‘Family Entertainment’ with Violence, Crime and Sleaze


I do have to ask myself, given my progressive ideals – pacifism being a major one – why I can enjoy entertainment with violence as a major skein. This occurred to me as I was about to watch a recent episode of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, which recently completed its fourth season.

Donovan is a Hollywood fixer for hire who sometimes resorts to violence to get his jobs done. He always done so with an air of regret but a determination to achieve his goals. The show isn’t easy watching if violence disturbs or offends you. But violence, crime and sleaze are sadly facts of life, and kindling if not fuel for compelling drama.

And those elements add up to one of the finest original crime shows ever, seen on its home network Showtime and now other digital TV providers. It’s not easy viewing, but it’s undoubtably gripping and satisfying entertainment that’s become my current favorite Sunday night premium cable channel offering, standing head to shoulder with such monumental series as The Sopranos, The Wire and at least the first season of True Detective. (As an aside, I must say that I rate that last show’s second season much higher than the severe drubbing it got from critics).

Liev Schreiber shines as the show’s titular antihero. And like all great flawed dramatic characters that fall under that rubric, he does have his own strong and in a perverse way admirable moral code. I’d sum it by borrowing a line that resonates for me in the song “Absolutely Sweet Marie” by Bob Dylan: “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

One characteristic that I find is a major skein in all the best TV dramas is family. And Ray Donovan is no exception.

The Donovans are Boston Catholic shanty Irish who have carried with them to Southern California much of the baggage that can afflict those of that background: crime, jail, sexual abuse by priests and family suicide. These elements do provide a backstory that leads into pungent family drama. The show’s milieu of both the powerful and elite in Los Angeles and the city’s underworld are shared with many great artistic and entertainment works, most notably by way of a complimentary reference in Ray Donovan to the pioneering hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler.

And the show illuminates how family can be both a blessing as well as a source of almost inescapable curses.

Then there’s the matter of Jon Voight, a notoriously rabid right winger who plays Donovan’s scheming and slippery father. I interviewed Voight in the early ’80s, and it was one of the most near-inspiring hours I’ve spent with a creative talent among the many hundreds I’ve done. The man was, to say the least, intense. But unlike so many in the entertainment game I’ve spoken with, he was eager to really engage with me. I appreciate that.

He also insisted that I had to read the book he was reading at the time: The Last Temptation of Christ. It was many years later that I finally did so. I am certain that my take on it differs greatly from Voight’s. But he was correct that it’s more or less required reading for any literate soul.

I also know and have worked with Voight’s brother, singer-songwriter Chip Taylor, a fine fellow who I can be sure isn’t going to vote for Trump. But as too many of have found, we have close relatives who have bought into The Donald’s con job. His daughter Angelina Jolie’s fervent work for many good causes – especially the plight of children in under- and undeveloped nations – do provide some kind of karmic counterweight.

And his work in the series are such a tour de force for this acclaimed actor that I simply can’t let his politics blemish how much his work delights and even stuns me. As Mickey Donovan, the paterfamilias of Ray’s clan that brings little else but major complications into his son’s life, he delivers not just the performances of his now long lifetime.

As Ray Donovan has wrapped up its fourth season and was renewed for its fifth, it’s a fine time to delve in, catch up, and likely find yourself as captivated as I am. The series is certifiably can’t miss TV, and gritty contemporary storytelling that’s nonetheless high art.

Populist Picks

Documentary Film: Trinidad – The small Western Colorado town of this movie’s title is the world capital of sex-change operations. With a brimming sensitivity to the currently major and to some hot-button matter of transgenderism, this fascinating doc examines the issue of gender orientation and it personal and social implications via the community at large and such individuals as the post-op transsexual doctor who performs and has perfected the operations. Evocative and important viewing.

Documentary Film: Song Of The South: Duane Allman And The Rise Of The Allman Brothers – At first blush this may seem your typical TV telling of a rock’n’roll band’s story with the usual talking heads and live performance clips. But the story itself and the group’s musical and cultural significance along with largely insightful commentary by those who knew and worked with the band alongside analysis by music critics raises this music doc above the rabble.

Book: Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label by Mick Houghton – Within this coffee table-sized paperback history of the record company that brought artists like Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, The Doors, Butterfield Blues Band The Stooges and a number of other notable acts to the public one finds a rich cultural history and visual delights galore. Well worth searching out for music buffs.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016


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