Lately, Ray Donovan has been reminding me of Boss, the now-canceled Starz! drama starring Kelsey Grammer as the corrupt mayor of Chicago. Last summer, as I was reviewing the second season, I vacillated back and forth between believing that the show might have some broader point to make about politics and the sinking realization that Boss’ main purpose as a work of art was to promote a certain kind of horror and despair, taking advantage of cable’s reputation for grit, sex, and violence.
Look, I like cable television. I do not feel particularly threatened by the portrayal of drug use, violence, or sex on my television set, and if a show exists only to showcase those vices, I don’t really have a moral objection to it. But it’s lazy writing—lazy and also a bit reprehensible, the television equivalent of acting out to get attention. Boss never managed to break out of mining its story for shock value, despite having an excellent cast and at times impressive direction.
Ray Donovan is now playing the same game, occupying a space somewhere in between story and shock. The first two episodes felt lazy to my mind—a little too much splashy sex, a little too much unnecessary hand-wringing about the corrupted innocence of our youth. But this third episode, “Twerk,” gives me hope that this show might have something substantial to say, though to be perfectly honest I’m still not quite sure what that statement would be.
In fact, I really enjoyed “Twerk.” As frustrating as I find aspects of Ray Donovan, in “Twerk” there are isolated scenes of elegance, driven by solid acting performances and good writing. An interesting continued theme this week is that despite the multiple layers of interconnectivity between the members of this family, most of the characters are stuck in a world of isolated grief. This week Paula Malcomson’s Abby stands out with an affecting performance—she goes through anger and reconciliation with her husband Ray almost entirely on her own, and though very little is said, her own struggle to trust him plays out in numerous small interactions. She takes Ray’s suits to the church donation center. She goes to yoga. She starts to cry. She gets up and goes back to the church and takes the suits back, but drops them a few thousand dollars in cash for their trouble—cash Ray had given her just a few hours previous, as he comes to pick up clothes and drop off dirty laundry. This cycle of compromise and obligation in her marriage is expressed through objects that change hands between her and her husband; what’s fascinating is that the church and yoga, two different forums of spirituality, are roped into it. I like how quietly the script juxtaposes the spiritual experience of charity and of shivasana, showing that Abby draws something from both, but also that both ultimately fail her in solving her problem, which is that she’s having trouble in her marriage. It’s a surprisingly psychologically nuanced subplot, one that’s rewarding in how well it’s thought out, and Malcomson delivers the understated performance it needs.
But juxtapose this with Mickey’s storyline of the week, and it’s like the stories are from two different shows. The family-friendly title of this episode comes from a scene where Mickey, ever-appropriate, goes to a public library to watch Youtube videos of African-American women dancing provocatively (twerking, to be exact). It’s a strange scene to watch, primarily because you get the impression that it’s supposed to be funny. But then again—we also see the reaction shots from other patrons of the library, looking disgusted, so maybe that’s how we’re supposed to feel? I’m interested in multiple interpretations, but the fact that it’s so ambiguous is a problem. What are we supposed to gain from seeing Mickey act out? Three episodes in, Ray Donovan has not answered this question.
I do have a theory. Given creator Ann Biderman’s track record in strong shows (as we’ve noted in earlier reviews, she created Southland and worked on NYPD Blue), I’m wondering if Mickey is intended as a commentary on the oft-glamorized crime boss. He’s astonishing unsympathetic—indeed, almost deliberately unsympathetic. There’s almost no way to see Mickey as anything except a shameless, contemptible man, one who has no interest in hiding his homophobia, racism, misogyny, or gleeful depravity. He’s a caricature, in a cast of if not totally nuanced than at least somewhat three-dimensional characters.
Maybe Mickey exists to subvert the trope of swaggering, criminal masculinity that’s often glorified in other artifacts of pop culture. After all, there is something glamorous about crime—especially crime committed by white men seen through a historical lens—and Hollywood has made hay capitalizing on that glamour. The wisecracking, macho criminal is revealed for what he is—a manipulative character who is so embedded in his own mythos of himself that he cannot experience real emotion for anyone or anything in his life; a man whose only joy appears to be in offending others. Most of the characters are imprisoned in their own emotional turmoil; Mickey gleefully skims the surface, avoiding both the turmoil and any real human connection. This is most brutally portrayed in the scene where Mickey is kicked out of the sexual abuse support group, after making one too many jokes about these people’s personal tragedy. Even Bunchy, up until now his ally, has had enough by then.
The question remains if Mickey is truly trying to reconnect with his family or if he has another, likely sinister, motive. It looks as if Ray Donovan is going to tell us what motivates Mickey sooner or later—the closing minutes of “Twerk” reveal a new character, an FBI agent who has used Mickey as an informant. The final scoreless scene is surprisingly suspenseful, and could be the injection of plot the show desperately needs.
Because for all of the interesting character work, the plot is still sort of nonexistent. I am curious about the events presented, but the stakes are totally obscure, hidden in all the secrets of the Donovan family. The only thing that seems to matter this week is that the Donovan marriage is in some jeopardy. So, unsurprisingly, the most emotionally resonant scene is Ray and Abby making up after the fundraiser. True, they’re having sexytimes, but it’s meaningfully intimate, and manages to speak to the love the characters have for each other. Nothing else manages to get quite that far.
- This is the first episode not written by Ann Biderman, and I think some of its strength derives from a bit more distance from the characters. The plot feels like it has more room to breathe.
- I am curious about the racial undertones of the show—why is the episode called “Twerk”? Why does Mickey unapologetically fetishize black women? Why is Ray’s daughter “corrupted” by a young black man, a boy “bought” from his mother for an adult rapper? As Mickey objectifies the gyrating rear end of black women on screen, a black boy objectifies the rear end of Mickey’s white granddaughter. This is significant, but I cannot tell you how.
- Terry asks his nurse out on a date: “You like spaghetti? Good.” And then as he’s walking away, a brilliant smile crosses his face. Another moment of perfection from Eddie Marsan.