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TV Review: ‘Ray Donovan’ Season 1, Episode 1 – ‘The Bag or the Bat’

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Ray Donovan is “sick.” That’s what you need to remember. He’s your typical Noir anti-hero: mysterious and slick, with a soft spot for a damsel in distress and a generally doomed outlook on life. But the mystery here isn’t who killed whom. The mystery is, “What’s wrong with Ray Donovan?”

Written by Southland creator, Ann Biderman, the pilot spends most of its time giving us the female perspective on Ray and, by extension, the female perspective on any Noir hero. Instead of basking in Ray’s slickness, the show sits down and psychoanalyzes him, scrutinizes him. The women of the show constantly ask the viewers, “What makes a male anti-hero tick?” The answers range from the simple, “You fall in love easily,” to the more abstract, “You have a hole in your heart.” And of course: daddy.

The plot of this episode is a little scatter-shot, but it’s obvious that Biderman is going for a long haul story here, so I’ll excuse her. Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is a fixer, somewhere between a private detective, a thug, and a publicist. Ray’s wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) wants to get Ray’s kids into a better school.

A potential client for Ray, Stu, is on the board of the school they want their kids to attend. So, Ray takes a job spying on Stu’s girlfriend, Ashley, who Stu thinks is cheating (despite the fact that Stu has a wife) as a quid pro quo. It all goes great up until Ray realizes that Ashley has a stalker. Ray, who apparently has a history with Ashley, feels obliged to tell her she’s got a stalker. He also tells her that Stu has hired him to spy on her. Ray finds the stalker and gives him one chance to back off or he gets the bat. Of course, once Stu finds out that Ray has told Ashley he was hired to follow her, he makes sure their kids never get into the school they want. On top of all that, Ray’s mentor, Ezra (played by Elliot Gould) is having a hard time getting a grip after the death of his wife. Meanwhile, Ray’s father (played by Jon Voigt, who has only gotten creepier with age) has just gotten out of jail. His cross-country trek home plays out like a distant but fast approaching storm front.

All of these stories seem to be circling the same point. The people (especially the men) in this world simply cannot control themselves. Ezra humiliates his mistress (Tasha Yar!) in one scene, then begs her to come back in the next, because he’s lonely. Ashley drinks even though she has epilepsy. Ray has to do the moral thing and tell Ashley she’s got a stalker, though it’ll cost him heavily. And of course, there is sex and drugs. The final moment, of course, hammers the point home so definitively, it can’t be missed. The unfortunate stalker returns to his stalking ways, despite Ray’s warning, and Ray has to take a bat to him. Of course, Ray isn’t really taking a bat to the stalker. He’s taking a bat to himself. He’s punishing himself for always doing what’s in his nature, despite his better judgment.

On the whole, The Bag or the Bat is a confident piece of storytelling. It’s clear that Biderman doesn’t just want to tell another Hollywood Noir. She wants to dissect one. The academic in me is excited about the chance to spend some time unraveling one of the most enduring American archetypes in film history. Meanwhile, the child in me just wants to see Liev Schreiber be a badass. I expect the best of both worlds.

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About Timothy Earle

Tim is an LA based fiction and script writer. He has decided to watch and review every TV pilot that airs in the US because he has little regard for his own happiness and well-being.