Friday, July 11, 2014

Hollywood Perils: Ray Donovan and The L.A. Complex

The following contains some spoilers.

It’s a mark of the laziness and myopia of most TV critics and the media that as with some movies, some of the best TV shows, particularly on cable, don’t get the ink and coverage they deserve. It’s as if certain shows are designated the ones that supposedly capture the zeitgeist of the moment and are worthy of consideration and thought and the other, often superior, shows are not acknowledged at all. Thus, True Detective, Mad Men, Fargo and, especially Orange is the New Black dominate the entertainment columns to the degree that you’d be hard pressed to think there were any other options to watch on TV. I can’t comment on Fargo as I wasn’t all that eager to check out a TV series based on a contemptuous movie I loathe, but I’ve seen the others. True Detective’s first season was a truly impressive achievement, graced with excellent acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (both deservedly recently nominated for Emmy awards) as cops chasing down a serial killer in rural Louisiana and a smart storyline, laden with fascinating, philosophical observations on life, love and death. But it was also too short (running a mere eight episodes) and, finally, a little too gothic, for my taste. (Kudos also to the HBO series for dispelling those backward Southern stereotypes so prevalent on American television.) The first season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (I have yet to watch season two), set in a minimum security women’s prison, boasted good performances and a different, fresh look at racial and sexual issues behind bars, minus most of the violence which would likely have been the raison d'être of a show set in a maximum security jail. But it was also singularly uneven, burdened with much one dimensional characterization and ponderous dialogue, courtesy of creator Jenji Kohan, who mucked up the promising Weeds a few years back in a similar crass fashion. And I long ago gave up on AMC’s Mad Men, which after its first season revealed itself to be a show with very little on its mind, despite pretensions to the contrary.

Those shows you’ve no doubt read about. But where are the articles on FX’s The Americans, the savvy, original look at Russian sleeper agents hiding out in the U.S. during Reagan’s presidency? Its first two seasons were gripping, unpredictable and very compelling. And then there’s The Bridge, beginning its second season on FX. It was a scary, disturbing look at the many murdered women of Juarez, Mexico and the complicated relationship between two cops, American Sonya Cross (Inglourious Basterds’s Diane Kruger) and Mexican Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) working together to solve a gruesome murder. It may have been a tad too ambitious – I can’t say all its many story threads, which also included the smuggling of Mexicans into the U.S., the realities of the drug trade crossing the border of the two countries, and the endemic corruption in the Mexican police force, completely held together – but it was something new in terms of subject matter and beautifully directed and written, besides. I was very taken with Kruger’s performance as an Asperger's affected cop, a conceit which rings false on paper but is played perfectly by her on the small screen and Bachir’s performance as one of the few honest Mexican cops resonates, too. (James Poniewozik did praise the above two shows in TIME magazine, which does seem to try to cover everything on TV, for their proper use of subtitles, thus adding another layer of authenticity to the proceedings.) And, finally, perhaps the best of the recent cable dramas, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, with Liev Schreiber in the title role, excelling a as a shady Hollywood fixer whose complex, fractured family life is rocked even further when his hated father (Jon Voight), just released from prison, comes back into his life. As a portrait of the excesses of Hollywood, the damage done to the kids abused by priests and of a troubled man, Ray, trying to hold it all together, the series, which begins its second season on July 13, stands out in any number of ways. Yet it, like The Americans and The Bridge, got relatively little of the attention it should have gotten from the press.

