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Meet Ray Donovan: His L.A. is so sordid even the tabloids don’t go there

The new, highly touted Showtime drama Ray Donovan starts this Sunday (TMN/Movie Central, 10 p.m., and also currently available on-demand). It's brilliant and it's messed up, just like its main character.

Liev Schreiber plays Ray, a Los Angeles-based fixer. In the opening episode, we get the gist of his job. A famous athlete wakes up in bed with a girl he picked up. The girl is dead, probably of a drug overdose. It's Ray's job to fix things. At about the same time, another celebrity is in trouble. As Ray's boss tells him, in disbelief, "The guy has a $200-million heterosexual movie coming out in a month. He picks up a tranny on Sunset Boulevard?" Again, it's Ray's task to smooth it over, make the problem go away.

Thus, Ray Donovan is a smart, cynical look at Hollywood and the shenanigans in L.A. that never get covered by the tabloids and TMZ, no matter how hard they try. This is an excellent come-on for the show. It's adult material, knowing and concerned with the sordid.

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Schreiber does Ray with grim tenacity. His face gives little away, no matter how absurd the job or repulsive the client. A married movie mogul hires Ray to check up on a young woman he's seeing on the side. He thinks she's also seeing someone else. The guy describes himself as "a scumbag" and says, "This chick has her claws in me. I want you to follow her." Ray reacts to none of this. Later, if necessary, he will break some guy's fingers. It could be the scumbag's.

Mind you, there is a mess at the periphery of Ray's life. He's Boston Irish by birth and inclination, and his brothers are hard men with names such as "Bunchy" Donovan. (There's another brother named Terry, who runs the family's boxing club in L.A. Terry has Parkinson's disease because he's taken countless blows to the head.) The Donovans are hard-bitten and tend to end up in trouble.

But there's worse – Ray's dad Mickey (Jon Voight), a career criminal, has just been unexpectedly released from jail in Boston and is heading for L.A. Mickey is a deeply menacing man (Voight is magnificent in this), all surface rogue but with a deep well of rage. In particular, he has contempt for Ray, who took his brothers and fled to the dumb, shiny world of Hollywood. The feeling is mutual. Ray tells his wife (Paula Malcomson), "My father comes in here, everything we worked for, will be gone." Then, it is suggested, he makes sure there's a baseball bat at hand, one that he could wield.

Meanwhile, there are moments of dark comedy. Ray and his wife live in the suburb of Calabasas, which she refers to as "the friggin' Jersey Shore of L.A." She wants a home in Beverly Hills but Ray is taciturn about that.

For all its gloominess about L.A. – it's like Entourage on acid – and dark humour, Ray Donovan is a bit messed up and takes a few episodes to find its groove. See, it's a curious hybrid – a Boston-Irish drama grafted onto a Hollywood-is-hell drama. And that's not an easy concoction to contrive successfully. The Boston-Irish thing has its own tradition – the mobsters and tough guys seen in such movies as Boondock Saints, Blown Away, The Matchmaker and The Departed. There is usually some evoking of Roman Catholicism and loyalty to a neighbourhood.

The underbelly-of-L.A. thing is also a genre unto itself – starlets abused or exploited by cynical studio types, reporters paid off to hide the truth about the stars, gay male stars who hide their sexual identity, female stars who are alcoholics. The scandalous stories featured in countless movies from Mommie Dearest to L.A. Confidential.

Put the two genres together, and it can be uneasy. But by the second episode of Ray Donovan, the picture gets clearer. The Boston-Irish thing has been established and is not so heavily emphasized. The show becomes a ferocious battle of wills between the cool, controlled Ray and Mickey Donovan, the latter's viciousness barely under the surface.

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Meanwhile, there are all those things to fix. The movie star who wants to walk out of rehab because he decides he doesn't have a drinking problem, instead he has a sex addiction. And he's got a movie opening in a few days. And how will Mickey, the thug and con man, exploit these circumstances?

Ray Donovan (created by Ann Biderman, who also created Southland and started on NYPD Blue) is fine, dark entertainment for grown-ups. It's not quite at the very top level of premium cable dramas, but it's very close and could get there before this first season ends. It's a show to savour, for anyone cynical about Hollywood.

Airing tonight

The Out List (HBO Canada, 9:30 p.m.) is a documentary by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders that has first-hand stories from prominent members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the United States about the experience of being "out." It was timed for LGBT Pride Month and the 44th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Among those interviewed are Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris and former NFL player Wade Davis.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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