Ray Donovan: Season 1 Recap

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The first season of Ray Donovan is in the books, but for those of you who haven’t watched this show because you were too busy enjoying the summer or were obsessed with every second of Breaking Bad, I give you this advice — put this show on the top of your “binge watch” list.

Why?

Well, to be a sarcastic son of a bitch, any show that can take the dude who played Manolo in Scarface and cast him as a heavily-accented former Mossad agent (which is an absurd concept) and turn him into one of the most entertaining characters of the show and allow the actor, who hasn’t exactly had an Oscar-caliber career, to turn in a terrific performance…you know you’ve got a damn good show on your hands.

Sarcasm aside, Ray Donovan is head and shoulders above any, and we mean any, show that has debuted in 2013 (sorry Hannibal, we still love you). It’s a show we were enthralled with every single week, a show we skipped Sunday Night Football for and show we cannot recommend highly enough.

So, here are our reasons why you should be skipping all the lousy new shows debuting this month and catching up on our boy Ray Ray.

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1. Liev Schreiber is The Man: Sometimes I wish I was Liev Schreiber. He’s got a badass hit television series, he sleeps with Naomi Watts (she married him too) and he’s the best narrator in the history of sports outside of “The Voice of God” John Facenda. But in all seriousness, Liev has been one of the most under-appreciated actors in Hollywood. Rent Defiance where he plays a badass Jewish revolutionary or how he’s the only other good thing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine besides Hugh Jackman and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, he’s getting his due with Ray Donovan. He’s given the ball to run with it and within the blink of an eye he’s already done the block with it. Schreiber is the perfect guy to play Ray. He’s got the imposing tough guy aura about him but can also play it cooler and calm in a designer suit. But physicality aside, Schreiber can just act his ass off. The depth of humanity he gives Ray, which could’ve been a very one-note character, is the mark of a truly gifted actor. Schreiber makes Ray Donovan tough yet tragic, ballsy yet fragile. He makes us believe Ray is a man’s man but also a man who hides his tears with broken bones, broken hearts and bottles of Jameson. Ray’s Catholic guilt-riddled family man is dangerous and a murderer, but yet, we still feel for the guy. We root for him. He warms our heart when he embraces his family, he breaks it when he bangs a Britney Spears wannabe it and he stops it when he murders a pedophiliac. The Emmys may have happened the same night as Ray Donovan’s finale, but mark our words, by this time next year you’ll be seeing Liev Schreiber’s name on the Best Actor ballot.

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2. Jon Voight: You’ll also be seeing Jon Voight’s name on the ballot for Best Supporting Actor. Voight ate up his role as the Donovan patriarch Mickey like it was an all-you-can-eat-buffet (if you saw tonight’s finale you’ll appreciate the reference). The role of Mickey is not unlike Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in The Departed — it’s a hammy, chew scenery type of supporting role that has a deadly air of chaos surrounding it. Yet, Mickey isn’t as unforgiveable as Frank Costello. Mickey is an out-and-out bastard, a deadbeat dad and a murderer yet, he’s also this older guy who’s trying to reclaim his life and doesn’t know how to act his age. It’s as if Mickey wasn’t allowed his mid-life crisis, so he’s having it now. Voight, who’s been in some really, really terrible movies over the past decade or so, reminds us that he is actually a damn good actor. Much like Ray, Mickey’s a complex character who has numerous moral twists and turns. He’s a terrific foil to Schreiber as he’s allowed to be a little more jocular, a little more off the cuff. Voight tunes down the comedic side of Mickey and really hits a terrific dramatic stride in the last 25% of the series. It’ll be interesting to see how the show brings him back for a second season.

