Showtime’s ‘Ray Donovan’ is a knockout

Ray Donovan

10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime

You can’t take your eyes off of Ray Donovan, nor should you – and not just because this is a guy you don’t want to turn your back on.

“Ray Donovan,” the terrific new drama from Showtime, is about the ultimate Hollywood “fixer” who can clean up any mess except his own dysfunctional family. Whether you’re a studio boss who doesn’t trust his mistress, or a transvestite hustler trying to blackmail a closeted he-man action star, Ray Donovan’s your man.

But the other reason you can’t take your eyes off Donovan is because the character is so brilliantly underplayed by Liev Schreiber. Through the four episodes sent to critics, including Sunday’s premiere, there is scene after scene of Schreiber’s tortoise-like features barely moving as he goes about beating up a Peeping Tom who’s been warned to stay away from a young woman, or trying to convince his long-suffering wife that he wants their marriage to survive. With the smallest facial adjustment, Schreiber can communicate anger, resentment, regret or love. The performance is minimalist to the max.

Among the many elements that make “Ray Donovan” so good is that it really isn’t another Hollywood TV show. Yes, it’s set in Los Angeles, and Donovan works for a powerful law firm whose client roster includes the rich and powerful of the film industry. But the show is as much about Ray’s Boston roots, as represented by his two brothers who also live in L.A.

All three Donovans are broken men, in one way or another, which is one of the reasons Ray has trouble “fixing” the family. His brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) is a drunk and a drug addict who is about to get a $1.4 million settlement from the Boston Archdiocese because he was abused as a boy by a priest. Brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) is a sweet-natured sad sack whose boxing career has left him with Parkinson’s disease. The brothers run a gym called the Fite Club.

The brothers are all haunted by their shared past, including the suicide of their sister when she was a teenager.

They also share dear old dad, who just arrived in Los Angeles after being released from prison in Boston. A kingpin of the Irish mob, Mickey is giddily unrepentant. The first thing he does on getting out of the joint is to take care of some unfinished business – permanently. Now that he’s in Los Angeles, he wants to reconnect with his sons.

For his own sake as well as his brothers’, that’s the last thing Ray wants. It’s bad enough that Mickey is back in the lives of the brothers, but when the old man worms his way into Ray’s own family, something has to be done.

Every magnificently minimal moment in Schreiber’s performance is beautifully countered by a gargantuan embodiment of pure evil and utter shamelessness by Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan.

Equally fine work is to be found throughout the cast, especially from Elliott Gould as one of the partners in the firm Ray works for. He’s a little doddering, is given to lapsing into Yiddish when his mind wanders and is offended that his mistress shows up for the memorial service for his late wife, but Gould’s Ezra is a mensch compared with his partner, the hyper foulmouthed Lee Drexler (Peter Goldman).

All of this magic owes largely to one person, the show’s creator, Ann Biderman, who also wrote the pilot episode. She won an Emmy as a writer for “NYPD Blue” and created “Southland,” one of the best cop shows on TV.

Yet, walking among the schmoozers, the face-lifts, the finely tuned public imagery, the phony bonhomie and perma-tans, the Donovans are almost refreshingly real, warts and all.

At heart, this is a show about good and evil, but sometimes the catch – for both the characters and the audience – is knowing which is which. You won’t be able to stop watching.