Ray Donovan, Season 1, Episode 1: “The Bag or the Bat”
Written by: Ann Biderman
Directed by: Allen Coulter
Airs Sundays at 10 PM (ET) on Showtime
There are two sides to Ray Donovan– both to the man and t the series that bears his name. The man is a hard-edged Hollywood fixer (think Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction), yet also a caring, if still somewhat gruff family man. The show is divided along the same lines. Half deals with Donovan navigating the sleaze and stardom of Hollywood, using a network of connections and his powers of intimidation to help stars worm their way out of career-sinking holes. The other half finds Donovan trying to put the same fix onto his family life, with much less success. His relationships with his wife and brothers are marked by abuse, disease, and betrayal, and “The Bag or the Bat” sees his father (Jon Voight) released for an unnamed (and seemingly horrendous) crime.
Yet before too long, “The Bag or the Bat” starts to show some flaws in its foundation. The biggest come from the very situations Ray is put through. With charisma and physicality, Schreiber scowls his way through the Hollywood lifestyle, bringing his character to life through a few choice words and a dominating screen presence. In an instant Schreiber raises Ray to the level of a pulp hero, a Jack Ryan or Reacher borne of the screen rather than the page. Yet other aspects drag Ray down. The two dilemmas he is tasked with fixing in “The Bag or the Bat” offer little in the way of individuality: the first the typical “wake up next to a dead body” scenario, the second a domestic dispute that mostly serves as a way to introduce a supporting character. And though Schreiber fits naturally into the role, Ray Donovan over-emphasizes his cool far too much. Other characters continually praise him and his strong, silent sensibilities, that he “doesn’t talk a lot,” or that he’s not like other guys. By stating in plain terms what Schreiber already does a perfectly fine job of displaying through his physical performance, “The Bag or the Bat” undermines its biggest strength
There’s a similar strain on the family aspects of the show. The backstories of the major players in the Donovan family are largely kept secret, yet this adds an air of confusion rather than intrigue. Unlike Mad Men, where the secrets of Don Draper’s past were eked out slowly without any loss of credibility to the character, actions taken by the Donovans make no sense without the proper context. Voight’s patriarchal Mickey Donovan is painted as a universally awful human being, yet at the end of the hour Ray’s wife (Paula Malcomson) is glad to accept him into her home to meet his grandchildren- the exact opposite of what Ray has been saying all episode. Why does she willingly put her children in danger? “The Bag or the Bat” never bothers to tell. Little moments like this plague the episode, and every time basic motivations are called into question, the show grinds to a halt.
But even under the weight of these flaws, Ray Donovan is more good than bad (at least for the time being). It’s essentially a more sophisticated version of something you’d see on USA- a charismatic hero breezing his way through the realms of the rich and famous, while tamping down his own personal problems. The cast is made up of proven winners from smaller shows, as well. Malcomson hails from Deadwood, and Steven Bauer (as a member of Donovan’s fixer crew) comes from a multi-episode stint on Breaking Bad. The show aims for style, and outside of a terribly melodramatic and out-of-character dream sequence it succeeds for the most part. One episode in, Ray Donovan is an uneven but entertaining ride.