AMERICAN television is hooked on antiheroes. Everywhere you turn, critics and audiences are falling over themselves to revel in the misadventures and Machiavellian manoeuvres of Mad Men’s Don Draper or Breaking Bad’s Walter White. A fleeting and by no means comprehensive rush through modern American adult drama suggests the antihero is de rigueur. Not that DVD Letterbox would hint this supports its contention from a few weeks back that the entire genre is perhaps overrated.
A while ago, The Sopranos’ Tony was the antihero of choice and one of the first we saw on a medium that was more interested in creating characters that would appease and warm a mass market. Then came The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty and an aberration on free-toair television, House’s Dr Gregory House, a misanthrope who fixed people.
Now you can’t turn on a television without seeing Californication’s Hank; Dexter’s Dexter; Nurse Jackie; the entire cast of Sons of Anarchy; Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky; or House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Which, come to think of it, is why Orange is the New Black’s Piper was so refreshing.
Not that one would blindly dismiss an antihero as an entertainment. After all, we’re all so schooled in how to read television and film today, only the characters who defy or up-end narrative conventions maintain our attention.
Look at director Christopher Nolan, for instance. He built a career, and arguably spawned the subsequent success of the Marvel movie series, by delivering a flawed superhero, The Dark Knight, not the allconquering superhero.
Which is a convoluted way of asking this week’s DVD question: did television need another antihero, in Ray Donovan (MA15+, Paramount, 610min, $54.99)?
It did if he is played by Liev Schreiber. He plays the title character, a “fixer” for an LA law firm who would not be lost in an Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy novel.
He is the conventional antihero, always able to clean up messes while fending off the ladies and smouldering like stars do. More unconventional is the layering of his world — populated by the amoral and awkward milieu of Hollywood malcontents — with a dysfunctional clan of brothers and a dad from Boston. So it’s Dennis Lehane meets modern Ellroy — created by Southland’s Ann Biderman.
Ray’s immediate family is merely a fly in his ointment next to the maelstrom of his ex-con father, Mickey (Jon Voight), and two brothers — Terry (Eddie Marsan) former boxer suffering from Parkinson’s and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), an alcoholic who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Voight gives one of his better performances. Indeed, this is one of the better ensembles on TV.
If you can overcome the lead character’s brooding, then the family dynamics will hook you. Yes, we do need another antihero.