Ray Donovan Is the Best Religious TV Show You’re Not Watching

Showtime’s well-acted, head-spinning crime drama wants to get us thinking about religion.

Forget about True Blood, The Leftovers, and whatever else you were planning to watch/set your DVR to on Sunday nights. If you care one whit about religion and you watch TV, you oughta be watching Ray Donovan on Showtime.

This carnival of a show depicts how the devastation of clergy sex abuse gets processed by different members of the same family. The writers’ attention to religion lifts what could be a depressing rut or hyperbolic romp through Hollywood corruption into a tour of fascinating religious and social issues — with a Jewish morality tale twist.

Here’s a quick rundown of the show’s religious themes:

Clergy sex abuse

Ray (Liev Schreiber) appears invincible at first, while his brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok) are crippled — one physically, the other emotionally. By the season one finale, it’s clear that every member of this family, including Ray, has been harmed by the clergy sex abuse — and by his own sins. Terry and Bunchy are willing to grapple with those sins and to extend mercy to those who’ve sinned against them. Ray is so trapped by shame and bitterness that he has no space for forgiveness. The climactic scene in which the brothers confront the guilty priest brilliantly exposes every characters’ essential nature, including the priest’s. Season two opens with newly revealed consequences of the abuse front and center.

Good v. evil

For viewers who prefer stark lines between good and evil to moral ambiguity, this is not your show. Unlike the Tom Selleck police commissioner character in CBS’s Blue Bloods — a father described by one of his sons as supportive, but not the kind of guy who bails one of his children out of a self-inflicted jam — Mickey, the patriarch of the Donovan clan played by Jon Voight, kills to protect one son and again to exact revenge for harm done to another. He also betrays his family habitually.

Ignore for a moment the tabloid stories about Voight’s relationship with his famous daughter and remember the electric star of Midnight Cowboy. That’s who we get here. For his scene-stealing portrayal of an irresistible devil, Voight received the show’s first Emmy nod last week.

Human nature

The era of Adventures of Superman and Father Knows Best may have given way to the rise of the anti-hero, but the characters in Ray Donovan are no kind of heroes at all. At best, they’re scrappy South Boston survivors with an unbreakable bond. At worst, they rationalize all manner of bad behavior for their individualized, and sometimes conflicting, visions of the greater good. To a man — and a woman — the characters here are corrupt utilitarians.

Judaism

The Judaism of both Ray’s business partner Ezra (Elliot Gould) and his right-hand man Avi (Steven Bauer) are defining characteristics. Season One opened with Ezra sitting shiva for his recently departed wife. He checks his criminal and adulterous activities against his understanding of Jewish law. Mickey is labeled as the dreaded “golem,” a mythical creature from Jewish folklore. Avi explains Orthodox sabbath requirements to Ray’s son Conor (Devon Bagby) and describes his experience of living on an Israeli kibbutz, inspiring Conor to say he wants to convert to Judaism. As Conor’s sister Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) makes clear, the clergy sex abuse has left Ray’s children without a spiritual foundation.

Hollywood spirituality

Ray’s wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) tries, and fails, to find solace in yoga for Ray’s cheating and lying. The movie star for whose crime Mickey spent 20 years in prison practices a shallow form of Eastern spirituality. I thought I saw a red Kabballah string peaking out from under Ray’s designer shirt in one episode. Some of it may sound predictable, but the show makes explicit that nearly every character on this merry-go-round is dealing with life on a religious plane

Social Issues

Ray Donovan also takes on two politically charged social issues — race and sexuality — with the same paradoxical treatment it applies to other themes, but it does so in ways that sometimes make me cringe. Mickey has a serious thing for black women, especially the mother of his biracial son, Daryll (Pooch Hall). Daryll spent season one trying to prove his loyalty to the family and ended up coming across as subservient. Season two opens with him standing up first to his brother and then their father. So maybe there’s hope. Mickey leads the way in portraying the same kind of skewed appreciation of gay men that he has for black women, but as with all things Mickey, it’s ultimately all about him.

What makes this series so much fun to watch is the colorful hyperrealism of the main characters as they deal with the mess that is their communal life. People change, but only so much. Justice can be had, but usually at a price. Mercy and forgiveness are morally superior to revenge, but without vicarious revenge fantasies, how do we safely purge ourselves of righteous indignation? Redemption is often a very crooked path. I hope Ray Donovan keeps portraying it as such.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.