“DO YOU think you’re the first person I dealt with who woke up with a body in the bed?” asks Ray Donovan, the eponymous anti-hero of Sky Atlantic’s latest provocative US TV drama offering.
Donovan is a man who fixes “problems” for the rich and decadent of Los Angeles and he asks this question rhetorically, of course.
This is reassuring to the squillion-dollar basketball player whose girlfriend choked on her coke in the middle of the night, and who would prefer his agent, wife, other girlfriends and the media were kept in the dark.
Actually, the dark is where we’re all kept when watching Ray Donovan. Billed as “The Sopranos on Sunset Boulevard”, there are also several echoes to other classic American narratives that evoke the sinister and ambiguous side of US society.
Along with David Chase, the creators of Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men could all take a bow, which is not to say that Ray Donovan doesn’t make a mark of its own.
Donovan, (Ray to his friends and “associates”) is played by the rough-hewn Liev Schreiber, whose granite-jawed mug can shape-shift with the twitch of an eyebrow.
The opening episode began with the burst of gunfire, when a Roman Catholic priest is summarily shot to death, and continued to serve up several crashes, bangs and wallops. Ray might be a slick “fixer” but his own world is in peril of falling to pieces.
The pilot episode concentrated on introducing characters and establishing the Donovan family back story, and what a saga it seems to be. Ray, we learn, has moved west to LA from a dysfunctional Boston-Irish background but the agonies of the past travelled with him.
An absolute farrago of misfits and melancholy memories were interwoven into the plot, so much so that if the scriptwriters can fully develop them all we’ll be watching the Boston-Irish Borgias go to Hollywood.
In no particular order or sequence, Ray is troubled by haunted recollections of his sister who committed suicide, a brother who runs a crummy boxing gym and who’s punch-drunk, another brother who’s a recovering alcoholic and losing the battle to stay sober and a half-brother with African-American ancestry.
There’s also a wife who instinctively suspects him of infidelity, his obsession with an irresistibly gorgeous ex-girlfriend, an eccentric partner in crime (played by Elliot Gould) who’s feeling remorseful and might be about to confess all their sins and, the cherry on Ray’s poisoned cake, news that his bullying patriarchal father Mickey (Jon Voight) just got out of jail.
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“Dad made parole,’ the Donovan brothers say, in tones hardly expressive of family celebration. “My father’s coming here,” Ray warns his wife Abby, “don’t let him in.”
There’s also the pervading fog of sexual abuse at the hands of perverted priests drifting around: “That’s why Dad didn’t like anyone going near our privates,” Ray’s young daughter Bridget informs her brother Conor, “and that’s why we never go to church.”
Well, it’s true that the ‘normal’ Irish household has seen a few cracks appear since we lost faith in the twin pillars of clergy and machismo hierarchy, but it’ll take an army of family-liaison officers to fix this one. “How are those grandkids of mine?” Mickey Donovan asks mercurially. “You come near my family and I’ll f***king kill you,” Ray replies.’
Ray Donovan is good, but not as good as it should be and comparisons with the Sopranos are misplaced. Tony Soprano, like Huckleberry Finn and Jay Gatsby in earlier eras, is the American pop-cultural figure of the day – bloated by over-indulgence, tormented by guilt but conflicted enough to harken back for some principled idealism.
Ray Donovan’s character, too, has the strong dramatic qualities of ethical doubt and brooding brutality but, unlike Tony, he isn’t possessed by his own hypocrisy.
All the same, it’s intriguing to see the continuing resurgence of the morally-ambiguous and somehow dubiously-heroic Irish-American figure.
It’s rewarding to contrast the Donovan brood with the goody-goody Reagan family of law officers from the CBS series Blue Bloods.The Donovans might not be likeable but they are at least recognisable.
Series creator Ann Biderman has said that Ray’s emotional conflicts, as an Irish Roman Catholic, arise from understanding the trauma of child-abuse cover-ups, yet earning a rich living from similarly covering up scandal for the wealthy and famous.
In some ways Ray’s position as a symbolic go-between linking the powerful with the seedy social underclass, yet simultaneously offering protection from it, goes back historically to the late-19th-century Irish in America, who dominated services like the police, the fire departments and city bureaucracies, effectively doing dirty work for the rich, while keeping the poor in line.
In American cinema Cagney’s Brick Davis in G-Men (1935), Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971) and Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callaghan all served similar symbolic roles.
Perhaps it’s too soon to tell if Ray Donovan will join the greats created by American drama over the last fifteen years.
Certainly the narrative must develop in solid and subtle complexity, if Schreiber’s Ray is to match the late-lamented James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano as the signature American icon of our times. Keep watching.
Ray Donovan is aired on Tuesday nights on Sky Atlantic at 10pm.