Jon Voigt and Liev Schreiber in Ray Donovan
In many ways Ray Donovan boasts an irresistible premise. You have the Hollywood angle as Ray is called in to cover up all manner of peccadilloes: from the movie actor and action star, with a new film is about to debut, who has been caught in a dalliance with a transsexual hooker to an athlete who’s woken up next to a dead girl after a night of heavy drug use and partying. (Ray’s solution to these vexing problems is an ingenious one, in effect killing two birds with one stone.) Then there’s the fractious family situation as Ray looks out for his two younger brothers, who run a gym in L.A. Terry (Eddie Marsan) is a semi successful boxer, now suffering from Parkinson’s disease as a result of the beatings he took while fighting. Brendan (Dash Mihok), known as Bunchy, is the show’s tragic figure, a self-proclaimed ‘sexual anorexic’ and alcoholic who has been permanently fucked up because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the family priest as a kid in South Boston, where the Donavans hail from. Ray also has to deal with his strong-minded wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson, who played the prostitute Trixie on HBO’s excellent Deadwood), who doesn’t suffer his shenanigans lightly, which include violence and serial cheating, and their two kids, rebellious teenage daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and impressionable younger son Conor (Devin Bagby). And of course, there’s the criminal aspect of the show as Ray has to fend off an FBI agent, Van Miller (Frank Whaley), who is determined to bring Ray down for his illegal activities, as well as try to calm down his boss and mentor Ezra Goldman (Elliot Gould) who is suddenly suffering from a conscience after his wife’s death and keeps threatening to come clean about everything he has had Ray do for him over the years. Ray also has his mobster father Mickey (Jon Voight) to deal with as the man, who has just gotten out of jail after 20 years – put there because of Ray’s testimony – has come to Los Angeles, determined to weasel his way back into his son’s life.

That’s a lot of story to juggle but series creator Ann Biderman (Southland, NYPD Blue) unerringly keeps all balls in the air, the result being a riveting series that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wonder where it will go next.

It sounds strange since Hollywood has been the subject of so many inside looks at its machinations (from Sunset Blvd. to TV’s Episodes) but Ray Donovan still manages to cement a take on that soul destroying place (as Critic at Large’s David Churchill once put it to me) that looks fresh, as Ray and his crew make things right for their well-heeled and famous clientele, often using intimidation and beat downs, for that matter, in the process. (Ray Donovan is also one of the few TV shows, besides The Shield and Southland, that manages to make L.A look like an interesting city, instead of the sun-dappled generic place it usually appears to be on the big and small screens.) But ultimately, it’s the absolutely superb acting, sometimes by unexpected actors, that allows Ray Donovan to really shine, bolstered by its strong storytelling and complex plot lines.

Liev Schreiber and Elliot Gould in Ray Donovan
Liev Schreiber (Defiance, Fading Gigolo) anchors the show by proffering a character who rivets the screen. Like a lot of movie actors drawn to television, he has latched onto a role that is more rounded than many he has done in his cinematic career. Ray Donovan is one scary dude, with a molten core of anger always just below an ostensibly calm surface and a volatile temper that can threaten all around him, family included. It may seem, or did to me, to be a near clone of Tony Soprano but it’s actually not, as a revelation for what haunts him is revealed late in the season in a classic bit of misdirection that I certainly did not see coming. But if Schreiber’s fine acting is a modulated, quiet underplaying of a role, Voight seizes his part with gusto. Not since Bruce Dern in Big Love, playing a duplicitous Mormon elder, have we seen an actor so delight in being such a bad guy. Dern’s character, Frank, the father of Bill Paxton’s polygamist at the centre of the series, so revelled in being an asshole that you could see the glee in his eyes as he played his part. Voight does so, too but he also acts dumb in the process with a funny 'who me' demeanour evident whenever he is accused of heinous misdeeds, most of which he is guilty of. (He murders a priest he suspects of abusing Bunchy just as soon as he’s released from prison and he may have played a part in the death of the Donovan brothers' sister, Bridget, who died of a drug overdose many years earlier.) You can certainly understand why Ray hates Mickey so much – he enables Bunchy’s excesses for one thing – but you can’t help but be fascinated by the guy, much as you were by the equally frightening Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) on The Sopranos. Mickey is also unpredictable in his racial attitudes, another factor probed in the series, since the love of his life was not his late wife, another issue Ray has with his dad, but Claudette (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an African-American woman Mickey knows from his Boston days. The series also keeps you on edge with the threat of violence possibly erupting at any moment; as with The Sopranos, when it does, it‘s never sanitized and always jarring.

Surrounding Ray and Mickey are a number of excellent actors, both unknowns and veterans popping up in unexpected places. The subject of the Catholic Church’s widespread abuse of children is not often dealt with outside of documentaries, with the notable exception of the powerful Canadian miniseries The Boys of St. Vincent (the Hollywood movie Doubt only dealt with it glancingly), but even a non-fiction account would be hard pressed to show the corrosive nature of what was done to its victims as well as Mihok does in his painful-to-watch and powerful performance. I’ve always liked Eddie Marsan, best known for his role as the bitter, angry driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (and also excellent in movies like Sixty-Six and The World's End), but he mines new depths as Terry, probably the least broken of all the Donovans but a lonely soul nonetheless. And Malcomson, after a slow start, has begun to make Abby her own woman, not a-usually-put-up-with-her-man’s-bullshit Carmela Soprano but a spouse who will only allow Ray to go so far before calling him on any of it. (She also maintains contact with Mickey despite Ray's orders not to do so.) They’re a perfect match. The actors portraying the kids are fine, but their story arcs are the least compelling aspects of the show.

