Showtime really wants to be taken seriously. Long viewed as HBO's cheesier younger brother, the network has toiled over the past several years to make itself respectable, truly counted as one of the big boys in this new golden age of television. But, unfortunately, its shows typically wind up mistaking edginess for smarts, stooping at the last minute when they should continue reaching. Well, at least, that's the way it had been until recently. Things are, it seems, starting to change for Showtime, bit by interesting bit. The shabby family drama Shameless has matured into something surprisingly wise three seasons in — it's still got all of Showtime's lazy, weightless shock-value stuff, but there's a current of something else rippling throughout that gives the show a gracefulness we've heretofore not seen on the network. Then, of course, there's Showtime's big awards season success, Homeland, which certainly has the patina of prestige drama, even though it can be, yes, a little silly. And now there's Ray Donovan, which, based on what I've seen so far, represents another leap forward for the adolescent network.
Created by Southland's Ann Biderman, Ray Donovan (premiering this Sunday at 10) concerns a grimly proficient Los Angeles fixer — he solves unseemly problems for glitzy folks like rappers and movie stars — and his family, transplants from the hardscrabble streets of blue collar Boston, ruddy and accented and rarely up to much good. Ray is played by Liev Schreiber, an imposing actor who only occasionally offers slight hints at the teddybear buried within. He can be pretty scary, so when he does let a little twinkle in his eye suggest some softness, it comes as great comfort, pulling the viewer in closer. As such, he's a terrific choice to anchor a series like this, magnetic and powerful, alluringly aloof without being standoffish. Schreiber's is a keenly pitched performance, immediately drawing us into the show's world of messes cleaned up with no-nonsense efficiency.
Meanwhile at work, Ray is dealing with, among other calamities, an athlete with a dead hooker in his bed, a closeted mega movie star who gets caught picking up a transsexual hooker, and a frightened singer with a stalker. This stuff is where the series has the potential to get the most Showtime-y — doing lots of ta-das at how depraved and soulless and nasty its world is. And while there is a little of that, there's also plenty of real humanity filling each scene. Movie star Tommy (Austin Nichols) may be up to something sleazy in his text chats with Ray's son, but we also see the real struggle in him, the fear and self-loathing. The problems people have on Ray Donovan aren't there simply to prove the grimy futility of trying to change — the way they might be on something like the staggeringly nihilistic Weeds. Instead of that sneering cynicism, Ray Donovan possesses that rarest of things for a Showtime series: compassion. Biderman and her writers craft scripts that are gritty and dirty, yes, but there's also an almost existential mystery to the writing; the show is full of curious little moments of pause, of hushed and tingling thoughtfulness. Directors like Allen Coulter and John Dahl give the show the heft of artistry — the episodes end beautifully, keeping us dangling in the strange moods and rhythms of the show long after the credits have rolled.
I'm prepared to like Ray Donovan, much more than I thought I would. What sounded on paper like a guttural slog through ain't-it-crazy LA seediness is actually something more. Imbued with a chilly melancholy that hints at long, cold Boston winters better left forgotten, the show has an emotional resonance unlike much else on the network. I hope it can maintain that depth and richness as its various plots get more intricate. Because as is, it just might be the best thing Showtime has going.