3. Best Supporting Cast Assembled One of the reasons Ray Donovan works when Liev Schreiber is off-screen is the amazing supporting cast that’s been assembled. In fact, from the sheer star power, it might be the best assembled supporting cast on TV today. Think about it — Eddie Marsan, Elliott Gould, Dash Mihok, Pooch Hall, Jonathon Schaech, Rosana Arquette, James Woods, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Denise Crosby and Brooke Smith…that’s a hell of a supporting cast. Plus you’ve got Paula Malcolmson (who portrays Catniss’ mom in The Hunger Games) and Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby as family, all of whom have terrific shorelines and deliver excellent performances. This helps make Ray Donovan a fresh show as it doesn’t rely on its lead man to carry the show. Luckily, it does not suffer from Boardwalk Empire syndrome — adding too many supporting characters with not enough screentime for them all.

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4. Two Great Storylines: Ray Donovan’s top story lines of the first season were hands down the “Sully” situation and the season-long saga of Bunchy Donovan dealing with the traumatic effects of being sexually abused by a priest as a child.

The Sully storyline is a take on the famed Whitey Bulger case — the FBI’s #1 Most Wanted criminal who was caught in California after years of hiding. James Woods is awesome as the “too old for this shit” hardened criminal. He’s a raging Bahston-accented psychopath who dresses like a grandpa and complains about his fallen arches. Only James Woods could make a character like this work. What was so good about this storyline is the many twists and turns it takes both in terms of plot and in terms of the characters involved’s morality. Sully’s arrival in California, at the behest of Ray to kill Mickey, impacts everyone and his specter threatens every aspect of every character in the show. It adds a great deal of suspense to an already emotionally-charged show.

The “Bunchy” storyline is a lot more difficult to watch due to the nature of its origins but it’s still compelling television. Dash Mihok, who’s been a character actor forever (you might remember him best as Benvolio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet) is awesome as the alcoholic, permanently scarred youngest Donovan, Brendan, AKA Bunchy. He’s a kid stuck inside a man’s body, stunted emotionally by the acts of a vile human being. The storyline comes to a head in the next-to-last episode titled “Bucky Fucking Dent” (a reference to the Yankee shortstop who hit a home run against the Red Sox propelling the Yankees into the World Series back in the late ’70s). In this episode Bunchy assaults a priest whom he believes molested him. Questions abound…is he actually the priest? is Bunchy insane? how the Donovan boys going to fix this mess? And what’s bothering Ray so much? All of this gets answered in an absolutely explosive, dramatic and jaw-dropping manner. Hands down the series’ best episode.

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5. Little Things Make a Big Difference: What I enjoyed most about Ray Donovan was that, much like the lead character, trivial shit got out the way in a hurry. In the beginning of the series Ray was handling an action star with an addiction to tranny prostitutes, a Britney Spears-esque pop singer who was stalking him for sex, arranging for the legal emancipation of a Justin Beiber-esque future R&B star and the entanglements of living in Hollywood elite society. Luckily, all this, which was basically used to color in the details of the man that is Ray Donovan and the world he lives in, got resolved or shoved aside rather quickly, thus allowing for the main story to evolve.

6. The Donovan Chemistry: If there’s a happy note about Ray Donovan — it’s the chemistry between Schreiber, Marsan and Mihok — collectively, The Brothers Donovan. Watching the three of them interact with each is a heartwarming spot of the series. The three genuinely love each other and they share the same pain — physical, emotional and spiritual pain brought on by the abandonment by their father, the death of their mother and the suicide of their sister. But amongst all the crap, these guys genuinely love each other and pick each other up when the chips are down. The actors play off each other as if they were actually brothers. Marsan is fantastic as the Parkinson’s Disease addled boxer Terry. He’s socially awkward, but at his heart, genuinely sweet, big brother. Mihok is wonderful as the disaster that is Bunchy. And of course we’ve already extolled the virtues of Schreiber. Yet, all three are at their best when they have the other two in the same room as them. The dynamic of their characters from the way they talk to the way they move seems to change. The R’s get dropped for a little more authentic Bahston feel, the booze flows out of joy not sorrow and there’s actually laughter and love. It’s a spot in Ray Donovan that this reviewer probably loves most.

Ray Donovan might be done for 2013 but it’s easy to catch it on Showtime’s Sho on The Go or on Showtime onDemand.

all photos credit: showtime/cbs

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site’s podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites