Where were you when you found out “Ray Donovan” was canceled?
OK, so the world did not stop breathing for a moment when Showtime announced that the Liev Schreiber drama, which recently finished its seventh season, was over and out. Those who make the show, including the cast and showrunner David Hollander, were, apparently, quite thrown, and, as Hollander put it in Vulture this week, “We’re still scratching our heads.” Their lives and livelihoods were altered in a moment without their consent, with no warning at all; “Ray Donovan” was not “on the bubble,” as they say about poorly performing shows, so there was no lurking fear of a premature ending.
But for the rest of us, the cancellation is no biggie, relatively speaking; it’s just another TV show biting the dust, as they all do at some point (except, it seems, “Law & Order: SVU”). Fans are irked, naturally, since the season seven finale left a number of balls up in the air. They were denied closure of any kind. But they will find other addictive series, they will move on. I was a fan for the first four seasons, as the show took a hard-boiled look at the toll of a priest’s sexual abuse on a Southie family and what it means to be the children of a selfish, abusive thug. But as the story lines about Ray the fixer became increasingly absurd, and the Boston accents failed to improve, I checked out, leaving the laconic hero to pout and flex without my scrutiny. And I’ve moved on.
But here’s the thing. This cancellation is a small but significant affront to every lover of TV’s serial storytelling, the format that promises a long ride, one with a beginning, a middle, and, importantly, an end.
As we know, the art of TV narrative has improved greatly in the past 20 years, to the point where viewers pay special attention to each episode, parsing its meanings, reading some of the many recaps online, unearthing carefully hidden clues and Easter eggs. As the writing has improved, audiences have risen to the occasion, honoring the story details and twists with the kind of serious attention formerly reserved for books and, sometimes, movies. To suddenly decide that the loyal viewership of “Ray Donovan” does not deserve a final chapter is to undermine that progress. It’s the kind of cop-out that chips away at a very hard-won fight to legitimize scripted TV.
Willy-nilly cancellations such as this one are the exact kind of events that make audiences feel resistant about getting aboard new serialized shows. It’s a reminder that the bottom line, and not the story or the viewer, is most important to TV outlets — not just networks, but cable and streaming, too. I understand that every brand-new series is at risk of first-season failure and swift cancellation. That’s understandable, to a great extent. But when viewers have watched seven seasons of “Ray Donovan” and made what is a significant investment of time and emotional energy, and have every reason to believe they’ll be given a proper ending after many years, their commitment deserves to be respected. Even a two-season commitment is worthy of some kind of story resolution, something the makers of Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” whose fate is in limbo because of producer-director David Fincher’s busy schedule, have failed to appreciate.
There was a time not too many decades ago, children, when series finales were not de rigueur. Most shows weren’t nearly as heavily serialized back then — it was thought that new viewers wouldn’t be willing to jump into the middle of a story — and it was not uncommon for a title to simply disappear without a narrative end-stop. There were exceptions, of course, notably “The Fugitive,” whose finale in 1967 resolved four seasons of mystery. But on the whole, scripted TV was not perceived as an art form worthy of denouement and other narrative principles. We were thrown out of therapy without termination, we were broken up with but deprived of a goodbye — choose your own abandonment metaphor.
I’m not one to assume that more is better when it comes to TV. Some shows only have two or three seasons’ worth of story in them, but they push forward into repetition and silliness simply to stay in production to make money. That’s a different kind of disrespect of viewers. But even if “Ray Donovan” was past it’s fresh date, and to me it certainly was, Showtime nonetheless owes something to the people who made it a hit, the people who’ve helped places like Showtime become the home of some of our era’s most important storytelling.