The sunshine-smeared valleys of Los Angeles County clash with the cold, hard, weathered streets of South Boston in Ray Donovan, a series that blends the vibes of a cool, fast-paced crime caper with those of an emotionally wrought family drama to generally gratifying results. Starring a hypnotic Liev Schreiber in the title role as a Hollywood “fixer” (think a less cartoony version of Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolfe), the series excels predominantly because of the proficient way it transitions from Ray’s dealings in celebrity-scandal cover-ups to more personal, impassioned scenes of his clearly dysfunctional family being slowly torn apart by decades of lies and tension. As Ray sweeps numerous La La Land scandals under the rug (OD’d girls in the beds of athletes, porn tapes used as blackmail, relentless starlet-stalkers, etc.), he returns home to his frustrated wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), and their two children, Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Conor (Devon Bagby), far too exhausted to mend their ruptured relationships.
The metaphorical pot just about boils over when Ray’s sinister father, Mickey (Jon Voight), is released after being held for 20 years in a Massachusetts state penitentiary. Mickey abruptly murders a priest, a suspected pedophile, and makes a beeline for Los Angeles to confront his son, who may or may not have been instrumental in landing him in the slammer. It’s evident that Mickey’s an asshole of the highest order, his moral compass entirely nonexistent, and he’s no doubt inflicted both physical and mental damage on his offspring, yet Ray Donovan succeeds at amping up the malice between father and son to a degree so staggering that when the two finally do reunite, the anxiety in the room is fiercely palpable. Schreiber and Voight’s nuanced performances are magnetic without resorting to showy over-acting.
Not one member of the Donovan brood is without their pitiable afflictions. Ray’s brother, Bunchy (Dash Mihok), is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who was abused by a preacher as a child, while their other brother, Terry (Eddie Marsan), is a former boxer with Parkinson’s, likely developing the disease after being pushed too hard by coach Mickey in a fight. Mickey also fathered another son, Daryll (Pooch Hall), before he went to lockup. Daryll’s mother is black, yet Mickey was known to have bouts of racist behavior, heightening his titanic hypocrisy in Ray’s eyes. The questionable actions of his brothers, directly influenced by their father, seem to negatively effect Ray more than anyone else; he’s the bottom row of a house of cards that’s on the brink of collapsing.
Ray Donovan is a harsh, often excessively temperamental series, but it takes some well-timed respites from its main character’s crumbling familial circumstances when it puts him in the middle of case-of-the-week-style Tinseltown conspiracies. The show’s large ensemble is mostly free of stereotypes, and nearly every narrative shift feels authentic and punctual. Ray’s occupational struggles obviously take a toll on him, but it’s his tribulations on the homefront that hit the hardest, making him a severely flawed protagonist who curiously arouses intermittent sympathy. Like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, he’s a desperate man whose initial intentions are good, but who quickly becomes a slave to his blind immorality.