The fourth season of Ray Donovan, the Showtime series about a Hollywood fixer, made its debut on AXN this week. Starring Liev Schreiber as the eponymous anti-hero, the show has built a loyal fan following in its three action-packed seasons on the back of high-quality writing and stunning visuals of the Hollywood boulevard that hides dark secrets.
Like other recent television expanding the scope of the crime genre, the show brilliantly plays off the personal against the professional. Schreiber is exceptional as the man who works behind the scenes to help Hollywood royalty get the outcome, in court or outside, they want. The thrust of the show, as with The Sopranos and True Detective, emerges from the seemingly endless personal crises involving Ray’s family and their intersecting obsessions.
There is the patriarch Mickey, played with silken menace by Jon Voight. An ex-convict who spent years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Mickey is a bitter old man who refuses to go gentle into the night. Then there are Ray’s brothers, Terry (Eddie Marsan), a boxing enthusiast who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), a vulnerable man who continues to battle the ravages of the sexual assault he underwent as a child at the hands of a priest. There is also Ray’s wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) and their two kids.
In the current season, we meet boxer Hector Campos (Ismael Cruz Cordova) – the love for boxing is an integral part of the show. Hector, an old friend of Ray’s, needs him to tackle Marisol, Hector’s half-sister. Marisol is set upon ruining Hector’s championship night with a press conference that would reveal the cycle of abuse that went on in the family (Marisol was abused by their dad and she in turn abused Hector). Ray is deputed to sort out the mess.
After three seasons of madly dashing across Los Angeles, won’t Ray like to take it easy? Indeed, the season begins on the promise of a reformed Ray trying to get his life in order by attending Church and making time for his beleaguered wife. Yet, old habits die hard. (In one episode, on being asked what he does for a living, Ray memorably says: “I change the story.”) He decides he must help Hector, not just because it’s work, but because Ray is especially sensitive about claims of sexual abuse, given his brother’s history.
The show is not perfect. It often runs into tangents that do little for narrative cohesion. But the acting is top-class. Ray and Mickey share a troubled relationship with deep roots in the past, and both Schreiber and Voight bring out this tension admirably. Schreiber embodies the many contrasts of his character: his tense body language and always-tight jaw convey the inner conflict of a man who wants to live by a moral code in a fiercely amoral world. Voight’s is a presence so magnificent that it is easy to forget that he is not the protagonist. The other cast members are excellent too, particularly Paula Malcomson as the woman who must run a tight ship in a house teeming with hostility.
The series was conceptualised by Ann Biderman, who was behind another Los Angeles-based crime drama, Southland. (She left after the second season of Ray Donovan.) Biderman has said that in making the show, she was inspired by the stories of old-style Hollywood fixers like Eddie Mannix and Fred Otash who knew everyone, but more importantly, whom everyone knew. Updated for today, their stories continue to have a sinister ring to them, but the real triumph of Ray Donovan is its depiction of the all-too-human failings underneath the sleaze.