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Showtime Takes Tonal Detour With ‘Ray Donovan’

Sense of place drives L.A.-set, family-focused ensembler starring Liev Schreiber

Showtime’s new drama “Ray Donovan” blends gloss with grit — and plenty of inside-showbiz references.

Liev Schreiber plays the titular Hollywood fixer, an operative who handles dirty work for Hollywood’s elite while managing his own troubled family. The show embraces Los Angeles as a supporting character, with settings ranging from the Paramount gate to the lush campus of a tony L.A. private school.

Donovan,” which bows June 30, was the byproduct of creator Ann Biderman’s interest in the sordid side of Hollywood history, from the days of silent stars through the recent criminal prosecution of P.I- to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano. The milieu is a natural extension of Biderman’s previous TV series, the raw police drama “Southland.”

“Ray isn’t based on any particular person, but this character has existed as long as the movies have existed,” Biderman explained. “When you can’t call the cops, who do you call to protect enormous wealth
and reputation? Lawyers always have investigators, it’s just some use less-than-legal means.”

“Donovan” marks a tonal departure for Showtime with its family-centric storyline, especially when compared with the high-concept, serialized storytelling of “Dexter” or “Homeland.” The show is banking on the appeal of a strong ensemble cast that also includes Jon Voight — who has generated strong buzz in early reviews — as well as Frank Whaley, William Stanford Davis, Eddie Marsan, Dash Mihok and Devon Bagby.

Showtime is doing all it can to build word-of-mouth, making the pilot available for online viewing two weeks prior to its on-air premiere, and looping in sponsorships with sites like Gawker and Deadspin to promo the drama’s debut.

The early episodes of “Donovan” certainly offer a cheeky take on Hollywood, featuring a Paramount exec shacking up with a former Disney starlet, and name-checks of coveted private schools like Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough. Industry honchos may smirk at scenes of showbizzers hardballing one another to land their children spots at these elite college preps, something Schreiber noticed when he was shopping for schools for his kids. “Taking the temperature of the thing,” the thesp noted, “you got the sense it’s very competitive and causing a tremendous amount of anxiety for the parents.”

But Biderman also drew inspiration from a city far removed from Hollywood.

“I’d been thinking about Boston crime, and brothers, and a dynastic look at crime,” Biderman said, mentioning that Beantown crime lord Whitey Bulger was of particular interest to her.

As she did with “Southland,” Biderman did her research, consulting with lawyers, private investigators, FBI agents, security personnel, and even politicians.

For his part, Schreiber dove into docus about private eyes to assemble a hodge-podge of distinctive character traits for Donovan. And while he and his significant other, Aussie actress Naomi Watts, live in Gotham, he’s spent time in Los Angeles.

“There’s something about L.A.,” Schreiber said. “While it’s an exciting, glamorous place, (it’s) also one of the strangest and loneliest places on Earth. It’s a place where a lot of people come to make their dreams come true, and that’s a very dangerous and lonely endeavor sometime. … There’s a quality to our isolation that is distinctly appropriate for this show and central character.”

As dark a look at Los Angeles as “Donovan” can be at times, Biderman emphasized her reverence for the town.

“I’ve been living in L.A. for many years,” she said. “I never get tired of it, and have a great affection for the city. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me.”

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