Ray Donovan Sundays, 10 p.m., Showtime.
The basic premise of Ray Donovan could be the hook for one of USA’s lighthearted procedurals: A tough-guy “fixer,” aided by his two equally tough employees, helps Hollywood’s rich and famous with problems that fall into legal gray areas. Ray (Liev Schreiber) could spend each episode investigating some questionable celebrity case, engaging in witty banter with his associates and wrapping things up in 42 minutes or less.
Since Ray Donovan is on Showtime, however, that’s not what happens. Ray is a brooding, hyper-masculine anti-hero with elements of Tony Soprano, Rescue Me’s Tommy Gavin and Breaking Bad’s Walter White. He’s often cold-blooded and violent, although he loves his family and would do anything to protect them. Ray’s exploits with celebrity clients are only one element of a show that has a tough time finding its focus, and the cases he takes on probably wouldn’t be able to support entire episodes on their own.
Instead the show focuses at least as much on Ray’s turbulent relationship with his family and his shady South Boston past. Ray’s brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok) are both troubled loners who rely on him for support, and his life gets much more complicated when his father Mickey (Jon Voight), a longtime Boston gangster, is released from prison after two decades behind bars. Meanwhile, Ray’s wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) and his two kids are becoming accustomed to their comfortable suburban Southern California lifestyle. The family dynamic is reminiscent of the 2011 FX drama Lights Out, another show about a working-class thug trying to make a better life for his family while he’s dragged down by his dark past. The scenes at Terry’s boxing gym will give off a very familiar vibe for anyone who watched that short-lived series.
Like Lights Out, Ray Donovan has trouble finding its footing and often seems like it’s trying to be several different shows at once. Creator Ann Biderman (Southland) packs a lot of plot and numerous characters into every episode but never has quite enough time to really dig in to any of them. Ray’s two associates in particular might as well be set dressing for all the character development they get in the first four episodes. The cast is full of strong actors doing very serious work, but their effort is constantly apparent. The rare moments of levity are strained, and the rest of the show is so self-consciously serious that it becomes oppressive. The breezy USA version might have been more entertaining.