There are a few problems with “Ray Donovan.” Even passionate viewers of the Showtime drama usually qualify their praise, pointing out flaws such as the accent of Paula Malcomson, a good actress who’s trying to be a Southie Carmela Soprano but winds up sounding like Pikachu crooning “Danny Boy.” They note the high stylings of Elliott Gould, who is like a parody of Elliott Gould playing a parody of an Elliott Gould character. And some say Liev Schreiber leans too hard on the “anti” and forgets about the “hero” part of the equation.
But no one has a problem with Jon Voight.
The minute you mention his name in a conversation about “Ray Donovan,” eyes light up and the kudos flow. The guy is undeniable. With Mickey Donovan, Voight has created a rare, indelible TV character, an A1 slimeball who is as complex as he is entertaining. He’s another racist, homophobic, misogynistic small-screen thug, along the lines of the guys on “The Sopranos,” but he has his own peculiarities, the kind that find him twerking on the dance floor in a gay bar called the Buggy Whip, snorting poppers. He’s decadent and proud of it. He is as ready to party and escape, as his son Ray — the north to his south — is endlessly controlled and sullen.
Schreiber is the star of the show as the titular character, and he’s the one who’ll be nominated for awards in the lead category. And he is effective as a guy twisted by early psychic wounds; we just need to learn more about them. But Voight is truly the STAR of the show, a supporting performer who is, essentially, the fuel for the drama. On a story level, his scenes keep the action moving forward, and on an energy level, he brings the drive. The entire series starts when Mickey comes to LA, the South Boston past that Ray and his brothers have been trying to shake.
As much as he is like the “Sopranos” goons, Mickey’s position on “Ray Donovan” is similar to that of Nancy Marchand’s Livia Soprano on early seasons of “The Sopranos.” Both are parents who are not parental, both are coarse and suffer from victimization complexes. And most important, both are deeply bound up in murderous conflict with their powerful sons, conflict that forms the plot axis. Ray despises Mickey enough to frame him for murder, and when Mickey is released from jail early — he struck a deal as a rat — Ray demands he stay away from his wife and kids. In a reverse “Sopranos” move, Ray takes out a hit on his father, with a Whitey Bulger-like Southie dude played by James Woods.
And it’s easy to understand Ray’s murderous hatred, even while we still don’t know the details of their past. Mickey is a full-on scoundrel, no question. But what Voight does so well is he makes Mickey into an amusing scoundrel. As unsympathetic and dangerous as he is, he can be straight-up funny; just the sight of the rough-hewn guy sitting in a white terrycloth robe at an LA spa, trying to go Hollywood, made me laugh out loud.
Most of the Mickey jokes, though, are cringey, like the moment when
he’s sitting on a plane and he sees a woman breast-feeding her infant;
he winks at her. He drops insults so unthinkingly, it’s as comic as it is
offensive. “You a Jew?” he asks Rosanna Arquette’s character, who is working on a movie; “Mazel Taaf.” Having been in jail for 20 years, he’s like
Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from “Saturday Night Live,” or a child, unaware of how the world works now — that you don’t look up porn on a library computer, for example. Not that an awareness of inappropriateness would stop him.
At times, Voight makes Mickey seem almost sympathetic and charming. You feel the pathos of his life. The guy is stupid and vulnerable enough to believe that blockbuster actor Sean Walker (Johnathon Schaech) really wants him to write a movie script. His effort to kill the priest who molested his son is noble, in its way, even if he killed the wrong guy. He’s delightful to his grandchildren and daughter-in-law. He sits crying with a picture of his late daughter, Bridget, on her birthday. But the more we see of Mickey, the more we realize that it’s all a function of his narcissism and self-pity. At the end of the day, he would ruthlessly sell out his family and friends — and will, I’m guessing, before all is said and done this season.
Voight is as mesmerizing as he has ever been. He had his early triumphs, including “Midnight Cowboy” and “Coming Home,” for which he won an Oscar, but in recent years he has mostly been coasting on his reputation in crummy movies and on “24.” On “Ray Donovan,” he seems more committed, more focused on creating a particular guy, than he has in a long time. And he has done a decent job with the Southie accent, evoking the feel behind the accent, not just a transliteration of it. Like the old, restored black Cadillac in which Mickey spent his youth, Voight can still deliver a smooth ride.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.