Showtime's "Ray Donovan" plunges viewers into the world of the show's eponymous lead character, a Los Angeles fixer who helps repair the image of Hollywood celebrities while attempting to keep his own family from unraveling, a more difficult task.
Punctuated by violent dramatic sequences and a decent amount of wily, dark humor, "Ray Donovan" (10 p.m. Sunday) is another version of the antihero show that's become so popular on cable networks in recent years.
The show turns out to be heavier on family drama than it initially lets on. Early scenes focus on Ray (Liev Schreiber) on the job, handling the situation when a celebrity athlete wakes up with a dead woman in his bed and helping a young action-hero movie star maintain his tough-guy reputation after he's spotted giving oral sex to a transsexual hooker.
Ray's work life offers the show's most entertaining moments, which bring to mind the idiot-denizens-of-Los-Angeles who populated TNT's recently canceled "Southland," which, like "Ray Donovan," was created by writer Ann Biderman.
But unlike "Southland," which was almost obsessively focused on the work life of Los Angeles cops, "Ray Donovan" spends a lot of time dealing with Ray and his family. Structurally, "Ray Donovan" is rather similar to "The Sopranos." Stories move between Ray's family and job as he tries to find a balance between them. Ray isn't seeing a shrink -- at least not yet -- but he does have issues with one of his parents, another "Sopranos" similarity.
An early scene in "Ray Donovan" shows Ray's father, Mickey (Jon Voight), being released from prison in Massachusetts and attending to his first order of business: murdering a priest.
Ray and his business associates, Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) and Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson), may have had a hand in Mickey's incarceration. So they're not eager for him to be on the outside. Ray wants Mickey nowhere near his family, but his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), thinks Ray's concerns about his father are overblown, perhaps even pathological.
"You're sick, Ray," she says in a Boston accent that's more glaring than that of any of the other Boston-bred characters. "You've got a hole in your heart."
Ray's brothers, Parkinson's-afflicted Terry (Eddie Marsan) and addict Bunchy (Dash Mihok), are less terrified of their father; all three siblings mourn the death of a sister.
The dreary, often predictable family story begins to suffocate the show as it gains ground over the first four episodes. Whether it continues in that direction remains an open question until more episodes are available.
"Ray Donovan" benefits from strategic use of character actors in supporting roles. In addition to Mr. Gould, the show's first season will include regular, recurring or guest appearances by Katherine Moennig ("Three Rivers," "The L Word"), Austin Nichols ("John From Cincinnati"), Johnathon Schaech ("That Thing You Do!"), James Woods ("Shark"), Frank Whaley ("Swimming With Sharks"), Brooke Smith ("Grey's Anatomy") and even Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar from "Star Trek: The Next Generation").
'Donovan' local connections
David Hollander, the Mt. Lebanon-born creator of CBS's "The Guardian," is among the writer/co-executive producers working on "Ray Donovan." It's his first time writing for a show he hasn't also been in charge of, something that's becoming more common on Showtime series (just about every writer on "Homeland" has been a showrunner on his or her own series at some point).
It's also Mr. Hollander's first time writing for a premium cable drama.
"It allowed us the freedom to explore areas of human behavior you just don't do directly on network or basic cable," Mr. Hollander said this week in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "It's the ability to not have to create metaphor, to be direct in behavior, in language, in sexuality, in violence; core behaviors we usually have to dance around."
At the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January in Pasadena, Calif., Ms. Biderman said she was drawn to Mr. Hollander's writing after reading an unproduced script he wrote for HBO about life in a prison.
"I liked his voice," she said. "And an additional benefit was he'd had lots of experience writing for television. He really knew the form, and he's been a big help."
Mr. Hollander said the themes in Ms. Biderman's story appealed to him, including the relationship between a father and son (as seen in Mr. Hollander's "The Guardian"), middle-age men struggling to find their place, relationships between siblings and the notion of strangers-in-a-strange-land as Ray and his Boston clan try to adjust to life in Southern California, something Mr. Hollander relates to as a Western Pennsylvania native in California
"When I read the script it was such a fit for a world I know very well that there was no doubt in reading it that I felt immediately at home in the themes and stories Ann had generated," he said. "And to do it not my way -- to do it her way -- was really fascinating to me. To work with somebody who has a distinctly different world view and a distinctly different dramaturgy was fascinating."
Mr. Hollander isn't the only "Ray Donovan" local connection: Ron Nyswaner, a Greene County native and 1978 University of Pittsburgh graduate, wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1993 film "Philadelphia." "Ray Donovan" marks his first time writing for a TV series.
Soaps back to TV
After getting canceled by ABC and revived for online streaming, the daytime soaps "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" will return to TV for a 10-week limited engagement run on cable's OWN.
The shows will air at 1 and 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday beginning July 15. The first 40 episodes that have already debuted online will air on OWN.
CBS's "Under the Dome" is the hit of the summer broadcast TV season, drawing 13.5 million viewers, which makes it the highest-rated summer drama series premiere since "2000 Malibu Road" in 1992. ... Cable had its own hit with Discovery's "Skywire Live With Nik Wallenda," which drew 10.7 million viewers on Sunday. Mr. Wallenda will discuss his tightrope walk over the Grand Canyon in "Skywire: Nik Talks the Walk" (8 p.m. Sunday, Discovery Channel). ... Encore will re-air the 1980s miniseries "V" at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday with the sequel, "V: The Final Battle," re-airing at 10 a.m. July 14. ... OWN ordered an additional 16 episodes of Tyler Perry drama series "The Haves and the Have Nots," which will continue airing through Sept. 3 with more new episodes in 2014. ... The dumbing down of American political discourse seems sure to continue this fall when CNN revives "Crossfire" with Newt Gingrich and S.E. Cupp on the right and Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones on the left.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "The Little Couple," "Pawn Stars" and "Vegas." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "P.O.V.," "Minute to Win It," "Hemlock Grove" and TV testing for stage productions. Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Mad Men," "Under the Dome" and "Copper." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.