“We’re good, we’re really good,” the detective sunnily reassures his broody teenage daughter. No they’re not. Ray Donovan is a show about things coming apart — jobs, families, lives — and what happens when the center cannot hold. It’s chaotic, painful, sometimes funny and always fascinating.
Liev Schreiber, who wins Tonys by the sack but rarely does television, plays detective Ray Donovan, a classic Hollywood fixer who scares off stalkers and stifles scandals. There is literally no deviance or depravity he has not witnessed and covered up. “You think you’re the first person I’ve dealt with who woke up in bed with a dead body?” he comforts one celebrity.
But a lifetime’s supply of dirty laundry is threatening to burst from the overstuffed closet of Ray’s life. His partner and mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould) is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s and, worse, late signs of a conscience. “We’ve done bad things, Ray,” Ezra declares during one of his increasingly rare lucid moments. “I’ve asked you to fix things that never should have been fixed.”
The past is creeping up on Ray from within his own family as well. One brother, a boxer who took too many punches, is in the grip of Parkinson’s disease; another is coming unglued from his memories of childhood sexual abuse. Worst of all, Ray’s brutal mobster father Mickey (Jon Voight) has been released after decades in prison and is intent on revenge against everybody who helped put him there — including Ray.
Writer-creator Ann Biderman is a veteran of the crime drama, and Ray Donovan has plenty of skillfully staged, high-adrenaline set pieces from the genre — the chase scenes are tense, the beatings bloody, the sex breathy. But what makes this much more than just another adeptly noirish detective drama is the sense of impending moral implosion. Ray’s life is a Hollywood B-picture where the set, an artifice held together with trick photography and chewing gum, is about to collapse.
The foreboding extends to practically every scene. The shifting moral ground in his office makes Ray more vulnerable to the temptations of easy money and sleazy sex — particularly those posed by a client he helped out as a child star, now lusciously and a little bit loonily legal — as well as ethical reproofs he once ignored. “I am a human being,” protests the prey of one of his illicit surveillances. “Do you ever think about the things that you do?” Behind Ray’s stoic countenance, the answer, for the first time, is yes.
Schreiber’s powerful portrayal of a man whose elemental rage is on a collision course with a rising moral consciousness is the driving engine of Ray Donovan. But it may not even be the show’s best performance. Gould somehow imbues an old man haunted by his past and fearful of his future with an unexpected comic streak.
And Voight’s ironic approach elevates a stock gangster role into something more offbeat and entertaining. “It was the ’80s, what can I tell you?” he apologizes to one victim. “It was a very degenerate era.” Aren’t they all.