Ray Donovan: “A Mouth Is A Mouth”
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Ray Donovan: “A Mouth Is A Mouth”

The title of “A Mouth Is A Mouth” comes from a scene where grandpa Mickey tells his grandson Connor that if he’s gay, it’s okay to let a boy go down on him, “because a mouth is a mouth,” but don’t let anybody take you in the ass, because that’s how you get diseases.

To which Connor replies cheerily, “Thanks, Grandpa Mickey!”

The sheer laziness of Ray Donovan’s vulgarity is affronting. The show is taking advantage of being on cable to be titillating, but titillation without substance is just pornographic. Countless new cable shows trying to be the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad have substituted provocation for plot. As repulsive as I found this scene, I was moved by other moments of “A Mouth Is A Mouth,” and I’m as surprised by that as you are.

Ray Donovan has so much potential, as Todd VanDerWerff wrote in his review of the pilot last week—and yet so many weaknesses, as well. The semiotically lazy storytelling I described above is a perfect example of a scene that is determined to offend you, so it goes well out of its way to produce something a) heinous but also b) terribly unrealistic. I imagine that we’re supposed to feel anxiety for the corrupted youth—to contribute to the anxiety that we’re to feel about Mickey’s renewed presence in the Donovan family now that he’s out of prison—but this is such a cheap manipulation that it’s too outrageous to be taken seriously. In short, I recoiled, and then I laughed. The kid’s adoring expression as he’s absorbing grandpa’s advice is kind of the money shot. Thanks, creepy Jon Voight!

Here’s the problem: Mickey has no obvious role in the show at present. It’s easy to get that we’re supposed to be nervous that he’s out of prison, but it’s very hard to understand why. The first thing he did was kill the priest responsible for his son’s rape—surely that’s noble, in the crime world? What else did he do? And are they really going to drag out the reveal about his true badness over the course of an entire season, foreshadowed heavily (and badly) by stray comments about suicidal Bridget and bad dream sequences? I think the answer is yes, which is unfortunate, because it already feels like the show is most interesting when creepy Jon Voight isn’t mucking up the works. His vagueness of character brings down every scene he’s in—he’s so broadly drawn he’s farcical, but no one acknowledges that, preferring instead to take every ridiculous pronouncement he makes at total face value. He has the depth and imagination of a video-game villain. 

Ray Donovan would have made more sense if some of the reveals about Mickey were spaced out. For example, in the pilot, the priest’s murder could have been the first information we see—an event that would have triggered some kind of emotional response in Bunchy, providing the exposition necessary there—and then built through Mickey’s return to a closing revelation that Mickey pulled the trigger on his first day out of prison. That might frame the show as an exploration of a father-son relationship, which I think is one of the things that Ray Donovan is looking to explore.

As it is, I don’t really know what we’re exploring. One of the reasons the pacing is so muddled is because the show has no idea what it’s doing yet. Todd drew comparisons to Scandal last week—but I find myself wishing that Ray Donovan could borrow from another great show, Revenge. That’s a show that knows how to build up suspense and mystery—to time a reveal, to draw you into the lives of the characters. As it is, the reveals have almost entirely all been delivered (half-brother Darryl could have had a better story), and the only obvious one remaining is what really happened around Bridget’s suicide. 

But there are already a few characters that have semi-bewitched me, and I’ve just barely started watching. One is Eddie Marsan’s Terry Donovan, an internal, haunting character that manages to carry every scene he’s been given. He’s an emotionally meaty character, a kind but scarred man, that reminds me a bit of Game Of Thrones’ Hound. I already want to know what happens to him—“A Mouth Is A Mouth” opens and closes on scenes with Terry, and his experience feels the most important, the most real, of anyone yet. By contrast, Bunchy’s emotional landscape is more told than shown, so I haven’t yet developed a soft spot for him.

The other character I am rooting for already is Katherine Moennig’s Lena, better known as Shane from The L Word. Moennig herself doesn’t have a ton of range, but she’s working her shtick really well as Lena, the gruff and loyal girl Friday in Ray’s day job. I like the subtlety of her role.

There’s also something very interesting about her (muted) queer status and “A Mouth Is A Mouth”’s case of the week, which is covering up an action star’s blow-job video with a transgendered person. There are enough social-justice words in just that summary to start a firestorm on Tumblr—but more than that, I’m interested in how homophobia plays into the performances of masculinity of Ray, his father, and his son (who is briefly shown instant-messaging the same action star as the episode closes). Ray, clearly, is a softie, the kind of man’s man with a good heart that Jon Hamm plays so well as Don Draper. His motivations to violence are driven primarily by the idea of enforcing “justice,” or even more broadly, “the good.” He’s moved to help Chloe, the trans person in question; he welcomes Lena; he reserves judgment from all of the sexual politics that plays out in front of him. His guiding moral principle is something like protect the weak; so he’s moved to help the pop starlet, even though she’s unstable. So he continues to watch Bunchy, even though Bunchy is theoretically old enough to take care of himself. But as any antihero from the last decade of television might tell you, “doing good” is a tricky path to stay on, and his father is clearly being set up as another man who has had his issues with that path.

It’s a good idea, but it’s scattered. Two episodes in, and I still don’t know what is the driving focus of Ray Donovan. There’s certainly a broad, diffuse theme about family; brotherhood, fatherhood, duty, loyalty, tough love. There are multiple types of families interacting with each other on-screen; Ray’s nuclear family at home, his brothers and now father at the boxing gym, and his coworkers, a mish-mash of hired hands who are devoted to one another. Is the show about the conflict between these families? Or is it about how they all move together? Maybe it’s about Ray himself, as he tries to “fix” his own life, instead of everyone else’s? Or perhaps it’s about not repeating the sins of your fathers as you go forward in your own life, raising your own children? Unfortunately, I have no idea—but fortunately, these are all good questions. It’s weird—the writers and producers are clearly playing with all the right pieces, but they don’t know how to put them all together yet. I’m cautiously optimistic that they can figure it out.

Stray observations:

  • Too many Jewish stereotypes ruin both Jewish characters. Both are ridiculous.
  • So, is Darryl dead now? Because if so, well, that was fast.
  • Even though it’s frustratingly slow-moving, I am enjoying the storyline with Ray and Abby’s marriage. It might be the strongest element of the show.
Filed Under: TV, Ray Donovan

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