Showtime really wants to be taken seriously. Long viewed as HBO's cheesier younger brother, the network has toiled over the past several years to make itself respectable, truly counted as one of the big boys in this new golden age of television. But, unfortunately, its shows typically wind up mistaking edginess for smarts, stooping at the last minute when they should continue reaching. Well, at least, that's the way it had been until recently. Things are, it seems, starting to change for Showtime, bit by interesting bit. The shabby family drama Shameless has matured into something surprisingly wise three seasons in — it's still got all of Showtime's lazy, weightless shock-value stuff, but there's a current of something else rippling throughout that gives the show a gracefulness we've heretofore not seen on the network. Then, of course, there's Showtime's big awards season success, Homeland, which certainly has the patina of prestige drama, even though it can be, yes, a little silly. And now there's Ray Donovan, which, based on what I've seen so far, represents another leap forward for the adolescent network.
Created by Southland's Ann Biderman, Ray Donovan (premiering this Sunday at 10) concerns a grimly proficient Los Angeles fixer — he solves unseemly problems for glitzy folks like rappers and movie stars — and his family, transplants from the hardscrabble streets of blue collar Boston, ruddy and accented and rarely up to much good. Ray is played by Liev Schreiber, an imposing actor who only occasionally offers slight hints at the teddybear buried within. He can be pretty scary, so when he does let a little twinkle in his eye suggest some softness, it comes as great comfort, pulling the viewer in closer. As such, he's a terrific choice to anchor a series like this, magnetic and powerful, alluringly aloof without being standoffish. Schreiber's is a keenly pitched performance, immediately drawing us into the show's world of messes cleaned up with no-nonsense efficiency.
Everything else around Schreiber ain't half bad either. In taking what is essentially a Boston family crime drama and relocating it to Los Angeles, Biderman has created a delicious world of contrasts. We've got the fish-out-of-water comedy of all these gruff people tromping around in this sunshiny place, but there's also a quieter and subtler, and more interesting, look into aspirationalism, into both the joys and loneliness of "getting out." Ray's wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) seems in some ways to the manner born, needling Ray to pull strings to get their teenage son and daughter into a tony private school or driving up to Malibu for a lazy upscale lunch, but there's a definite aura of worry dancing around her, the fear that all of this could be taken away from her at any moment. Malcomson plays this anxiety beautifully; Abby is a woman wanting, and actively trying, to live a better life, but is seemingly never quite sure she deserves one. The tensions and weary understandings in Ray and Abby's marriage are drawn with a nuanced hand, each amazed in their own way to be where they are, survivors from another place joined by the memory of how things used to be.
Of course the past inevitably comes a'knocking, in the form of Ray's father Mickey (Jon Voight), who's just been released from prison back East and whom Ray hates and distrusts. His brothers, who hang out the boxing gym owned by eldest brother Terry (Eddie Marsan), are reasonably welcoming of their father when he comes slouching toward Lalaland, but Ray immediately wants him gone. He's worried about Mickey's pervasive corrupting influence, especially on Ray's brother Bunchy (the great, undersung Dash Mihok), a troubled soul with a nearly two million dollar church abuse settlement coming his way. It's not long before Mickey, whom Voight plays with a sly mischievousness that's as grubbily charming as it is unsettling, has snaked his way into everyone's lives, even winning over Abby and the kids, much to Ray's consternation. (A scene between Mickey and Ray's teenage son is one of the show's most interesting, a crude and possibly offensive exchange that's also startlingly progressive.) Ray and Mickey circle each other with an unnerving quietness, while Terry and Bunchy (and Pooch Hall, as their half-brother Daryll) wait in shabby corners to see who will be their new alpha. The family strife continues to mount in surprising, suspenseful, and oddly touching ways in the episodes I've seen.
Meanwhile at work, Ray is dealing with, among other calamities, an athlete with a dead hooker in his bed, a closeted mega movie star who gets caught picking up a transsexual hooker, and a frightened singer with a stalker. This stuff is where the series has the potential to get the most Showtime-y — doing lots of ta-das at how depraved and soulless and nasty its world is. And while there is a little of that, there's also plenty of real humanity filling each scene. Movie star Tommy (Austin Nichols) may be up to something sleazy in his text chats with Ray's son, but we also see the real struggle in him, the fear and self-loathing. The problems people have on Ray Donovan aren't there simply to prove the grimy futility of trying to change — the way they might be on something like the staggeringly nihilistic Weeds. Instead of that sneering cynicism, Ray Donovan possesses that rarest of things for a Showtime series: compassion. Biderman and her writers craft scripts that are gritty and dirty, yes, but there's also an almost existential mystery to the writing; the show is full of curious little moments of pause, of hushed and tingling thoughtfulness. Directors like Allen Coulter and John Dahl give the show the heft of artistry — the episodes end beautifully, keeping us dangling in the strange moods and rhythms of the show long after the credits have rolled.
I'm prepared to like Ray Donovan, much more than I thought I would. What sounded on paper like a guttural slog through ain't-it-crazy LA seediness is actually something more. Imbued with a chilly melancholy that hints at long, cold Boston winters better left forgotten, the show has an emotional resonance unlike much else on the network. I hope it can maintain that depth and richness as its various plots get more intricate. Because as is, it just might be the best thing Showtime has going.