It isn’t clear from the title, or from the advance publicity, exactly what “Ray Donovan” is about, beyond the inscrutable face of star Liev Schreiber, which is all over the ad campaign.
That’s because this fantastic new Showtime drama is that wonder of TV wonders, a low concept series that can’t be easily reduced to a quick sentence. “Ray Donovan” is about many, many rich things, among them the PR underbelly of Hollywood stardom, the loathing between a man and his father, South Boston thugs on the wide streets of Los Angeles, the enduring injury of having been abused by a priest, a marriage in turmoil, and the lasting grief of the loss of a sister. You have to see it, to some extent, to get it.
Pity the Showtime publicity department, having to get the word out about a drama whose great strength is in its execution and not its sexy big idea. “Ray Donovan” doesn’t revolve around, say, a serial killer who kills killers; it revolves around a large collection of particular characters and situations, all of them beautifully brought to life by show creator Ann Biderman (of “Southland”) and her extraordinary cast. Each of the leads on the show, which premieres Sunday at 10, stands out, not least of all Jon Voight, whose turn as an ex-con thug from Southie is riveting.
Liev Schreiber plays Ray, a “fixer” who cleans up the messes made by his high-powered Hollywood clients. A blockbuster-movie hunk gets caught with a transvestite? Call Ray. A studio boss who thinks his mistress is cheating on him? Call Ray. He’ll show up and take over, with the help of his loyal staff, including his researcher Lena (Katherine Moennig from “The L Word”). “I’m not here to judge you,” he tells a new client, “that’s not what I do.” He shrewdly manipulates the tabloid media, including TMZ, or he beats up a stalker; whatever will make the problem go away.
Important fact: Ray and his family are in LA, but they are all originally from South Boston. Southie is all over this show, and — phew — with only a little bit of strained accent work here and there. On one level, “Ray Donovan” is a full-fledged culture-clash drama, as the pedicured studio honchos and buffed celebrities of Lala Land come up against the brash Southie temperament. They only think Boston grit is quaint until they face off with a Donovan. “I love her accent,” a starlet says about Ray’s wife, Abby, and her broad Boston articulations. “She’s so real.” That starlet doesn’t have any idea just how wicked “real” Abby can get when inspired.
Ray’s two brothers live nearby, and the three of them have a symbiotic rapport, especially since their sister’s suicide many years ago. Bunchy (Dash Mihok) has an addiction problem and is about to get a $1.4 million settlement from the Boston Archdiocese for having been abused by a priest. He’s a scrappy mess, and even he knows the money isn’t going to solve anything. Terry (Eddie Marsan) is a boxer who runs a gym, despite having developed Parkinson’s disease. He is shy and lonely, as his illness progresses, and Marsan — a British actor — is remarkable in the role. He makes Terry’s shaking visible and his deep hurt subtly palpable. The brothers’ triangular balance is thrown off, though, when their father, Voight’s Mickey, gets out of Walpole prison and flies west to take care of unfinished business. Also adding to the growing familial tension: the revelation of a Donovan half-brother, Daryll (Pooch Hall).
Voight manages to be charming, menacing, divisive, sleazy, and, at moments, sympathetic. He delivers a gonzo TV performance, from the wink at a woman who’s breast-feeding her infant on a plane to the first thing he does — murder — when he leaves jail. He watches porn on a library computer and attends a support group for abused men with Bunchy, where he makes a few pedophile jokes to the “bunc h of sad sacks.” He brings an aura of 1970s urban crime movies to the show with his cheap leather jacket, his gold bling, his cocaine use, and his old black Cadillac. All the performances in “Ray Donovan” are instantly distinct and faceted, but none so much as Voight’s.
Ray’s brothers, including Daryll, have a fine relationship with Mickey, but Ray and Mickey have a long-standing hatred for each other, one whose history emerges more with each subsequent episode of the show. Their destructive parent-child contempt recalls themes from “The Sopranos” as do Ray’s nouveau riche home, his no-nonsense wife, and their son and daughter, both of whom are interested in their father’s work and yet too young to understand. As Abby, Paula Malcomson is terrific, despite her overdone Southie accent — not as masterful and indelible as Edie Falco as Carmela, perhaps, but up there.
As the laconic Ray, Schreiber is the calm center of the show, while his family members and clients move frantically around him. He has an unshakable demeanor. But with the return of his father, he has become a walking time bomb — especially after he finds his father trying to endear himself to Ray’s wife and kids. Ray is a fixer because he likes to control and defuse situations, but he can’t fix his father’s intrusions, which drives him to extremes. He is all about order and cool and his father is chaos incarnate. Schreiber and Voight make a powerful pair; electricity flows between them in their scenes together.
Actually, electricity flows through the entire series, which charges forward confidently but without glossing over any of its many intricate story lines. As “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” prepare for their final rounds of episodes, “Ray Donovan” arrives at just the right time. It’s not as meticulous, cinematic, or original as those two shows, but it’s got the same kind of storytelling ambition. It’s the most vital new series of the year so far.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.