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On the set of Showtime's new The Departed–meets–L.A. series, Ray Donovan

Though it garners little respect and wins no awards, the best actor in Los Angeles is very often Los Angeles itself. Tasked to play everything from Mars to Manhattan (oh, the indignity!), the City of Angels is chameleonic in its ability to transform into any location imaginable. Every frame of Mad Men‘s Madison Avenue is filmed there, and the Batcave isn’t located in Gotham City; it’s a short hike into Griffith Park. The one thing Los Angeles rarely gets an opportunity to do, however, is to play itself.

That’s not the case on this bright early-spring day, however. As a thin sun streams its last rays over Adams Boulevard, a fleet of white production vans flows out of a formerly vacant lot. Locals emerge from a nearby pupusería and gather in front of the closed gates to gawk. This is Mid-City, the most inelegantly yet accurately named neighborhood in Los Angeles, a flat and wide expanse generally between the 10 Freeway and Hollywood proper. It’s the sort of place where people actually live and where tourists — not to mention movie stars — rarely idle. The cameras today are set up just down the road on a perfectly lovely, nondescript residential street. The sidewalks are wide and the houses the sort of halo-halo architectural blend that defines California and makes it an ideal location to serve as any street in any town, USA. Look in one direction, you’re in Michigan; look in another, you’re in Georgia. Walk a few paces up the block and you’re in Springfield — any Springfield. Except the scene being filmed today is set exactly here, in that ramshackle house on this anonymous block. No one demanded it, but Mid-City is finally getting its moment in the klieg lights

Ray Donovan, the production in question, aims to use the flashbulbs of Hollywood in a similar fashion, not to blind and dazzle but to reveal all the intrigue, ugliness, and sin lurking just underneath the nose jobs of the entertainment industry. Created by Ann Biderman (whose previous show, the recently canceled Southland, also stood out for treating Los Angeles as a canvas instead of a punchline),1 and premiering this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime, Ray is itself kind of a halo-halo series, mixing jarring strains of sex, violence, Catholic guilt, and Tinseltown satire. At first glance, a dark and brooding Boston crime saga left to bake beneath the hot California sun seems like a curious choice for a network hoping to double down on the Emmy-gobbling, zeitgeist-seizing success of Homeland. But just as that show used cable complexity and a stellar cast to class up the conceit of a network action thriller, Ray attempts to solder the gravitas of The Departed to the shallow fizz of Entourage. It’s a show — and programming decision — that feels simultaneously safe and wildly risky.

Liev Schreiber stars as Ray, a toughie from Southie who has made it big on the opposite coast— though not nearly big enough for the private-school dreams of his high school sweetheart wife, Abby (a tart Paula Malcomson). His meal ticket? Taking advantage of the rough-and-tumble skill set he once used to make problems in Dorchester to solve them for Brentwood swells. Ray is a “fixer” at the highest echelon of celebrity. Wake up with a dead girl in your bed? He’s the one who can make her go away. Want sole custody of your Lil Bow Wow–ish offspring or someone to treat your stalker the way Yasiel Puig treats fastballs? Ray’s your man. It actually sounds more fun than it is, partly because Schreiber plays the part with the solemnity of an undertaker and partly because this is 21st-century television and the one thing that remains irreparably broken, despite his best efforts, is, of course, Ray himself.

Despite his slick costume (Armani suits from the Grim Reaper Collection), killer car (a slithery Mercedes2 that doubles as his office), and near-limitless reserves of smoldering machismo,3 we quickly learn that nothing can protect Ray from the rest of the Donovans. While Ray and Abby endeavor to raise their two kids in a McMansion high in the Calabasas hills, his three brothers jab and weave in a dilapidated boxing gym down in the valley below. There’s good-hearted, Parkinson’s-afflicted Terry (brilliant British actor Eddie Marsan), fragile Bunchy (Dash Mihok), whose childhood molestation at the hands of a Boston priest (an event that hovers heavily over the series) doomed him to a life of addiction, and, suddenly, Daryll (Pooch Hall), the half-black brother Ray’s only just met. The reason these Celtics fans relocated to Lakers country? To escape the reach of their father, Mickey Donovan, a turtlenecked satyr played with gleeful abandon by Jon Voight. Twenty years after Ray sent his old man to prison at Walpole, a paroled Mickey suddenly drops into town like a shot of whiskey into a pint of Guinness, setting the series in motion.

