‘Ray Donovan’ Goes Deeper This Season

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

As the current season of Ray Donovan proceeds, the show gets better and better, even as Liev Schreiber’s Ray gets deeper and deeper into the dirtiest muck of life. The July 24 episode concluded with Ray’s dad, Mickey (Jon Voight), turning himself in to the cops to take the rap for a number of murders he didn’t commit, all to help out Ray — and if there’s one thing Ray cannot bear, it’s any suggestion of decent humanity in his con-man father. It’s no wonder the show put Warren Zevon’s rueful outlaw song “Desperados Under the Eaves” beneath the final moments of the episode.

Last week, the episode titled “Fish and Bird” featured some exceptional scenes. There was the baptism ceremony for Bunchy’s infant daughter Maria. There were uncommonly tender moments in which Ray and wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) discussed her breast-cancer diagnosis. There were appalling scenes of the suffering endured by a young Russian woman brought to this country by thugs. And most striking of all, there was the extraordinary scene between Ray and Embeth Davidtz’s morally compromised art dealer, Sonia, in which she revealed her own breast-cancer story — a subplot made all the more moving for the artful way it incorporated Davidtz’s own, real-life breast-cancer-survivor experience.

And in the episode airing this Sunday, Hank Azaria makes a triumphant return as disgraced FBI agent Ed Cochran. Ray pulls the oily Cochran into yet another phase of the Mickey-in-jail mess. But I’m just glad Azaria is back, because his performance is so low-down, rattlesnake mean — and because he kicks off a subtext that lasts through the hour. No spoilers, but I’ll just say it revolves around the Easybeats’ 1967 British Invasion hit “Friday on My Mind.” (Bonus actor this week: Reginald VelJohnson, playing off his Family Matters fame, as a guy stuck in a lousy but highly successful sitcom.)

I’m frankly surprised Ray Donovan has been so compelling this season. Ever since show creator Ann Biderman left the series in 2014, Donovan has been much more uneven, sometimes overwrought, and occasionally downright ridiculous. There have been regular moments when I ask myself questions like: How can a woman like Abby stay with a stiff, emotionally inert guy like Ray? How many times is Ray going to reject his father, only to relent and end up helping him? When are Ray’s faithful assistants Avi (Steven Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moennig) going to get fed up with Ray’s ceaseless demands and walk away? And why does every woman Ray meets inevitably fall for him, to some degree of intensity or another?

What’s been lost with Biderman’s departure has been the rigorous hard-boiled tone that made Ray Donovan such a good example of Los Angeles noir. Nowadays, the plots overseen by producer-writer David Hollander are much more uneven and often shamelessly sentimental or melodramatic. But Hollander’s version of Ray Donovan has a quality completely different from Biderman’s: an air of romantic risk, an undeniable gift for pulling off an extravagant scene when you least expect it.

Thus it was with that sixth-episode scene between Sonia and Ray, in which she first insists on Ray’s vulnerability, much against his instincts, and then in the revelation of her own health condition. It would have been so easy to botch this setup, which rests on an almost unbelievable coincidence — that the woman Ray is employed by has endured the same disease that Ray’s wife now has. But Hollander’s script carried you past the niceties of dramatic logic to get to an unshakable emotional truth: People who have suffered are sometimes capable of bringing great comfort to those who are also suffering.

I have no idea where Ray Donovan is going as it moves toward the conclusion of its season, and, believe me, I’m worried about its ongoing quality. (Is Ray’s son really going to be stupid enough to shoot someone out of foolish bravado? Are we ever going to resolve the soap-opera problems of Bunchy’s marriage and let precious little Maria have the security of two engaged parents?) But I’m rooting for the show with an enthusiasm I never thought I’d have when it got off to its rocky start this season.

Ray Donovan airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on Showtime.