TV review: Solid’s often not enough when following in the footsteps of “The Sopranos”

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From the June 27, 2013 edition

When “Ray Donovan” premieres Sunday (on television; the pilot is available online) it’ll be another antihero-focused series in a TV landscape littered with them. The antihero has come to define this current era of television, and one has to wonder if the market is saturated.

The recent, tragic death of James Gandolfini is probably still fresh in my mind, but it’s hard to not think of his transformative role on “The Sopranos” when it comes to shows like “Ray Donovan” attempting an antihero premise. The archetype is everywhere now, but only a few are compelling and complex enough to warrant fascination at a Tony Soprano level.

Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is a Hollywood fixer using equal measure of cunning and menace. He can save two reputations — athlete with an overdosed girl, action star whose sexuality is questioned — with heartless choreography. Or, just show up in your living room asking, “The bat or the bag?”

Manipulation at work is easy for Ray, but family is tricky. His wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) is supportive, yet demandings brothers, Terry (Eddie Marsan) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), have their own incompetency. It all gets trickier when Ray’s father Mickey (Jon Voight) is released from prison early.

This dynamic is hardly original, and the pilot is almost unbearably rote. Only the aforementioned bat or bag scenario produces unexpected results. But “Ray Donovan” improves in three subsequent episodes becoming worthwhile, even compelling at times.

Much of this is due to Schreiber’s charismatic strong-very-silent-type portrayal and some interesting work in supporting roles: the brothers and Voight being very Voight-like with Mickey. Malcomson’s skills are unfortunately underused at best, poorly written at worst. Despite everyone’s best efforts “Ray Donovon” isn’t breaking the antihero mold, merely filling it.

Circling back to Gandolfini, who made Tony an extraordinary combination of lovable, loathsome and vulnerable all at once, Ray Donovan — as a series or character — is solid, but not there yet. Yes, comparing a new series and its lead to the best isn’t a fair match. But if you’re going to follow in the footsteps of everyone — even the greats — you have to be unmatched.