There’s something both frustrating and fascinating about the way Showtime’s classy but surprisingly dull new drama “Ray Donovan” aspires to greatness.
It’s as if someone collected the right ingredients — an impressive and eclectic ensemble cast, a distinguished creative team, a network that supports and encourages adult storytelling — but lacked the creative inspiration necessary to combine them into something truly extraordinary. The result is a strange imitation of top tier TV drama. It looks, sounds and feels right, but the flavor isn’t there — you know you’ve had better.
“Donovan” stars Liev Schreiber in the title role, TV’s latest straight white male anti-hero with anger issues and a sensitive side just waiting to surface. It’s Schreiber’s first series regular role and ostensibly gives him quite a lot to do since Ray is the anchor for the show’s multiple areas of interest.
There’s Ray’s family life in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas with his wife (Paula Malcomson) and teenage kids (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby); his job as a “fixer” with two assistants (Steven Bauer, Katherine Moennig) working for a pair of successful lawyers (Elliott Gould, Peter Jacobson); his working class brothers (Eddie Marsan, Dash Mihok) who relocated from Boston, fresh-out-of-prison father (Jon Voight) and newly discovered half-brother (Pooch Hall), all with their own personal baggage; and his Hollywood clientele including a closeted action movie star (Austin Nichols), a sexually aggressive former child star (Ambyr Childers) and a sleazy producer (Josh Pais).
If it sounds like too much for a single series to take on, “Donovan” somehow manages to make it all feel like too little. After the pilot scales a mountain of set-up, the subsequent episodes Showtime made available for preview do nothing but spin their wheels dramatically, opening up a sizable gap between the characters and the audience. At the very point in a series when we should be discovering who these people are and what makes them worth watching, the show seems to believe we’re already committed to the cause.
Creator Ann Biderman (“Southland”) almost gets away with it thanks to a great cast. This ensemble goes deep and Biderman appears to be invested in giving everyone something to do. Although there’s only so much screen time to go around and Bauer, Moennig and Hall get especially short shrift in the first few episodes (and the show will only get more crowded when James Woods starts a recurring role later on).
But we’ve seen the anti-hero with secrets, the frustrated wife and the troublemaking kids before (in just about every great drama of the last 15 years, from “The Sopranos” to “The Shield” to “Mad Men” to “Breaking Bad”). Just as we’ve seen dysfunctional family relationships, legal investigators/fixers and Hollywood satire. If “Ray Donovan” brings anything notably different to the mix it could be its suffocatingly downbeat tone, emanating from Schreiber’s oddly blank central performance.
Ray is a grim fellow, purportedly the strong silent type and as prone to sudden violent outbursts as he is to a good manly cry behind closed doors. What he isn’t is a compelling figure in any way. That’s deadly in comparison to the Tony Sopranos, Don Drapers and Walter Whites who populate the exclusive TV club Ray Donovan very obviously wants to join.
There are other issues in these early episodes, both large (the pacing drags; the Hollywood stuff makes “Entourage” look sharp and savvy) and small (accents are all over the place and Bauer and Malcomson sound especially out of place), but there’s also never anything to entirely squash the possibility that “Donovan” could develop into something deeper over time.
Voight’s corrupt father figure looms large over the drama, and the show keeps hinting at buried secrets that connect him to Gould’s aging lawyer and Jonathon Schaech’s Hollywood hot shot. Meanwhile, Marsan has a bittersweet subplot of his own as a boxer ravaged by Parkinson’s who develops a crush on his nurse (Brooke Smith). And Malcomson’s suspicious wife keeps getting closer to discovering … something.
That’s not to say the later episodes show signs of growth or promise — nothing through episode five ever improves upon the pilot — but the inherent potential of the cast and the threat that the characters could eventually blossom is enough to keep hope alive during a summer light on smart serious dramas. For all its flaws and awkward pretentiousness, it may take a full season to render a proper verdict.