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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

RAY DONOVAN Chooses "The Bag or the Bat"

Article first published as RAY DONOVAN Review on Seat42F.

Grade: 91%

Showtime’s RAY DONOVAN is a series about an L.A. man named Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber, Taking Woodstock, Salt) who is a fixer, someone who can solve everyone’s problems but his own. That’s a very familiar type on television today, echoed across a number of networks and programs. So why should you tune into such a familiar concept?

Well, for one thing, it’s Liev Schreiber. Like other top leading men, he is a wonderful actor with range and depth. And he is surrounded by other notable performers, who we’ll get to in a minute. So even though the story is pretty pat, it’s still entertaining to watch actors at the top of their game.

Ray, like a Tony Soprano or a Marty Kaan, is surrounded by people that count on him, and think he is the only one that can help them. There’s his brother Terry (Eddie Marsan, Little Dorrit), a boxer with Parkinson’s. And his other brother Bunch (Dash Mihok, Greetings From Home), who was molested by a priest as a kid, and now suffers from substance abuse problems. And Ray’s biracial half-brother, who he has just found out about, Daryll (Pooch Hall, The Game).

Ray also has his more immediate family, his wife, Abby (Paula Malcolmson, Caprica), whom he has promised to stop cheating on, and his children, Bridget (Kerris Dorsey, Brothers & Sisters) and Conor (Devon Bagby). Ray very much cares about them, even when he and Abby fight, and between them and his brothers, he has his hands full as head of the family.

Then, in the first episode, “The Bag or the Bat,” Ray’s father, Mickey (Jon Voight, 24, National Treasure), whom Ray himself sent to jail, gets out five years early on parole. Suddenly, Ray has another alpha dog to contend with, someone who doesn’t mind being a bad influence, and whom Ray’s family is drawn to, either from a need for acceptance, or because they don’t know any better.

This is a mess, to be sure. Ray has already overcome so much, including his sister’s death, which still haunts him, so one will assume that he can beat Mickey, too. After all, he has to if he wants to maintain his position as protector and leader of the clan. But might this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Might Mickey be too much for Ray to handle, with Mickey having had a long time to plan his return, and Ray taken by surprise?

It doesn’t help that Ray’s professional life chooses this exact moment to fall apart, too. Ezra (Elliott Gould, Ocean’s Eleven, MASH), the man who brings Ray to the West Coast in the first place, is going senile and wants to come clean about all the shady things they’ve done, and Ray’s colleague Lee (Peter Jacobson, House) can’t handle Ezra alone. Plus, there’s temptation when a young woman who Ray helped out years ago re-enters the picture with designs on Ray.

So to say Ray is at a tipping point, with everything in his life poised on the brink of disaster, is an understatement, if anything. Ray is facing a lot of challenges on many fronts, and doesn’t quite know how to handle them. A man of few words, all of this plays out mainly on his face, and Schreiber does a stellar job conveying the complex emotions and stresses of the role.

Which is why it’s easy to sympathize with Ray when he gets the simple pleasure of beating a stalker with a baseball bad. Given the option “The Bag or the Bat,” the creep initially chooses the bag, but goes back on his deal, causing Ray to return and cause pain. It’s the moment of the first hour where Ray seems the most raw and pure, totally in his element, blowing off some steam.

Ray’s job may be his salvation. He’s clearly very good at it, even if he gets a little too personally involved with certain clients. In the opening sequence, he solves two very messy situations at once with some creative thinking, proving his sharp with matches his brawn, and that he is a natural born decision maker. Perhaps, if he can pour his energy into his career, ignoring anyone who causes him distractions, he can eventually find the strength to deal with everything else.

Or it will all erupt in spectacular fashion, which is what the people want to see, anyway. Ray Donovan is a man in a precarious position. Only by watching further installments will we learn if he will thrive or crack under the pressure. With a cast this good, and a story well written, I’ll be tuning in to see more.

RAY DONOVAN airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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