Ray Donovan S1E1: The Bag or The Bat

kyra: As voracious TV viewers, when a new show comes out we definitely do our homework. When that show debuts on a premium channel then doubly so. This past Sunday Showtime had the final season of Dexter (which neither of us watch, but that’s another story) serve as a lead-in to the show that they hope will replace it: Ray Donovan. To me, the premise had the makings of a really entertaining show–the guy is a ‘fixer’ for celebrities who get into problems. Dead hooker in the bed? Check. Over-eager stalkers? Check. Spying on girlfriends? Check. Unfortunately I think this show fails in two main ways. First, it takes itself wayyyy too seriously in some respects. A show taking place in soulless Hollywood has got to have levity, but Ray is the prototypical strong silent type with a dark past. Of course there’s the classic road-blowie from an ex-Disney child star, but that’s sandwiched between extremely serious moments with Ray and his family members. I’m gonna be honest, I haven’t spent this much screen time with Liev Schreiber before, who I know best from being the incredible voice of HBO documentaries, and I’m not sure I like him. It’s as if they are trying to make him seem incredibly cool, but I’m sick of guys who are incredibly cool. While he is great at his job, his home life is a mess (where have we seen that before? Oh right everywhere), and he is running from his past, which included making sure his father went to jail for 20 years.

The other problem I found is that it treats the viewers like idiots. One example is when Ray finds an athlete with a dead girl in his bed. She died of an apparent overdose. When Ray gets to the scene he asks the guy if he’s done any drugs, to which he replies, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘no man I’m a professional athlete! I just signed an 80 million dollar contract!’ This dialogue is incredibly dumb. Not only do athletes do plenty of drugs, but that line simply served to explain to the audience who he is. It wasn’t subtle and I didn’t appreciate the obviousness of it.

I could go on, but those were my two main criticisms. Buckeye, what’d you think?

Buckeye: I’ll be straight with you Kyra, if the pilot was any indiciation, Ray Donovan is going to be a pretty stupid show, but I was entertained by it, precisely because it was pretty stupid. We’re definitely made to think by Showtime that this amounts to some prestige drama; hell, Ray Donovan checked off many of the TV leading-man antihero boxes already last night. Road head from a hot young blonde? Check. Drinking to excess? You bet. Shady job? Most definitely. Hiding emotions behind a facade of stoicism? What emotions?? This is Ray Fucking Donovan we’re talking about. One episode in and the man is the bastard little brother to Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper. Kyra mentioned that he’s sick of guys who are incredibly cool, and he’s right that we’ve already got enough (male) TV protagonists in this vein. (Andy Greenwald also voiced his frustrations with how repetitive this technique is among premium cable dramas; we’ve seen plenty of the flawed central characters recently, and the more that pop up on our TVs, the more risk new shows run of fashioning less interesting versions of these morally complicated characters). So it should suffice to say that Ray Donovan didn’t strike me as a prestige drama, and that any effort its pilot made to strive for those heights were either predictable or kind of silly. The road head scene was both (my buddy G-ross and I saw it coming as soon as you saw them in the car) as was another scene featuring a topless Jon Voight grind on his black mistress; I enjoyed these scenes but definitely didn’t treat it as seriously as the show’s creators probably intended.

I definitely agree with Kyra that nuance was lacking, especially with regards to character portrayal, mostly because I thought the show reduced every character to an ethnic stereotype. Kyra mentioned the rich black athlete above, then there is the Donovan family who all speak in Boston accents of varying levels of authenticity and who box and struggle with sobriety for no other reason that they were Irish. Guess what? The lawyer was Jewish, too. I am sympathetic to the idea that if this show is going to be offering us a glimpse into a criminal or seedy underworld, many of the locales we’ll have to visit will be populated by minorities or first- or second-generation immigrants. But this doesn’t help the show’s problems with predicability, and if I’m going to take the show seriously it needs to elevate above ethnic cliches. Kyra, did you notice the ethnic stereotyping like G-ross and I did?

kyra: It definitely feels like this show isn’t going to cover any unique ground. Week in and week out I expect Ray to deal with the kinds of scandals you expect famous people to face (the sexy action star is actually gay! And might be a pedophile!). Then at home Jon Voight is gonna be fucking with Ray’s shit. Dealing with a brother who’s been molested as a child by a priest (and is now open about it) is interesting, but I fear it’s a serious story that doesn’t really fit within the framework here. I also don’t understand the Boston angle other than it legitimizing the drinking, boxing, and general problems the Donovans have.

Some questions I left the premiere still thinking: if this guy is at ground zero of so many scandals, haven’t paparazzi/reporters wondered who the hell he is? He’s not exactly a ghost in the night. Secondly, if Ray has been taking care of his brothers for years, and we presume he put his father in prison for good reason, why is everyone else still loyal to him? Why do his brothers welcome him back, and why does Abby “let the wolf through the gate”? Sure he’s definitely hidden stuff from her, but she doesn’t trust when he says that a guy who’s been in prison for 20 years shouldn’t be around their kids? Seems questionable to me.

Buckeye: Great questions, all. I definitely asked that first question (how do the TMZ people not know who he is?) of myself during the scene when Ray drove away from the hotel room OD scene, when his car was running idly just mere feet from the fracas outside the hotel. I agree with you on the Boston thing, but after reading your comments I think that if the show wanted to create a character that had been molested by a priest, it makes most sense if the family were from Boston originally since that city, because of its Irish heritage, is so frequently associated with the Church (even though sexual abuse by priests is tragically a global practice), but that again just feels like another ethnic stereotype, and I share your thoughts that this story is too serious for a show whose plot I might be laughing at rather often. I think you hinted at this in your opening, and granted it’s still very early, but wouldn’t this show just be better off as a dark comedy instead of some family drama? That’s leaving juicy dialogue like “letting the wolf through the gate” aside.

kyra: That’s where I’m struggling with this show. We’re living in a post-Entourage and Californication world now. Both shows pulled back the veil of Hollywood to some extent, and were/are arguably successful at being comedies. The reason people come back for more are the hijinks on both shows that show the ridiculousness of LA and Hollywood, and they function better as half hour comedies than they would as hour long dramas. Obviously this is only the pilot episode, but I am already wondering if this show is too schizophrenic to succeed. Should we be laughing at celebrities’ stupid antics that need to be cleaned up only to be emotionally affected in the next scene with Ray’s brother in a ‘molestation anonymous’ meeting? I don’t know if I can handle that spectrum in every episode.

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