Showtime's original programming has made good use of the anti-hero for years now from Dexter to Weeds to Californication. The marketing for Ray Donovan seems intent to sell its latest drama series as another entry into this weary genre, but fortunately, this isn't more of the same. Rather than an additional show about a bad guy struggling with his demons, Emmy-winner Ann Biderman has delivered a layered family drama with a captivating cast of characters.
Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is a "fixer" for a big-time Hollywood attorney. When movie stars, athletes and celebrity royalty get into trouble (like waking up in a hotel room with a dead girl trouble) they call Ray to make this go away. While this may sound like great fuel for episodic television (it certainly worked for the first season of Scandal), it makes up surprisingly little of Ray Donovan's screen time. Instead, the show focuses on Ray's dysfunctional family, who moved from South Boston to Los Angeles 15 years ago. Ray's older brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) runs a boxing gym and suffers from Parkinson's due his fighting history. Younger brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) has a substance abuse problem stemming from being molested by a Catholic priest as a child. Ray's wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) desperately wants her husband to move their kids to a better neighborhood so they can go to good schools. But it's the reappearance of father Mickey (Jon Voight), that puts Ray on edge. After being sent to prison for murder, Mickey heads to California to re-insert himself into the lives of the Donovans, but Ray is committed to keeping him away from his kids, convinced that he will destroy everything he's worked for.
Aside from a few "fixing" assignments and the general motivation to get Mickey out of California, Ray Donovan is fairly thin on plot in its first few episodes. This can make things feel a bit aimless, but the character work and acting is so good that it almost doesn't matter. Despite the title character's stone-faced exterior, Schreiber draws a beautiful portrait of a man out of place. While Ray's name is notorious amongst the Hollywood glitterati, he's still a scrappy guy from Southie who often seems like he'd much rather be working for the forgotten people his clients leave in their wake. We're left guessing why Ray has so much hate for his father, while Terry and Bunchy are so willing to let him back into their lives. But as we get to know Voight's Mickey, he reveals himself to be equal parts charming and slimy, unveiling a man who would hurt anyone to get what he thinks is owed to him.
Ray Donovan gets off to slow start but delivers an extremely compelling portrait of a unique working class family.