Episode Four of Showtime’s new drama Ray Donovan opens with our hero staring out a pair of French doors at a snowy countryside landscape while classical music plays WHEN, WITHOUT WARNING: A reflection in the glass. It’s his dad, Mickey (Jon Voight), screwing Ray’s secretary Lena with a terrifying, wide-eyed expression and a series of grunts. (Yes, it’s as disturbing as it sounds.) The music has changed to sexy R&B. Cut to Donovan (Liev Schreiber) for a reaction shot, and his emotional spectrum—narrow to a claustrophobic degree—allows us to see a faint whiff of puzzlement. When we cut back to Mickey, the woman has changed; he’s now with Donovan’s wife, Abby. On a third shot, you only see the top of the girl’s head, but I think the girl has changed into Ray’s teenage daughter Bridget, though the camera doesn’t reveal enough to know for sure.
You know what happens next. Ray wakes up with a start, life goes on, and we’re supposed to be left with an ominous feeling that seeps into our bones for the rest of the episode. This is the kind of quasi-mystic interlude that The Sopranos did so well—a driving symbolism, eerie and effective—but when Ray Donovan attempts it, the result mimics the rest of the show. Which is to say, it’s an embarrassment. Not because the sequence itself was necessarily horrible, though it’s more garish by far than anything David Chase would’ve allowed. No, the problem is that the rest of the episode (called “Black Cadillac”) is so incredibly pedestrian, predictable and meaningless that attempting to garnish it with an artistic prologue is like placing a golden crown on the head of a beggar. It reeks of pretension to an almost comic degree.
Last week, there were hints and implications that Ray Donovan might be transitioning from the overwhelming failure of the first two episodes into something irreparably flawed, but at least mildly entertaining. “Black Cadillac” was a huge step back, and the only way I can make sense of it is to revisit the muddled plot in list form.
1. The conflict of the episode is set up immediately with—of course—a television cliche. Ray is trying to implicate his father for the murder of a priest (and fair enough, because Mickey is guilty) in order to get him sent back to prison, and the arrest is supposed to happen today. But guess what? This is also the day he and his wife are taking the kids to a sweet private school in the hopes of getting them admitted. Abby starts the episode by nagging him about work (“I asked for one day,” she screams, in what remains the world’s worst South Boston accent) and never stops. You can guess how the string plays out—in the midst of fancy private school world, replete with cartoonish villains conducting verbal class warfare in order to help us side with the Donovans, Ray repeatedly leaves important meetings, presentations and conversations in order to take business calls, while Abby becomes more and more furious.
2. Mickey, it turns out, is an FBI informant who can possibly unravel a Boston criminal network, so he’s not going to take the fall for his holy killing. This happens almost without explanation, as if real-life murder is such a minor thing that an FBI agent can just waltz into a police station and say, “by the way, you can’t arrest this guy because he might have information I need,” and the cops just throw up their hands and say, “what a world!”
3. Meanwhile, Mickey is taking his abused son Bunchy and his illegitimate son Pooch for a reunion with Pooch’s mother. On the way, he dispenses a piece of life wisdom: “Great kids come from great fucks.” He goes on to say that while Pooch is the result of a great fuck, Bunchy’s mom was just a good cook. And the big worry for me is that this might impact his chances for the “South Boston Father of the Year” award. On a serious note, though, this is the kind of interaction that really grates on me with this show. The writers clearly wanted us to see (yet again) that Mickey is a crap dad who can’t censor himself, but instead of using an ounce of subtlety, they hit us with a sledgehammer of dialogue that’s so unrealistic and cruel that it has no emotional impact. We can’t believe it; this isn’t close to “real life,” even in the artistic sense of that expression. Again, it’s a cartoon.
4. At the school, Ray’s son Conor punches the son of Stu Feldman, whose arm Ray broke a couple episodes ago after a verbal spat that could’ve come out of a Marxist comic book designed to make the point that all rich people are evil. At one point, some guy in a hotel room somewhere discovers that he’s being bugged when a microphone falls out of a picture while he’s having sex. Lena hears the discovery at the office, and phones Ray in a panic. Ray has to leave the school to go “clean up” the room, and while the unnamed thinks he’s hotel security, he’s actually there to remove any and all evidence of bugs. Again, I have to emphasize that unless I missed something in the throes of my boredom, we never learn who these people are. One of my big complaints from the first three episodes is that Ray’s job as a fixer for the rich and famous is only given short shrift in the midst of the family drama, and this is the most perfunctory treatment yet. It feels really, really lazy, like an afterthought shoehorned in just before the start of filming.
Anyway, the family leaves in disgrace, though it seems like Bridget might still attend. Abby is angry, Ray is chastened. Rinse, wash, repeat.
5. If you’re curious, Teddy (Ray’s other brother) continues to tumble down the autism spectrum in his ongoing attempt to date his nurse. He started as a gruff but likeable boxer in episode one and has devolved into Rain Man. Enough said.
6. Mickey reunites with his old flame, and you’ll never guess what kind of guy she’s now married to. Seriously, you’ll never guess. Unless, of course, you realize that the show only has like two or three tricks up its sleeves, and then maybe you can guess that she’s married to an asshole rich guy to continue the tortured class warfare motif. Anyway, she won’t get back together with him, but she will kiss him and pay him off and give him his old black Cadillac with a bunch of pornography in the trunk. Mickey and the kids take off, Bunchy steals some expensive cognac from the guy (fine, this was kind of funny), and then, for reasons that are never explained and I can’t begin to fathom, Mickey goes to a gay club and snorts some cocaine while dancing to the admittedly excellent, “”Now That We Found Love.
So, to summarize: “Black Cadillac” simultaneously bored me, insulted my intelligence, and baffled me. It’s become more—not less—of a confused mess over the first four episodes, and the prognosis for anything resembling quality is nil. I’m still holding out hope that it might deliver some guilty-pleasure entertainment before the season ends, but for that to happen the writers would need to abandon the endless cliches that prop the show up like rickety crutches. As it stands, we’re stuck with a poor Sopranos imitation vehicle and a few disturbing shots of Jon Voight in mid-coitus. And look, I’m all for being traumatized by television. But is it too much to ask that we have a little fun along the way?