to watch every Sunday night.

However, when it comes to his own life and problems, Donovan can’t simply swing a bat or point a gun, and watch the issue fall away. He can’t punch out a history of abuse that has created a crater of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder under the Donovan name. You can’t throat-punch the violent desire inside you to right a wrong with genetics.

It’s during these chaotic moments of self-introspection that Ray Donovan rises to another level of home entertainment, stepping out of the simple pleasure and into a whole new room of possibilities. Quite frankly, Ray Donovan is at its best when it digs deep.

Take Sunday’s episode, titled “Who Once Was Dead,” as a great example of Ray Donovan peeling back the layers of its anti-hero and being unafraid to turn him into something ugly and hard to watch.

Stuck between a rock and four hard places, Ray finds himself having to make things right with Sam Winslow (Susan Sarandon, seething with devious ways), a big business snake who you don’t need trying to swallow you whole. At the same time, Ray is also losing the adoration and love of his daughter, Bridget (Kerris Dorsey), betraying his closest friend and partner, Lena (Katherine Moennig), to distancing himself from his brothers, Bunchy and Terry (Dash Mihok and Eddie Marsan). There’s also an Internal Affairs agent lurking around, and a mayoral candidate causing a kind of trouble that Ray can’t fix without opening up more issues with corrupt cops.

In Ray’s world, everything he does has a domino effect on the people around him. He knows this all too well, yet can’t stop himself from committing the same problems that have nearly killed him and put others in harms way before. And it’s not a greedy disposition or hunger to be rich and famous that keeps Ray three steps away from walking off the plank and taking his family with him; it’s a unique brand of self-loathing that feeds his incessant need to swim in the deep-end without a life guard on duty.

In getting into trouble with Winslow, Ray has caused trouble for his daughter. In helping Bunchy and his half-brother Darryl (Pooch Hall) with a problem involving three million dollars, Ray has caused trouble for seemingly everyone. Corrupt cops and dirty politicians are Ray’s usual cup of tea and easy to topple, but it’s his own family that can easily hurt him.

While Winslow’s Irish henchman can knock Ray out, no one hits harder than Lena or Bridget telling him universal truths about his livelihood. Lena lost a lover due to Ray’s foolhardy and conniving ways, and cripples Ray with one line, asking him about the whereabouts of a family he seems driven to protect. They are gone, missing from his life while showing up in quick flashes, like a half-working flashlight in a dark tunnel. Remember Los Angeles and the big house of Donovans? Yeah, it’s gone. Now, it’s apartments and lofts mixed with the inside of a luxury car that can’t fit Ray’s demons in the trunk.

Bridget cuts Ray in half later in the episode with a talk at a local bar, telling him he is like a human natural disaster. Her words reminded me of another Showtime series, the retired Brotherhood, about two brothers trying to stay afloat in a crime-riddled and corrupt Boston. One brother told the other criminal brother that he was like a tornado, chewing things up and spitting them out broken. That’s Ray with everyone and everything in his life.

Sunday’s episode also featured Ray punching out Bunchy in order to get a bag of money for Winslow, something that solves a momentary problem while revealing deeper wounds that will be much harder to heal over time. It was dramatically crippling to watch Ray walk up on his brother like a street thug and beat him up. It was sad. Depressing to see two brothers operating on the wrong side of the law again, but more disheartening to see Ray be ruthless with family.

Through it all, we can’t look away. When the show gets darker, the quality goes way up. This is why Ray Donovan is still hitting just as hard, if not harder, in its sixth season. Similar to Shameless, another long-running Showtime drama series that mixes the speeds of its storytelling fastball to the audience’s content, Ray never allows you to get comfortable or close to its lead characters. Before long, they do something to betray your trust.

Remember the sixth season started with Ray falling into the Hudson River, trying to follow his dead wife, Abby, into the afterlife. It was a plea to escape a life that had brought him nothing but problems, but also a cry for help. When a police officer, Mack (Domenik Lombardozzi), pulled Ray out of the river, he probably thought of himself as a hero. And briefly, Ray was changed. He quit the life, hiding himself away in Mack’s house in New Jersey and even bursting out of his slim suit-fitting shape. Eventually, the life came calling, and Ray answered, because helping Mack evade internal affairs or Sam put the next mayor in office is a lot better than staring down his inner demons.

Every season, Ray is getting punched, kicked, and pushed around while dealing out similar punishment. You don’t take your eyes away from such a mixed up soul, because of how well the actor embodies him. For six seasons, Schreiber has done so much with so little. One of the virtues of being a producer on the show is getting one of the last looks at the shooting script. Schreiber has reportedly slashed many of Ray’s lines, choosing for the brooding anti-hero to be speechless instead of a chatter box.

Think about that for a second. Most actors wouldn’t take away their lines under any circumstances. Most leading men of a drama series on a cable network aren’t theater-trained actors who know a look goes a lot farther than a monologue sometimes. Schreiber is a pro, because he knows what Ray needs to say, thinking more about the character than his own acting ego. That’s rare in show business these days.

At the end of Sunday’s episode, Ray found himself in a psychiatric hospital for observation. Confined to a bed with restraints and drugs to keep him sedated, it was Ray’s worst nightmare. Not a man with a gun or a problem needing solved with little help; it was a situation that provided him with no other option yet to reflect on what he’s done.

Abby is gone. Bunchy is bleeding on a street and doesn’t have the money to get his kid back. Terry was beaten within an inch of his life and his Parkinson’s symptoms have returned. Bridget wants to get far away from her dad. Connor (Devon Bagby), Ray’s son, joined the Marines to get far enough away. Darryl is mixed up with Mickey (a never better Jon Voight) in another criminal plot. Lena is leaning away from Ray, being unable to swallow or digest the latest betrayal of her mentor. In that confined bed in a building designed for the insane, Ray has no choice but to think about all of it.

The last four episodes of this season provide multiple lanes and avenues for the show to ride down. Who knows what happens? Will the Donovans, scattered around New York like misfit toys on a deserted island, come back together to solve their problems? Or will they remain solo warriors, pushing away their troubles just long enough to find another one?

Showrunner and executive producer David Hollander, who took over for creator Ann Biderman after the second season after serving as a writer, has mastered some bold strokes on this intelligent show before, but I am curious to see where he takes Ray and company this Christmas. One of the key strengths of the show has always been knowing its core identity and the purpose it served. The show, following the steps of its lead character, has gotten stronger with age due to knowing what it is and where it’s going.

A lot of television shows don’t last or become tiresome to its viewers due to a redundancy in story or an inability to make its star appealing or interesting enough. They get old before their third season, and slowly die off. Other shows tell their story in a few seasons and get out before they repeat themselves.

In its sixth season, with certainly more to come, Ray Donovan is still pulling tricks out of its sleeve and the star of the show is endlessly interesting and captivating. There’s more road to travel, and viewers want to follow along. Defying normal show progression, Ray Donovan is hanging around, taking and delivering punches every Sunday night. Right when you think a trajectory is spotted, something happens to throw you off course. I’ve grown to enjoy the versatile and layered pleasures of this show.

The best shows keep you guessing and coming back for more. Ray Donovan is at its best when it digs deep and breaks bad. Who knew a show about a Hollywood fixer would fix my Sunday night problems for six years and counting?

As Ray himself would say, “Sure…Dan…sure.”

One thought on “Appreciating the layered pleasure of Showtime’s ‘Ray Donovan’

  1. Dan,
    Thank you for this thoughtful and coherent reaction to our work. It really means the world to me that someone would care enough about what we do to write something as detailed and considered as this is.
    All the best,

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