Ray Donovan: confronting Irish America as neither TV drama nor film have dared

images-4A corrupt present and a shady past dominate a number of  recent TV dramas and films featuring the Irish diaspora in the US. Amongst these is Mystic River. Mystic River,  based on a novel by Denis Lehane, visits the impact of sexual abuse and violence on a number of men who grew up in a working class neighborhood near the river.  The film itself leaves us with a sense of loss as we watch the haunting of the main characters by the effects and memories of abuse,  by the guilt associated with abuse and  by the fear  that its violences will stretch across generations.

Unlike Mystic River and other similar films TV series Ray Donovan confronts the darker side of Irish America in a way that has never been achieved so explicitly before. One reason for this is the nature of television series and their capacity to build slow burning narratives reflecting the livelong grind poverty, abuse, neglect and violence leave on a people. Another reason is the clever characterization evident across the series. Consequently, the series challenges the limits of established stereotypes providing an insight into not only the silent torture behind abuse but what happens when confronted by characters like Bunchy played by  Dashiell Mihok. Those stereotypes are not completely undone but Ray Donovan goes a long way  in developing beyond their traditional limits.

Named after the protagonist, Ray Donovan, the TV drama follows the activities of a criminal with a heart galvanised against the past and the pressures of the present. However, the return of his corrupt father, Mickey, played by Jon Voight, adds immeasurably to those pressures. Where Ray evokes respect within the Donovan family, Mickey evokes some humor followed by the bile of acidic and painful memory. The teasing out of these psychological effect of these memories on the cool, calm Ray sees his character move from being numb, to engaging in rough and disturbing sex with his wife to falling for a journalist. Ray is certainly not an angel and is at times very frustrating to watch move towards what seems like impending psychological disasters, but the complexities of his behaviors point to the effects familial neglect leaves on adults.

Bunchy’s character  stretches stereotypes by using a self-help counselling group for men abused by priests to face his past. Having been left vulnerable by his father’s neglect of him, Bunchy was exposed to and abused by a particular priest. While self-help groups have long played their part as dramatic devices in  TV dramas, we have not seen them utilised by an Irish American character in this way before. Neither have we seen a TV drama challenge  perceptions of the effects of abuse the way Ray Donovan does.

Lifting his girlfriend’s son from his bath, Bunchy become frighted and doubts himself and his actions. We see him fling the young boy into a corner of the room and flee the apartment. Confessing to his fears and doubts in his self-help group, the series confronts one of the taboos of abuse: the fear that  abuse will (and sometimes does) perpetuate abuse is challenged by Bunchy’s brave admission of the confusion he felt when lifting the child from the bath.

Bunchy talks through the moment and delineates the difference between fear and intention demarcating a moment of  realisation when Bunchy begins to reconcile his adult self with his abused self, allowing  him to  to separate his past from what are fears rather than intentions or actions. Slowing, ever so slowly, Bunchy’s character is outliving and outgrowing not only his  terrible memories but  he also to begins to outgrow the stereotype of a silent, broken former alcoholic Irish American. Where Mystic River and other films and series  that deal with the same theme fail to challenge the past, Ray Donovan works at showing the difficulty and  the possibility of moving beyond the abusive actions of others.

The slow shedding of the Donovan’s father also suggests a growing space between the gangster glamour  of a past negatively dominated by an abusive patriarchy. Mickey is hateful and Voight plays him with the swagger of an actor who knows he and his character make the series. In the last episode of the second series Voight’s acting borders on slapstick serving to  momentarily  retire the edgy aspects of Mickey’s character. As Mickey chases his enemy through a plush poolside bungalow, Voight’s movements are all keystone elbows and limbs emphasising the  tension Mickey threads between criminality and the pathetic absurdity of a failed  gangster.

Voight plays on his own physicality in emulating the movements of a once rootless south Boston  purveyor of fear and violence while his character looses the respect of his children one by one.  In this respect Ray Donovan, the character and the series, handle aspects of the gangster crime drama in  awkward ways, but the treatment and challenging of the past makes a refreshing one albeit it played out against a backdrop of violence.

