Is there a show that maybe isn't so good, that makes you cringe sometimes because it's tone-deaf or illogical or silly, that attempts a lot more than it can pull off, but that, still and all, you love?
By the standards of today's TV dramas, "Ray Donovan" is a very flawed piece of work, with action where there should be carefully determined character depth. The Showtime series, the overheated story of a thuggish Southie family in Los Angeles that's in its third season, is a mish-mash of dark doings by characters who are each too often defined by a single quality.
But I love it.
Every time Jon Voight's Mickey says "impawtant," or "shaw," which means "sure," my ears perk up, and not in a good way. It pulls me out of the story. Same thing when Paula Malcomson's Abby says almost anything, but particularly "adahrable," or "advencha," or "Wraaaay," which means "Ray." It's a cartoony voice, as the absurdly accentuated accent forces Malcomson's mouth into some wholly unnatural shapes.
I can't say what other viewers in the United States think of the way TV's Donovans talk, as if they're deathly allergic to the letter "r." But to me and to most of the Bostonians I've spoken to, a few of the actors in "Ray Donovan" are as successful with their Southie as Dick Van Dyke was with his cockney in "Mary Poppins," which is to say not very.
"Ray Donovan" sounds like a bahn on a fahm filled with livestahk, but I love it.
Every time Liev Schreiber, as Ray, stands before us with his withholding poker face on, an unflappable yet pent-up guy with some of the best sunglasses on cable TV and a 100-watt scowl, I wonder who he is. And I often question whether Schreiber quite understands Ray, too.
The guy was molested as a young man by a priest, his sister killed herself on drugs, his father was selfish and abusive, and, a typical American man, he represses his feelings about it all. He is clearly sitting on a lot of anger, especially as he wipes blood from his hands. But who else is he? What drives Ray Donovan? Does he have some kind of self-styled moral compass underneath his mask? Tony Soprano was a similarly disturbed man, but we knew Tony inside and out. Don Draper, too. Ray, on the other hand, remains stubbornly nebulous.
"Ray Donovan" is led by a character who is a vague, laconic vacuum, but I love it.
Every time Abby and Ray fight, which is often, every time she goes off the handle about his infidelities and his emotional distance as if she doesn't know who she married, every time Eddie Marsan's Terry pouts loudly, every time Dash Mihok's Bunchy gets all wackadoo and giant-babyish, every time Kerris Dorsey's Bridget behaves like a rebel but looks like a goody-goody, every time the wonderful Katherine Moennig doesn't do anything more than act like Ray's rejected girl Friday, I get a little irritated. The tics and repetitions on "Ray Donovan" are a predictable source of disappointment, a barrier between the show and greatness.
But I love it.
Sometimes, it's that simple. I will stand up for "Ray Donovan," with all its blemishes, because I love it. I don't miss an episode. It's a show that strives to be a really atmospheric LA noir and succeeds often enough to seduce — certainly more than this season of "True Detective." As off-base as "Ray Donovan" can be when it comes to its antihero, his squawking wife, and their kids, trying a bit too hard to mimic the Sopranos without any of the internal emotional logic that made the Sopranos' home life so fascinating, I am addicted. The relentlessly sullen and gloomy tone sucks me in, and the problems that Ray fixes — including the kidnapping that he remedied with the help of a well-timed Uber pickup — entertain.
One thing the show does capture nicely is the lowlife Boston world,
best of all through Mickey, but also through Sully — the Whitey Bulger figure — from season one, played with cold grit by James Woods. Voight is perfect as a Southie ex-con who's both a parasite and a charmer, a selfish and self-pitying deadbeat and a guy who'll murder a creepy abuser to help out a little girl — then become the pimp for that girl's prostitute mother. There are so many layers to Voight's performance, it's really wonderful to watch him. He plays a lot of different notes, and he plays them all seamlessly. He's a thug who likes to have a good time, and he brings the show its only humor, such as the time he went to an LA spa, or the time he was looking at porn on a library computer. The show began when Mickey got out of jail; he was the impetus, and he continues to drive the show forward.
It's an interesting thing, the way we fixate on the defects of some shows — and some people, too — and then overlook or tolerate the failings of others. One person's major deal-breaker is another person's nitpick.