Sunday, June 30, 2013

'Ray Donovan' Premiere Review - 1.01 The Bag or The Bat

        On the series premiere of Showtime's Ray Donovan, Ray's father, Mickey, is unexpectedly released from prison five years early; he arrives in L.A. and murders a priest vowing to take revenge on his son for framing him; an action star seeks Ray's help to avoid a scandal with a transsexual; and a singer needs Ray's protection from a stalker.

        Has fatigue finally set in on dramas with leading anti-hero characters? After sitting through the first hour of Showtime's new drama series Ray Donovan, it sure does feel like it. Television as a medium is always changing. So the shows that are airing have to change along with it. Otherwise they will be left in the dust by newer, more experimental shows. That is simply how this business model operates because the audiences that are watching TV now are different than the ones watching 20, 10, even 5 years ago.
        Ray Donovan - which boasts an amazing cast - largely comes across as underwhelming because it just seems like a collection of past ideas and character details seen elsewhere. The titular character is mixed up in some vocational irony narrative in that he can solve the biggest problems and scandals of the Hollywood elite and yet can't fix the issues driving his family life apart. He is a towering presence where he's much more powerful the less he says. He's in an immense position of power and yet treats that like nothing when he comes across a pretty woman attracted to him. That all is basically a collective of tropes seen in such great characters like Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter Walt in the last decade alone. Originality is this series biggest downfall because it seems content with not trying to break the mold or diverge from a narrative structure once it's set. In every episode, you can expect the show to showcase a case-of-the-week where Ray helps someone from the Hollywood elite, Mickey to work on his vendetta against the people who got him imprisoned, Ray's family life and the struggles of his three brothers. It often feels like there are seven plots trying to work all at once without ever meshing in a way that's meaningful for the advancement of character development. The show is trying to create intelligence by having characters continually give expositional dialog about how great Ray is without ever actually being intellectual. It's a drastic tonal disconnect that thinks we need to see Mickey eying a mother breast-feeding or dancing with exotic women to show that he's a bad man. The fallout between Ray and his father is the pinnacle for much of the dramatic stakes in the series. But that plot point is a large mystery that is unknown to the audience but influencing the actions of all the characters.  The show is trying to be brilliant but misses the mark in its early going. It wants us to care and be intrigued by what makes these unlikable people the way that they are but there is just too much contrivances bogging the details down for anyone to truly invest in the characters.
        Again the one thing most likely to keep me watching this show is the cast and its creative auspices.  Liev Schreiber is a great actor often times stealing the screen in some of his movie roles and here he is very commanding in the leading role. Once the show figures out how to flesh out his past , it will be a great character. Jon Voight is constantly being underwritten or being forced to go crazy, campy things. When given the material he can knock the emotional and pained beats out of the park. Similarly, Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok as Ray's brother have the most original stories and their beats are oftentimes the moments I care about the most. They're often relegated to the sides but if given more time to grow could be some emotionally resolute material. Similarly, Paula Malcomson is a very capable actress but is probably being overlooked on what she's trying to do here because of that terrible accent she is employing. Even the teen characters aren't as annoying as I prepared myself for. They're mostly just expositional plot devices but they do have potential to be more. And later on in the season, James Woods and Rosanna Arquette will be stoping by. So there has to be something great coming later that will be able to justify how and why all this great talent came together for this project.
        And finally because this feels like the type of show that will take its sweet time trying to figure itself out but once it does it will be great appointment viewing. I'm willing to suffer a little bit as long as I keep getting a great dose of Schreiber, Voight, Malcomson, Marsan and Mihok. People will most likely compare this show to ABC's Scandal simply because both leading characters are professional fixers. The tones of both pieces are drastically different with Scandal oftentimes being referred to as a guilty pleasure viewing. Scandal is more than that though. It found a way to be exciting and burn through plot in a way that excited and rewarded viewers at the same time. But don't forget, Scandal in its first six-episode season didn't quite know what it was. It's second season is where it truly skyrocketed. Similarly creator Ann Biderman's last series Southland didn't truly come together until its third season - but it should be noted that that was also the time that Biderman was being phased out of that series. Hopefully, the same could happen to Ray Donovan especially if it gets a decent sampling out of the final season premiere of Dexter tonight and time to truly hone in on what it wants to be and the message it wants to leave.