Family Ties, Boston Style, in Los Angeles
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
If a series is going to go full Boston Irish, with battered former boxers, pedophile priests, barflies and fathers who do time in prison, all of it infused with the R-less accent of Dorchester, there really should be a Wahlberg in the cast.
Mark, or at least Donnie.
An Affleck brother wouldn’t hurt.
Instead, “Ray Donovan,” a new series beginning on Sunday on Showtime, stars Liev Schreiber as the title character, a South Boston transplant who works as a fixer for the rich and powerful of Hollywood. Jon Voight plays his bad-penny father, Mickey, a Boston mobster who moves to Los Angeles after 20 years behind bars.
It should be good. Crime stories pay, Mr. Schreiber is a compelling actor, and Ann Biderman, who created this show, was responsible for the wonderful series “Southland.” But the first few episodes of “Ray Donovan” are disappointing — grandiose, predictable and painfully slow.
The Irish mafia isn’t a myth. The crime and clannishness that inspired movies like “The Departed” and “The Town” helped make James (Whitey) Bulger, 83, who is on trial in Boston — charged with, among other things, taking part in 19 murders — one of the nation’s most notorious criminals and fugitives.
Mr. Bulger, who has a 700-page informant file, may have ratted out his colleagues to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but blood proved thicker than subpoena. His brother, William M. Bulger, president of the Massachusetts Senate for 17 years, was forced out as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003 after taking the Fifth Amendment when testifying before Congress about his brother’s whereabouts.
“Ray Donovan” takes those kinds of twisted family ties and plops them down in Southern California, where Ray uses his Boston-bred street smarts to solve the everyday problems of power brokers and superstars — sometimes with a baseball bat.
But much of his time is tied up trying to keep his own relatives out of trouble. His brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) was abused by a priest and has a substance abuse problem. His other brother, Terry (Eddie Marsan), who runs a boxing gym, stayed in the ring too long and has palsy tremors and a bad arm. The brothers are haunted by the suicide of a teenage sister.
It’s a fish-out-of-water story — gangland meets La La Land — and has a premise that probably sounded good on the drawing board. Everyone is interested in the underbelly of show business. And maybe because conventional authority figures, politicians, lawyers and priests have lost so much mystique, fixers have special currency these days. As the ABC series “Scandal” suggests, there’s a fascination with off-the-books problem solving.
But this clash of cultures doesn’t really pay off: the Donovans are caricatures, and so are the Hollywood big shots. A series that weaves together such familiar archetypes needs to run off the road at some point and add an element of surprise.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to compare an episode of “Ray Donovan” with any from “Breaking Bad.” That AMC series also mixes two incongruous worlds: a mild-mannered high school science teacher has a secret life as a meth dealer and major gangster. But there, clichés are turned upside down, and every shot and every line of dialogue builds to the unexpected. “Breaking Bad” is preposterous and utterly believable; “Ray Donovan” is more believable and quite preposterous.
Too much rides on Ray’s charisma, and while Mr. Schreiber has considerable presence, the script pushes it so relentlessly that Ray’s brooding silences become almost laughable.
“You don’t talk a lot,” an insecure but powerful Hollywood client tells Ray as Ray stares back at him impassively as he babbles. “I like that. I’m going to start doing that. It makes you mysterious. I think I give my power away too much.”
When Mickey shows up in Los Angeles to take his place at the head of the family table, Ray has to apply his professional skills — and the help of two tough-as-nails associates — to keep his father in line. Ray, who blames his father for all kinds of sins, knows that Mickey is up to no good. But Mickey has a way with his other sons, and even Ray’s wife and children.
Mr. Voight is well suited to the part of Mickey, a thug with a perpetual air of menace beneath the blarney. Ray’s wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), who, like Ray, grew up in South Boston, aspires to a more gracious lifestyle and hates living in the far suburb of Calabasas — she calls it the “Jersey Shore of L.A.” A little like Carmela Soprano, Abby knows what her husband does for a living, but prefers to look the other way and push for a normal family life and upward mobility, including private schools for the two children.
But Ray’s day job keeps interfering with her expectations.
It’s a chore to watch. Tom Breen, a public affairs associate at the University of Connecticut, may have put it best in a Twitter comment: “Can’t tell you how disappointed I am that the show ‘Ray Donovan’ is not about the Reagan-era secretary of labor.”
JUNE 27, 2013