September 23, 2013

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Ray Donovan”


Despite an abundance of first-rate acting, RAY DONOVAN may have been the biggest disappointment of the summer.  Ann Biderman’s dark family drama didn’t succeed at any of the things it seemed to be trying to do, and never lived up to the promise of its pilot.

The show’s major failure was in the relationship that was intended to be the center of the story, between LA fixer Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) and his father Mickey (Jon Voight), just released from a Boston prison after serving 20 years for a murder Ray’s friend had actually committed.  Ray was a very, very tough guy, as willing to use violence as brains to defeat an adversary, and Mickey, introduced killing a priest as soon as he left jail, seemed to be his relentless match.  But after the pilot, whether as a result of Showtime notes or Biderman’s own inclination, Mickey became little more than a shrewd moocher, a genuine annoyance with an eternal eye to his own advantage, and dangerous if the opportunity arose, but hardly anyone for a real tiger like Ray to worry about. When the secrets of Ray’s childhood were finally revealed, Mickey was no more than a terrible father, not any kind of epic monster.

Even worse, Mickey’s presence seemed to turn everyone else on the show into a moron:  as many times as Ray warned his family to stay away from Mickey and never, ever trust him with potentially damaging information about any of them, and as much as they tended to do exactly what Ray ordered in every other way, Ray’s wife Abby (Paula Malcomson), his children Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Conor (Devon Bagby), and his brothers Bunchy (Dash Mihok) and Terry (Eddie Marsan) were incapable of keeping their mouths shut when they were in Mickey’s presence.  Indeed, even though Ray had literally spent 20 years warning Abby against Mickey, it turned out that she had ignored him all along and not only corresponded with Mickey through all those years, but invited him to join the family in LA once he was out.  All of these idiots were so irritating that you half-wished Ray would just dump the lot of them.  Biderman’s idea of playing off Ray’s and Mickey’s different kinds of bad fatherhood (Ray often neglects his children too, but he really does care about them) had none of the intended resonance indicated by the finale episode title “Same Exactly”.

With that central storyline imploded, the show was forced to look for ballast elsewhere.  But the plots of Ray plying his trade as a guy who could cover up any Hollywood mess were obvious and familiar (they paled next to the Washington equivalents on Scandal), and the tinges of bland Tinseltown satire were embarrassing.  The episodes where Mickey was supposed to be betraying Ray to the FBI agent (Frank Whalley) who’d gotten him sprung from prison made no sense (somehow the agent had gotten Mickey released without having to tell anyone what investigation he’d be working on) and ended abruptly with Mickey’s bullet in his skull.  Lest the show build any momentum, the next-to-last episode was almost wholly devoted to watching the priest who molested the Donovans back in Boston (conveniently relocated to Bunchy and Terry’s local parish in LA) go through his death throes.  The final hours were enlivened by James Woods ferociously chewing on scenery as Boston hitman Sully, hired by Ray to kill Mickey, but that was just old-fashioned gangster stuff, with nothing ambitious about it at all.  Fittingly, in tonight’s season finale written by Biderman and directed by Michael Apted, the climactic sequence turned on Mickey betraying Ray and then Sully and then Ray, and it could have gone in the exact opposite way and made just as much sense.

Biderman and her fellow writers weren’t able to put together a satisfying season, and often the show moved at the speed of mud, but they did write heady parts for the cast.  Schreiber created an infinite variety of glowers, and Voight dug into his role with the joy of a puppy given a new chew-toy, alternately charming and sinister, and able to seem either dumb or sharp as it best suited his purposes.  Paula Malcomson was victimized by her choice to use a Boston accent three times as broad as anyone else’s in the cast, but she still conveyed the many layers of attraction and repulsion Abby felt for her husband.  Mihok and Marsan had a Eugene O’Neill play’s worth of inner demons to play with, and Ray Donovan was never more enjoyable than when Steven Bauer and Katherine Moennig as Ray’s loyal henchpeople Avi and Lena were on the scene.

Showtime almost immediately renewed Ray Donovan for a second season, despite ratings that were blah at best (the show lost 60% of its Dexter lead-in in 18-49s), probably because of hopes that at least Schreiber and Voight can be Golden Globe and Emmy bait next year–a possibility, although with TV drama as good as it is these days, there are no sure things.  (Ask the actors who lost to Jeff Daniels earlier tonight.)  Perhaps Biderman and her team will figure Ray Donovan out between now and next summer.  At the moment, though, it’s an uncompelling jumble of characters and tones with more malaise than purpose.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."