Monday, July 1, 2013

Ray Donovan - Series Premiere Review: In which I compare Ray Donovan to The Dick Van Dyke Show

Over at HitFix, Alan Sepinwall and Dan Feinberg have been rewatching classic television pilots this summer for their podcast, Firewall and Iceberg.  Last week’s podcast looked at The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Tyler Moore and, in preparation and out of curiosity, I looked up Variety’s initial review of Van Dyke from 1961 and found the following:

Those most favorably disposed to half-hour situation comedy should find “The Dick Van Dyke Show” a satisfactory addition to the network primetime roster.  But for those for whom yet another bland, harmless, “happy show for happy people” is about as compelling as a popsicle at the North Pole, this new series could not exactly be regarded an exciting experience to be awaited with impatience each week.  As situation comedies go, it is about par, but it could be carried beyond its potential by the bright and talented cast assembled by creator-producer-writer Carl Reiner. 

Watching comedy pros like Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie at work, one wishes they did not have to be shackled and hemmed in by trite story-lines.

I feel as though I could easily rewrite this review to fit my feelings for Showtime’s new series Ray Donovan

Those most favorably disposed to gritty, premium cable drama should find “Ray Donovan” a satisfactory addition to the premium cable roster.  But for those for whom yet another bland, “straight white male antihero show for straight white males” is about as compelling as a popsicle at the North Pole, this new series could not exactly be regarded an exciting experience to awaited with impatience each week.  As dramas go, it is about par, but it could be carried beyond its potential by the bright and talented cast assembled by creator-producer-writer Ann Biderman.

Watching drama pros like Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, and Paula Malcomson at work, one wishes they did not have to be shackled and hemmed in by trite story-lines.

There.  That’s my review in a nutshell.  Good actors surrounded by C-material.  In this case, though, I’m not certain the material, as it is right now, is capable of being elevated much beyond mediocre.

Liev Schreiber plays the titular character, a Hollywood fixer whose mess of a life he is incapable of fixing (cue Vocational Irony narrative).  His life is divided into three circles that roughly overlap like a Venn diagram.  First up in the episode is his work group, a cast of Avengers hastily assembled to help an athlete who wakes up to an overdosed girl in his bed and an action star caught picking up a tranny prostitute.  Avi (Steven Bauer) is the point man, responsible for cleanup and generally making sure that everybody keeps their cool.  Lena (Katherine Moennig) is a publicist who is responsible for spreading Donovan’s lies.  And Peter Jacobsen plays Lee Drexler, Ray’s partner who seems to be responsible mostly for obtaining and maintaining the business’s clients.  This is easily the least fleshed-out aspect of the pilot, which normally I’d be okay with.  But given that Ray spends a good chunk of the episode actually working a case (a Disney star turned pop princess with a stalker), it would have been nice to get a better feel for how these people work together.  Instead we get a handful of scenes with Ray giving orders over the phone and the rest of his team following those orders. 

The second circle is Ray’s home life, with his wife Abby (Malcolmson) and his kids Bridget and Conor.  There’s nothing inherently problematic with this storyline, but none of it is particularly novel, from the wife who doesn’t trust the protagonist to be faithful, to the “rebel” child who needs a new environment to fix her problems.  Again, there’s nothing really bad about any of the material here, it’s just not interesting or new.

The final circle, which is clearly meant to create the most drama, is Ray’s extended family.  His father Mickey (Voight) has just been released from prison after twenty years.  Would it surprise you at all if I told you that Ray was responsible for putting him there?  I thought not.  His brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok) are each damaged in their own way (Terry has Parkinson’s from his boxing career and Bunchy still suffers from being molested as a child by a priest).  I really like both of these actors and they’re probably the best part of this pilot, but it still all feels empty.  There’s even a surprise black half-brother Darryl, played by Pooch Hall, who is apparently serving as Mickey’s new right-hand man. 

Ultimately, there are two fundamental problems with Ray Donovan.  First, there’s absolutely no subtlety.  When the show needs to explain why Terry and Bunchy don’t have children, we get a scene with Bridget creating a family tree and the Donovan family all telling each other about the brothers’ problems, as though they wouldn’t already know any of this.  When we need to know about the past relationship between Ray and his “fix of the week,” she literally says “better than the last time I saw you.  What was I, 16?  Trying to get my fucking money back from my parents.”  The dialogue is just so on-the-nose, all the time.

The second problem is that it feels like all this has been done before, which makes everything incredibly predictable.  You know exactly when Mickey is going to first threaten Ray, you know exactly what that threat is going to be, and you know exactly what Ray’s response will be.  Even the closing reveal that Abby and Mickey have been communicating during his time in prison (thus bringing two of Ray’s circles together) is telegraphed and seen coming from a mile away.

I made the comparison to The Dick Van Dyke Show earlier and, just as that show managed to overcome its early critical panning to become one of the most beloved television comedies ever, I do think there is enough talent here, both in front of the camera and behind, to turn Ray Donovan into something very good, if not ever great.  But for that to happen they need to find something interesting to say.  The white male antihero is such a common trope at this point that it feels we’ve seen all this before.  I mean, just read the definition of “Antihero” at TV Tropes.  Donovan fits every descriptor.  “Rarely speaking?”  Check.  “Extreme promiscuity?”  Not yet “extreme,” perhaps, but certainly implied: Check.  “Father issues?”  Check.  “Occasional bad dreams and flashbacks related to a Dark and Troubled Past?”  Check. It really does feel like somebody just took that definition without any other ideas and said, "I want to make this."

At this point, though, there’s just not enough here to recommend Ray Donovan to anybody who isn’t already pre-disposed to watching a gritty cable drama with a morally ambiguous protagonist.  If that’s your thing, then Ray Donovan will kill an hour for you every week.  If not, I’d recommend checking back in halfway through the season or even after the first season is over to see if it’s gotten any better.  I find it hard to imagine this show won’t get a second season.  Showtime clearly wants it to succeed, even moving Dexter’s final season up out of the fall and into the summer to pair the two shows.  Odds are, the show will still be there if you understandably decide to wait for it to get good.

A couple of spare thoughts:

Denise Crosby shows up briefly, making the Star Trek nerd in yell “Tasha Yar!”

If you’re going to give your lead character an obnoxious, unironic catchphrase (“you’re in the solution now”), you probably shouldn’t have another character mock it in the first episode.  Unless the catchphrase was meant to be obnoxious and unironic and I just missed the irony, in which case, we’re through the looking glass here.

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