Paula Malcolmson as Abby Donovan on Ray Donovan
Then there are the supporting roles in the show. James Woods is amazing as Sully, a profane nemesis of the Donovans from Boston. Elliot Gould as Ezra manages to make moral conscience go hand in hand with hypocrisy as he lauds his late wife and simultaneously mistreats and slights his longtime mistress Deb. It’s one of the better roles in his checkered career. As said mistress, Denise Crosby, an underrated actress despite her cult fame as Ensign Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation keeps you guessing as to her motives in a terrific turn. And who would have attached an erotic element to the always wonderful Brooke Smith (The Silence of the Lambs, Vanya on 42nd Street) but it’s there in her part as Frances, a nurse with a secret who becomes involved with Terry. Rosanna Arquette even pops up in a rare and welcome appearance as a jaded Angelino who crosses paths with Mickey. Frank Whaley makes his federal agent a quirky opponent who is not what you expect in what could have been a flat, clichéd role. Not here. Ambyr Childers as a troubled child star having difficulties transitioning to adulthood is quite affecting. I’ve also never seen Steve Bauer as good as he is here as Avi, an ex-Mossad (Israeli secret service) agent who does much of Ray’s dirty work and whose back storey (captured by terrorists in Lebanon) hints at more revelations in the second season. Apparently Los Angeles is chock-full of former Mossad agents relocated to Hollywood.(Ray Donovan is also refreshingly upfront and matter of fact about the Jewish dominance of Hollywood. Ray, who is Irish Catholic, works for Jews and most of the studio folks he meets up or messes with are Jewish, a reality not always present in Hollywood productions, perhaps because those Jews worry about too many negative portraits of their community. Not to worry; everyone in show business on Ray Donovan comes across badly in the show, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, but they’re all three dimensional creations.) Only Katherine Moennig (The L Word) as Lena, Ray’s lesbian assistant, hasn’t been given enough to do, though one subplot revolving around her relationship with a ‘straight’ woman was of interest. Season Two will see Hank Azaria and Ann-Margret, among others, join the cast so more great acting is on the way, I’m sure.

Weaving all these plot strands together so well adds up to a unique multilayered examination of American society that is both off the beaten track (the underside of personal Hollywood cover-ups as a part of the business, going back to the days when his studio erased Clark Gable’s killing of a man while driving drunk), brings to light a little examined subject in fiction (the Catholic church’s abuse of children) and manages to add new wrinkles to the concept of dysfunctional families. And considering that it wrapped up almost all its plotlines in its first season (unusual for a show so quickly renewed), Ray Donovan’s arc for its new season will likely raise it to new creative heights. Maybe this season the critics will recognize that and pay more attention to this TV treasure.

Jewel Staite in The L.A. Complex

The L.A. Complex, a short-lived, middling Canadian series which ran in 2012 on the CW channel (and on CTV and Muchmusic here in Canada) doesn’t compare to Ray Donovan in terms of sheer artistry, but neither was it a negligible effort. If Ray Donovan deals with successful movie and sports stars who are undone by their own recklessness, The L.A. Complex cast a cynical eye on the travails afflicting those neophytes trying to make it in Hollywood as well as those formerly successful folk on the way down (and possibly out). That’s not the most common approach to Hollywood and the age old wish for stardom, which is far more comfortable in laying out stories of newcomers making it big in Tinseltown against all odds but, of course, prevailing in the end.