Back on the set, however, Voight is dropping more like a sack of bricks. It’s midway through the shoot for Episode 6, and director Michael Uppendahl is filming a pivotal scene in which a pissed-off Ray4 crashes Bunchy’s boozy housewarming party in search of his kids. It’s bad enough that the senior Donovan has ingratiated himself with the grandchildren Ray never wanted him to meet, but what’s worse is that the old goat can’t resist poking his thumb in the wound. “I’m sorry I never went to more of your fucking football games,” Voight bellows, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. By way of response, Schreiber walks to his car, removes a pistol, and calmly points it at Voight’s head. It’s a brutal moment, one in which Ray, in Schreiber’s words, “realizes he’s become the monster he’s trying to protect his children from,” and it’s only the cry of Kerris Dorsey — a young actress known for singing to Brad Pitt in Moneyball and sharing a smoke with Betty Draper on this season of Mad Men — as Ray’s daughter Bridget that snaps him out of his fury. Instead of shooting Mickey in the skull, Ray merely pistol-whips him to the ground. “The Donovans,” quips Marsan, “really know how to have a party.”

The sequence plays out again and again: the slam of the trunk, the gasp of the kids, the thump of an Academy Award winner hitting the dirt. There’s a mat rolled out on the lawn to catch Voight as he tumbles, but the actor barely seems to know it’s there. Over by craft services, a beefy stunt double clad in Mickey’s purple T-shirt and neck chain loiters, looking even less useful than me. A publicist whispers that Voight is “a little tired,” but he doesn’t look it, as the septuagenarian drops yet again to his creaking knees without a peep of complaint. On one take, Voight flubs the “fucking”; on another, Schreiber accidentally points the handgun at his kids, prompting laughter and an immediate cut. By the time Uppendahl is happy with the footage, night has fallen more heavily than his star.

As the hour grows later, I retreat to the kitchen of Bunchy’s disaster of a house, bought on an impulse with the settlement money received from the Boston archdiocese. Filming is finished in here for the day, but the atmosphere — and aroma — remain. There are water stains on the ceilings, bugs crawling on the floor. The counters are strewn with Tostitos bags, and beer and vodka empties crowd every available surface. Next to me, Brett Johnson, the episode’s 30-year-old writer,5 uses the time between takes to tap out the script for Episode 9. “He put his penis in my hand,” he says aloud, reading from the glow of his MacBook. Then he hits the delete key a few times.

Finally, the crew breaks for dinner — it’s Cajun Night — and Voight dusts himself off and walks with me into the living room of the house across the street. I had anticipated at least a whiff of ’70s ego — or at least early ’00s tabloid-baiting — but Voight, clad in a puffy coat to protect him from the slight chill in the air, is friendly and low-key. “Mickey is a rich character. He’s dangerous, surprising, and entertaining,” he says. “I just hope I’m actor enough to pull off all the dimensions.”

To say that he is would be an understatement. Voight has spent the last few years wandering the respectful career wasteland reserved for aging legends, hamming it up on 24 and cashing checks in Baby Geniuses and the Space Baby. In his first few episodes as Mickey Donovan, Voight shoots a man in the mouth, sniffs coke with his kid, makes a blowjob joke in a room full of sexual-assault survivors, and twerks it with a big-bottomed prostitute. The character’s boundless, carnal enthusiasm is a necessary counterweight to Ray’s dour burden, and it’s the engine that, when it sparks, elevates the show. Is it any wonder that talking about the role leaves Voight beaming like he just stepped off the set of Midnight Cowboy?

“I’ve lived several decades now,” he says in response to a question comparing the heyday of American cinema to what’s happening now on the small screen. “And I’ve seen trends go forth. In the past five years, television shows like this one have become not only popular but opportunities to do good work. There’s more energy, more intelligence, more daring.” Voight’s exhaustion only shows when I ask him about what motivates him, at his age, to get up early in the morning just to be knocked down into the mud all night. “I’m a storyteller,” he says. “That’s what I feel.” And then, in a more hushed voice, he unspools a lengthy memory of his father, a golf professional, putting the three Voight boys to bed every night with invented yarns about secret agents who hid microfilm in grapefruit and a mischievous little boy named Elmer — also Voight’s father’s name — and his misadventures growing up in Yonkers. “Hop the fence, we can get those apples!” Voight exclaims, before changing voices. “We’d better not, Elmer, Patsy Poo Poo has a shotgun!” He pauses and smiles gently. “We have much more talented and sophisticated people telling the story here, of course. But it all starts the same way.”

