written by Ann Biderman | directed by Allen Coulter
Liev Schreiber joins the swelling ranks of 'movie actors' jumping on the TV bandwagon, where there's still a feeling it's the best medium for character-based, ambitious storytelling. He plays the eponymous Ray Donovan, L.A's premier 'fixer' for L.A's rich and famous, and head of his family in the absence of convict father Mickey (Jon Voight), who's released from a Massachusetts prison to stir up trouble in this premiere.
I love a good pilot and "The Bag or the Bat" passes muster, although it's a little familiar in its broad strokes. More importantly for a first episode, it does an exceptional job of outlining the world and introducing us to the large Irish-Catholic Donovan clan, while juggling fun sub-plots and layering in enough mystery to lure you back. Schreiber's signature growly delivery is put to fine use, and he draws you into this drama with ineffable charm.
I also really enjoyed meeting Ray's relatives, who each come with their own problems and tragedies: wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson with an odd Boston accent), who knows her husband's prone to cheating and works a job that makes life hard for their family; brother Terry (Eddie Marsan), a stout boxing trainer dealing with hereditary Parkinson's; younger brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok), an emotionally unstable alcoholic who was abused by a priest as a boy; and Darryll (Pooch Hall), the black half-brother Roy discovers is the progeny of his racist father.
There's already a strong lattice of people and things for the show to tackle, with the early release of patriarch Mickey hanging over everything like a bad smell. There are hints to what happened between Mickey and Ray that resulted in his 20-year incarceration, and I look forward to discovering more. And it's just great to see Midnight Cowboy's Voight on-screen in something serious that benefits from his wan, shark-like creepiness. There's a scene where Mickey winks at a breast-feeding woman that will give you goosebumps (see photo below).
Ray's family are a huge reason to come back next week, but running a close second is his job as the head of a 'fixing team'—which adds a variety of fun scandals and cover-ups to give the show added pep, glamour and loose showbiz satire. This premiere involved the overdose of a woman found dead in bed with an athlete, an action movie star caught having sex with a transsexual, and a client's beautiful girlfriend who's unwittingly being stalked by a masturbating nutcase. There's lots of potential in exploring all the grubby things wealthy Angelenos pay to have covered up, so that alone has me willing to take a dip into Donovan's world every week.
Ray Donovan is created by Ann Biderman, who also made Southland and wrote for NYPD Blue, and is exhibits a confidence and stylishness that's hard to resist. It has incredible pedigree and the potential to become something really good. I especially like the mix of sunny La La Land locations and how the Donovan family hail from the East Coast of Boston, which gives the show an unusual feel. My only worry is that Ray Donovan's pilot is hiding behind good performances, and may not have enough that's fresh to make it rise above a crowded marketplace. There are already a few gangster-related dramas around, and this is yet another iteration of the anti-hero archetype US drama is currently obsessed with—complete with the oft-used vocational irony of Ray being a fixer who can't fix his own life.