It took me up to this week’s viewing to realize that Ray Donovan functions more like a soap opera than an hourlong drama. It was once explained to me that the main characteristic of a soap opera that distinguishes it from any other melodrama is its prolonged—indeed, deliberately unending—second act. There is never a sense of beginning or ending on a soap opera. Stories just continue, and continue.
Ray Donovan would presumably be ashamed to call itself a soap opera, because that is at odds with its gritty, over-serious tone, but that model is the only way the show functions. Rather than introducing narrative arcs that begin and end each episode, or every few episodes, or even span the entire season, Ray Donovan is just flat. The way I define it, a narrative arc is any situation in a show where there is a build-up of action or suspense leading up to a particular event, and then the denouement around that event, after it has taken place. Often a show will incorporate narrative arcs with character arcs, so that as a situation plays out in the character’s life, the character’s psychology is forced to react or evolve, based on what occurs.
The simplest idea of this on television is in a legal procedural—the first event is the crime; the second event is the trial. The resolution of one leads to the suspenseful buildup of the other. The resolution of the trial usually coincides with the end of the episode. A cut-and-dry legal procedural offers you nothing besides that buildup and release; a more complicated one will offer multi-episode investigations of the same issue, or several cases that are ongoing, or many characters experiencing the same events. Ray Donovan has these multiple interconnected stories, undoubtedly.
But crucial to the model of narrative arcs is climax and resolution. Sorry if this sounds super didactic—it’s a given for most storytellers, and I think the mechanics are clear, at least implicitly, to most television viewers. It’s an ancient mechanic, the idea that a story should have a gripping point. A point where the stakes of the action have been explained and are very high, where the characters are heavily involved in the event at hand, where, hopefully, the viewer is invested in the outcome of the event.
There are a thousand different ways to do this well. But Ray Donovan doesn’t do this at all. Most stories will have some sort of arc that you could graph, where the x-axis is time, and the y-axis is not “action,” not “drama,” but the most important element of all: how much the audience cares. And this aspect of viewership is more important than ever, just because there are so many things to watch at any given time. But rather than an arc, Ray Donovan is tracking more of a horizontal line, hovering somewhere around “mildly significant,” smooth and steady.
There is so much media in the world and it all deserves dissection. Even really bad television tells us something about the world we live in. Ray Donovan certainly tells us something about the world. But it’s an artifact, not entertainment. And that’s why I often find myself saying, oh, there are elements of this show that’s interesting, but I can’t really remember what they are. There’s something very polished about the production of this show, but the crucial element of engaging the viewer seems to have been abandoned by the wayside, and that makes the show distinctly difficult to watch (and, for that matter, review). How can I go into how well “Bridget” works when I can’t reasonably tell you where any of the stories begin or end? Instead, it seems that each character is given some new minimal hurdle to deal with—but ends the episode more or less exactly where they started. Ray Donovan is currently doing a terrible, terrible job of explaining the stakes to its viewers, and as a result, nothing can have impact or resolution.
The thing is, it’s lacking the ability to produce catharsis. I’m not trying to be too academic here, but I think that’s basically it. That’s basically what it has failed to do right from the start. I have never been so moved by a character, so impressed by their portrayal or explication of an obstacle, so surprised by a fresh way of depicting a conflict, that I feel emotionally responsive to Ray Donovan. And Ray Donovan doesn’t even have the glitzy romance of soap operas to carry it through to some kind of satisfactory finish.
So, things that happen in “Bridget”: Alive Bridget gets her belly button pierced. It looks awful. Then she tries to sleep with Marvin Gaye Washington, and he rebuffs her advances, because according to him, Ray put a gun in his mouth, and that’s one of the many reasons he moved back to Compton. Terry beats up Frances’ husband, because he gave her a black eye. Then he goes to confess. Bunchy is still a mess, but may have recognized his old abuser at an area church. Ray and Abby fight, and Abby pulls out some pop psychology terms that are profoundly confusing, both to the audience and to Ray. Avi convinces Lena to express her feelings to the girl she’s seeing, so Lena punches her in the face. Mickey goes to a spa and tries to sleep with Matthew Perry’s wife from The Whole Nine Yards, but eventually, he isn’t interested because she’s not black. Ray and his brothers get trashed in the memory of their sister who died of a drug overdose. The soap opera continues apace, without much investment or interest. I’m looking forward to the season finale, if only so that something, anything, happens.
- Proof that Jon Voight is trolling us all: That little scene where he “accidentally” threatens his spa lady with rape is both somehow really awful and really funny. I don’t know what to make of it, but when he yells at her as she’s leaving, telling her he wouldn’t be interested in her “white [expletive]” anyway, I admit that I laughed. I think Jon Voight might see how awful this is and is just going with it for funzies. Any other theories?
- Ray seems to think Mickey abused Bridget as a kid, but that’s not the way the other two brothers see it. So, cool.