Ray Donovan and the genre of the likeable baddie
Ray Donovan is the new Tony Soprano. A more respectable gangster, but still a gangster. He wears his crisp white shirts and immaculate suits with the style that befits his Hollywood fixer character. But his favourite weapon is a baseball bat, and he uses it when his persuasive talking doesn’t get the results he wants.
Liev Schreiber plays the stoic character with a strong screen presence. Ray isn’t a big talker but he’s a real doer. He’s the guy that the Hollywood celebrities call to fix their messes.
And fix them he does.
Most of the reason Ray Donovan is such a good show is because Schreiber is such a fine actor. He has an impressive resume, including big name films like Spotlight and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. His surname means “writer” in German, which is appropriate for his role as Boston Globe editor Marty Baron in Spotlight, which uncovered the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Coincidentally, this is a theme that appears in multiple seasons of Ray Donovan, whose family is Irish-American from Boston.
Like all big movie stars who have shifted to a weekly TV show in this golden age of television, Schreiber brings gravitas and skill to his role.
Like all big movie stars who have shifted to a weekly TV show in this golden age of television, Schreiber brings gravitas and skill to his role. He’s arguably one of the great actors of his generation, and this Hollywood fixer might be the role he’s always remembered for – like James Gandolfini will be for Tony Soprano.
Unlike Tony Soprano, Ray Donovan is the bad boy with heart. But he’s also a loving father who is devoted to his family, which gives him the kind of humanity that appeals to an audience.
Ray’s clan is arguably the most dysfunctional (fictional) family you’ll ever meet. His brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan), Bunchy (Dash Mihok) and Daryll (Pooch Hall) are frankly all messed up to some degree.
But the star actor of this frakked-up family is their father Mickey (another tour de force by Jon Voight of this irreconcilable hustler). Mickey is the cause of so many of the problems his family face, especially after his release from jail in the first season. But the brothers – especially the clumsy Bunchy – are pretty good at making their own messes. They all have a complicated relationship to their father, who is an endless source of controversy, usually self-made as the hustler Mickey lurches from disaster to disaster.
And that seems to be all Ray does: fix other people’s messes, from movie to sports stars, but especially his own family’s.
It’s compelling viewing because of the quality of the acting and the script. Schreiber brings gravitas to the role, even if his character doesn’t speak much. Ray’s business is knowing other people’s business – and exploiting the celebrity circuit as much as it needs him to fix its problems. One gets a sense that the script writers weren’t making everything up and that Hollywood really is this filled with scandals – which never make it to public knowledge.
My favourite character is the equally bad-ass Lena (played by Katherine Moennig), who is Ray’s go-to staffer for a variety of computer hacking and manipulation.
The versatile Paula Malcomson plays Ray’s wife Abby in the early seasons and brings an artful emotional turbulence to the inevitable spousal conflicts.
Ray Donovan’s success owe itself to the path blazed by Gandolfini in making bad guys identifiable for caring about their families. But the ultimate accolades are due to good acting, a good script and a solid production.