When reached by phone a few weeks later, the mercurial Schreiber is less nostalgic but certainly just as effusive. “I think the defining element of this show and the decision to do it — and I’ve been approached to do television in the past — is the cast we’ve been able to assemble,” he says. “On days when I’m down — and I will admit, this is no easy character to play day in and day out — to see Jon come to work with that spirit and that talent and ferocity has been invaluable to me.”

Through the first five episodes of the season, Ray Donovan, the man, remains a bit inscrutable. He’s irresistible to women and terrifying to his brothers and clients, able to put a gay action-movie star back in the closet without breaking a sweat and to charm a transgender blackmailer even as he chokes her. Beset by Oedipal fury and adulterous urges, Ray doesn’t yet seem particularly worthy of our sympathy, let alone our interest. But to hear Schreiber describe his character is to feel comforted that those behind the scenes are thinking about him with more depth than he at first appears to deserve.

“I think Ray’s one of those men who hasn’t had his software updated,” Schreiber says. “And he desperately needs it! I think Ann [Biderman] has tapped into something really elusive and compelling about the male psyche, how it’s working off of a really outdated manual. There’s an incredible vulnerability belied by his über-masculinity. There’s a desperate loneliness to him that I’ve been constantly surprised by.”

A scarcity of female showrunners is the enduring smudge on the so-called Golden Age of television, so to have Biderman in charge of the macho Ray Donovan is noteworthy and immediately distances the series from the cablewide sausage party of broken, difficult men. The problem, at least in the early going, is that the show remains far more interesting in conversation with Schreiber than it does on the screen. Ray Donovan is best when it focuses on the destructive family dynamics at its rotten core: when Ray tries to parent the proud, shaking Terry, when Mickey takes Bunchy and Daryll out for steaks and liquor, treating them like a sad-sack Wolfpack instead of the deeply damaged sons they are. It’s in these quieter moments when Los Angeles is given the space to play itself in an entirely new way, as a harshly lit escape that, due to the bonds of history and family, has revealed itself to be its own kind of trap. American entertainment suffers from an over-reliance on the Donovans’ brand of Bostonian blarney, but damned if it doesn’t work here thanks to the abilities of these actors. Even if a few of them sound as if they researched their accents by listening to Julianne Moore recite vintage “Car Talk” transcripts.

But too many of Ray Donovan’s hardest hits are reserved for the softest of targets. Ray Donovan chronicles flaccid Hollywood caricatures with the dutiful rigor of a courtroom sketch artist — the blinged-out excess of the vaguely minstrel-y rappers and ballers, the homophobic screams of the shrewishly Semitic attorney,6 the endless slurry of sluts. The curtain is pulled back on the unsurprising smugness of pampered private schools, on the dippiness of yoga, the terrible taste of green juice. Ray Donovan’s work is meant to seem impossible, but the world he traffics in is disappointingly easy.

That Ray should slide so often into superficiality is no crime — Californication is headed into its seventh season of undemanding sleaze — but it does strike me as a shame. Schreiber’s strange cocktail of cerebral physicality is unique on television; he seems heavier than mercury in the role even as he moves with lightning speed. The sheer amount of talent committed to Ray Donovan is impressive, both in front of the camera (early episodes feature supporting turns by the great Elliott Gould and the underrated Frank Whalley; James Woods and Rosanna Arquette are set to appear later in the season) and behind it, too (in addition to Mad Men vet Uppendahl, the episodes I saw were directed by The Last Seduction‘s John Dahl and Allen Coulter, who has lensed everything from The X-Files to The Sopranos). This murderer’s row of an IMDb page is a testament to the current state of cable television, where the potential profits finally match the prestige.

But Ray Donovan‘s early stumbles also strike me as evidence of what happens when a network is overly committed to chasing both at the same time. Ray Donovan has USA Network bones — not at all a bad thing — but is weighed down by HBO ambition. There is a good show lurking within its overheated skin; there might well be multiple good shows. But right now Ray Donovan, like its swaggering main character, is stuck trying to be all things to all people. I understand the desire to strive for Beverly Hills. I do. But there’s no shame in being Mid-City.

Filed Under: Showtime, TV

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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