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Ray Donovan - Season 5 - Advance Preview: "Something different."

6 Aug 2017

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For the most part, I like Ray Donovan. It's a deeply flawed show with some big ideas and engaging characters that often fails to tie it all together in satisfying narrative arcs. As each season has passed, the show's issue with plotting has become more noticeable, and every year the writers seem content to not bother trying to fix it. And so every season ends up following the same rough pattern, repeating the same beats. At a certain point, such unwillingness to evolve and grow grows tiresome for viewers, and for me, that moment came in the home stretch of hte fourth season, which disregarded much of the season's earlier thematic work in favour of an under-cooked and cliche "Good Guys vs Evil Russians" narrative. In my review of last year's season finale, I wrote this, expressing my frustrations with the show by predicting what the show's fifth season would look like.

"But I think this finale makes clear that next season is going to see a rehash of the previous four seasons: Ray will struggle with his conscience and his family, Mickey will get involved in some scheme that will backfire, Bunchy will go along with it, and Terry will worry about his legacy. All this will be explored through a lacklustre season-long arc, which will likely feature some notable guest stars."

No that I've seen the premiere of that fifth season, which premieres on Sunday night, I can say that the show does indeed seem to be setting the stage for the things I predicted to take place. While I can't speak to how the season's narrative arc will play out (there's very little actual plot in this premiere), the show's characters are in emotional states we've seen them in before, and some notable guest stars were introduced, the most significant of whom being Susan Sarandon. And like every other season premiere of Ray Donovan, watching this episode made me hopeful that maybe this would be the season where the show would learn from some of its prior mistakes.

But this premiere also suggested that the upcoming fifth season might be drastically different than those that came before it. While some of the character beats feel repetitive, there's a lot here that feels very fresh. For one, the episode opens after a significant (though unspecified) time jump from the end of season four, and isn't in any rush to fill in the blanks, taking its time in revealing some important details.

While a major piece of information is revealed and slightly expanded on in the premiere, afterwards very little is still known about what happened in the months or years between seasons. What's clear is that whatever happened had a profound impact on the characters. Occasionally this is frustrating, because there are a few scenes in which we're unsure what's driving the characters or are unaware of a supporting character's significance, but we learn just enough to be confident that more information is coming, and that information will be dramatically engaging.

I hesitate to go into more detail about the episode's mechanics or where the characters are exactly. As I wrote above, a significant piece of information is revealed in this premiere that will come as a shock to viewers, and the episode can't really be discussed at any great length without spoiling it, which I wouldn't dare do.

What I would like to discuss briefly is an improvement in the show's visual language. This premiere constantly moves between two different timelines - and suggests that there is more of that to come this season - and David Hollander's direction excellently guides viewers through it all, as well as establishes an effectively dreamlike and off-kilter mood. The way in which the flashback device is used here also does a good job in evoking the power of memory. The episode ends up being surprisingly powerful.

While you can look at some stuff in this season premiere and be pessimistic about this season of Ray Donovan, there is plenty here to suggest that this year might be a more ambitious one for the Showtime drama. While seasons of this show tend to start out fairly strong and slowly wither, no season of the show has started quite like this. I'm looking forward to seeing the show try something new this season.