That’s not the case for most of the characters in The L.A. Complex, created by Stephen Stohn and
Linda Schuyler, the folks behind the fine long running high school set Degrassi series. Whether it be trying to crack the world of dance, music, standup comedy or acting, the protagonists in The L.A. Complex, including Abby Vargas (Manny Santos on Degrassi), a Toronto actress perpetually flailing in L.A. and Raquel Westbrook (Jewel Staite, of Firefly fame), a thirtysomething actor who is starting to realize she’s being regarded as too old to get the roles she used to snag – a particular peril for women in Hollywood – fail far more often than they succeed. And that’s the point of the show. There may be a few lucky ones who seem to have it all, Australian Conor Lake (John Patrick Moore) now the lead of a TV series but with no shortage of demons which threaten to undo everything for him, but most of them are like Tariq Muhammad (Benjamin Charles Watson), an intern/gopher, treated with contempt by the rappers whose sandwiches he fetches, just a lowly figure on a ladder whose rungs he is not allowed to climb.

In that jaded vein, it doesn’t much matter which of them makes it or not in the series – some do, some don’t – but how Schuyler and Stohn depict the process of the endless auditions, call backs and treatment of actors on set. And that ain’t pretty.

Cassie Steele in The L.A. Complex
As refracted specifically in Abby and Raquel’s case – and even though the latter’s unlikeability is a factor in hindering her own career advancement – The L.A. Complex reveals something that ought to be obvious but is rarely revealed in the movies or TV. Most of the myriad would-be movie or TV stars won’t make it there – ever. (Conor, when speaking to Abby, posits that it’s not a matter of if but when you make it, if you have talent, but since he’s made it, he can afford to think that way. Besides, he doesn’t actually believe he deserves his fame and acts out accordingly, with dire results.) That’s laid out to devastating effect in the audition process where decisions are made in spilt seconds as to the unsuitability of the person auditioning for the role even before he or she has had a chance to prove their stuff; at least the standup comic Nick Wagner (Joe Dinocol) has a whole set to make a mark. The make or break persons who decide these things don’t even look the auditioners in the eye when they dismiss them and are cruelly indifferent to how they can crush a person’s hopes with a mere gesture or tossed off comment. That Abby, Raquel and most of the others on The L.A. Complex are Canadian is not just attributable to the show needing to evince Canadian content for funding purposes, it’s a recognition of the sheer amount of Canadian actors setting out for Hollywood (I read somewhere that about 20 per cent of all stars on American TV are from Canada, given the edge for having a stage background American actors lack) and likely, an understanding of how so many eventually come back to Canada, after flopping in the U.S. After all, Cassie Steele is talented and highly appealing and yet has really only had starring roles in Canadian shows despite, I’m sure, trying to get leading American gigs, too.

The L.A. Complex didn’t fully succeed creatively. (It also gives shrift for the most part to Hollywood's Jewish character.) Removing Tariq from the picture in favour of the closeted American gay rapper Kaldrick King (a weak performance by Andra Fuller) didn’t work – as well as appearing to be a nod to the American audience, who presumably could not identify with the Canadian contingent on the series. And I hated the obnoxious, grating character of Beth Pirelli (Dayle McLeod), a Winnipegger who moves to L.A. with her younger brother Michael (Simon Levison) who is seen as a potential child actor in TV commercials, though the dog-eat-dog nature of that world was well depicted. The show was also uneasily pitched between young adult and adult, resulting in Abby’s too chaste threesome with an actor and actress who star in (ironically) a Christian-themed show she’s hired for. The L.A. Complex, however, did scrupulously depict with honesty the economic difficulties of living in Los Angeles –  Abby, for one, is always on the verge of either being evicted or has been evicted because she can’t cough up the necessary rent –  though I didn’t exactly buy the so-called cheap motel most of the show’s characters stay at, with its great pool and terrific nightly parties. But even if the show wasn’t great, it was surprisingly truthful. Imagine, a show on American TV that made abundantly clear that your chances for fame, even in our age of reality TV when no talents like the Kardashians get more than their Warholian fifteen minutes, are really mere illusion and wishing won’t make it so. That flies in the face of the myths Hollywood has been peddling since its inception, even if (very) occasionally those myths do become fact. And since believing in the possibilities of attaining the highest rung of the ladder is what fuels Hollywood legend and, in the reverse gives people the joy of reading in the tabloids and gossip columns about all those Hollywood figures who fall off the thing, The L.A. Complex is like a dash of cold water that wakes you from the false fever dream of stardom. Not surprisingly The L.A. Complex lasted a mere two short stints (at 6 and 13 episodes a season). Telling truth to power, as it will, it never really stood a chance.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9 at Ryerson.

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