In creating “Southland,” Ann Biderman conjured an image of L.A. that mixed the town’s surface glitz with its grimy underbelly. She returns to that territory with considerable success in “Ray Donovan,” a Showtime drama casting Liev Schreiber as a high-powered fixer — the guy to whom the “Entourage” gang would turn if Vinnie or Ari got caught with their pants down. Buoyed by a riveting supporting performance from Jon Voight, it’s a dense, highly organic world — at its best, playing like a present-day “Chinatown.” More often, it’s eminently entertaining, if not initially quite worthy of a spot alongside TV’s velvet-roped A-list.
As played by Schreiber, Ray is a taciturn Gary Cooper type — a modern gunslinger who doesn’t make idle threats or suffer fools gladly. The twist is he’s also a family man, a Boston transplant with a tough but ambitious wife (“Deadwood’s” terrific Paula Malcomson) who hates living out in suburban Calabasas (“Like the friggin’ Jersey Shore of L.A.,” she gripes) and yearns to secure their teenage kids spots in elite private schools.
Still, Ray’s circle goes well beyond that, and the farther he gets from home, the more sordid his life becomes. Beyond clients engaged in all sorts of questionable behavior, there are his two brothers: strung-out Bunchy (Dash Mihok) — who never emotionally recovered from being sexually abused by a priest — and ex-boxer Terry (Eddie Marsan), who still manages a gym while suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s thanks to all those blows to the head. (Seldom have onscreen brothers looked or seemed less related than this trio, but it’s a talented enough group to let that slide.)
Finally, there’s Ray’s criminal dad, Voight’s Mickey, unexpectedly paroled from prison after two decades, who shows up wanting to re-establish ties. Everyone but Ray seems to be onboard, but the old man’s quirks, foul mouth and roguish charm barely hide his underlying menace and ruthlessness — a mass of contradictions, yes, but never less than utterly compelling.
“Whatever you think happened, it was 10 times worse,” Ray says of life with father.
Even that doesn’t fully capture “Ray Donovan’s” teeming environs, as the early episodes (Allen Coulter directed three of the first five) introduce closeted Hollywood stars, athletes who awaken next to inconvenient bodies, sleazy studio execs and eccentric rappers, all part of a clientele Ray’s fast-talking partner (Peter Jacobson) embraces and coddles in the most colorful of terms.
In a way, it’s as if a darker “Entourage” wedded “Brotherhood,” a Showtime drama of a few years back about a tough New England family and mismatched brothers, with a dollop of “The Fighter” for good measure.
Granted, not all of the subplots work, but Biderman and company have quickly established a rich array of possibilities and deep bench of characters, even if a few too many fit familiar Hollywood stereotypes. And while it might not mean much beyond the L.A. market, the show does present the city’s sprawling geography and rhythms better than most programs set here.
Premiering alongside the final leg of Showtime’s longtime mainstay “Dexter,” the new series — with its own brooding, secretive leading man — seems well suited to become another Sunday-night destination.
Such are the benefits of getting into business with this fixer, especially when there’s so little about “Ray Donovan” that needs fixing.