Memories of cats or the adventures of Claret, Simon and Ceausescu

Cats Claret, Simon and Ceausescu were a motley trio. Claret, soot black with an accidental mark of white on his right front paw, looked almost perfect. Svelte and agile, Claret  was the most noble looking of the three. Unfortunately, he had a tusk like tooth growing around his lower lip  contorting his almost perfect cat face into the visage of a monster. We loved him nonetheless, and as children our mother regularly told us tales of Claret on, what we now we realize, were very unlikely cat adventures in the environs of a dairy farm. At the time however, we were entranced by every word.

Where  Claret’s farm adventures were unlikely, Simon was equally  an unlikely farm cat. Of all the kittens born on that farm, Simon was the most unusual in that he was born a Siamese kitten in a litter of tabby cats. Angry and  terrifying with a  flexing paw that reached across rooms to scratch you, he could spit venom all the way to China. His anger however, was justified.  Simon was beautiful.  His fluffy coat gave him a blueish grey aura differentiating  him from his mud coloured siblings. His piercing blue eyes and tiny black pupils gave ample warning of his anger but as children this never deterred us.

We chased Simon. We chased him again and then we chased him some more. Trying to catch and cuddle a cat that never, ever wanted to be held was always going to to end badly. And end badly it did, each and every time. Scars of Simon have begun to fade  but they were a great source of competitive comparison as young kids. Children who chase a cat in order to cuddle them probably never deserved Simon’s response but children who pursued him aiming to incur battle scars deserved everything we got.

Ceausescu was the least memorable of the three. Indeed, I don’t remember him at all. I have no memories of scars, chases or cuddles. But I do remember my siblings and I named him on Christmas day 1989. The Berlin Wall was crumbling and the brutal Romanian dictator was removed, if you like, from existence. In celebration of the opening up of a gateway to the Black sea, we memorialized our nondescript and easily forgotten tabby cat him with a naming ceremony bestowing him with the title Ceausescu. Unfortunately he was named post humorously.

On Christmas morning 1989 Ceausescu had, through a unfortunate series of events, hanged himself in a trap set by young children aimed at catching rats. Why my  then very young brothers were trying to catch rats now escapes me but it was clearly a piece of engineering that worked. Poor Ceausescu became entangled in the trap and at the same time as Romania reclaimed  itself as a nation for its citizens, our tabby lost his life.

Sensitive to the horror the cat must have endured, we named him Ceausescu. Retrospectively the name is somewhat insensitive to the citizens of Romania having endured horrendous oppression under the dictator’s regime. Nevertheless he  has  been immortalized and his last horrors marked as ones comparable to the execution of a terrorizing oppressor  reminding me of  children’s awareness of global events and their sensitivity to the horrors others endure.

Should have gone to Specsavers!

150px-RWS_Tarot_10_Wheel_of_FortuneSpending a portion of a Saturday afternoon in sweltering heat in a velvet draped cubicle hardly sounds inviting. And yet I recently presented myself to a tarot card reader in a similar circumstance. Having listened to the whisperings of friends discussing their predicted futures, I decided to put their reader to the test. Could he convince a non believer? The answer is no. Indeed,  the  card reader’s capacity to roll his eyes and rock in his chair to  profound exclamations that “next year is going to be fantastic”, simply generated an uneasy cynicism, questions about performance and this man’s apparent failure to make a much needed trip to Specsavers.

His obvious short sightedness was bothering him. Each distribution of the cards saw him lean so near to the table I worried he could fall into a vortex opening up through his close dealings with time. This, in my book, is a credible possibility for a person who forecasts futures through arbitrary meanings suggested by icons of the tarot. Swooping towards the table in examination of the cards is, it turns out, all part of the performance, and while it is disorienting, it is no where  nearly as disturbing as his eye rolling.

images-2With every temperature  rise in the hot little cubicle came increased eye rolling. Each reading saw my prophet turn his head to the right leaving only the whites of his eyes visible through  half closed lids. Flash backs of Francis Bacon paintings came to mind. Despite the reader’s claims that next year was going to a great one,  a creeping suspicion set in that, in fact, next year would be dark and shuttered grey. Only escape from the cubicle could free me from the impending sense of doom my vortex falling telegrapher of messages  from the future was  generating.

Fumbling, mumbling and sweating I  proffered  €40 euro across the table, mindful of the possible vortex, and crashed out of the cubicle.  Short sighted he may be but he certainly saw me coming. Left gasping for air on George’s Street I wondered how to reach  the nearest Specsavers.  Call me a conspiracy theorist but they have set one up very close by!