The show has always lived on the edge. Ann Biderman created a fascinating anti-hero, a sociopath with a conscience. (Yes, I know that’s an oxymoron. Watch the show and see if you don’t agree with me.) Ray had a knack for creative solutions, often using one problem to solve another and getting what each client wants, though maybe not in the manner expected. Or hoped for. Too bad. What a lot of powerful people forget about someone like Ray is that once you ask him to get you out of trouble, he has something on you. Ray has a code, so your secret is safe. Unless you fuck with him.
The show rides on the backs of the Donovan boys: Ray (Liev Schreiber, who has becomeone of my favorite actors), Terry (Eddie Marsan), Bunchy (Dash Mihok), and the anti-matter to their matter, father Mickey (Jon Voight). Seasons One and Two played on the dynamics between them, exacerbated by Mickey’s criminal history and the brothers’ problems with a pedophile priest. Ray’s business associates Avi (Stephen Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moenning) were devoted to Ray for reasons never explained but understood, and he stood by them. His family—wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson), daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey), and son Conor (Devon Bagby) exist mainly to break Ray’s balls, as if he doesn’t have enough going on already.
Seasons One and Two worked because there was a line to how crazy things got. Ray always found a clever way out before things overwhelmed him altogether, and the solution never strained one’s suspension of disbelief.
Then Biderman left the show. I can’t find anything that said she was forced out—though she did appear to run over budget based on one account—and I did get the impression from interviews she prefers getting a project off the ground to keeping it running. For whatever reason, she left. And took her vision with her.
I’m big on vision in creative projects. As an old boss used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Biderman knew where she was going, and she knew how to get there. She had a gift for creative, multi-tiered solutions to Ray’s problems. Combining that with the interplay between the Donovan men made the first two seasons fascinating television I’ll definitely watch again.
Biderman’s replacement—I could look up his name, but don’t feel like it—lacks her gift for the clever solution, and doesn’t appear to understand how best to leverage the Donovan family dynamic. His solution is to keep creating more outrageous situations with solutions that require brute force more than wit. The best thing about Season Four was promoting Mickey’s son by a different mother, Daryll (Pooch Hall) into a more interesting part. Terry doesn’t do much more than run the gym, and Bunchy’s story has become a soap opera. Abby got breast cancer early in the season and made a miraculous recovery; Bunchy’s wife Teresa (Alyssa Diaz) comes down with post-partum depression and snaps out of it just in time to resolve a crisis. So, meh.
The worst failing in Season Four is Ray. He recovers from the wounds at the end of Season Four and takes six months to stop drinking and looking to live a better life. First problem he finds, and boom!! He’s worse than ever. He’s always asked Avi and Lena for extraordinary devotion, but they knew, no matter how much he broke their balls, he had their backs, and they owed him. In Season Four he’s become a prick with them, too, hanging them out to dry until Avi find himself in a situation—thanks to Ray—he can’t get out of. Ray comes through, but things have reached a point where one has to wonder what it is he did for Avi and Lena to inspire this level of devotion.
With all this in mind, will I watch Season Five when it’s ready? Damn right. Schreiber as Rayis too compelling to miss. His performance here got me to looking him up elsewhere and I’ve yet to find anything he doesn’t do well. (Examples: Spotlight, Pawn Sacrifice, Defiance, Goon. Yes, Goon. You don’t think he was good in Goon, I will lay you the fuck out.) The show’s worth watching just to see him and Jon Voight go at it. (And the other brothers, too, when the writers give them something worthwhile to do.) But the other reasons to watch get thinner by the year.