The Showtime drama Ray Donovan, whose season-two finale just scored the highest ratings in series history, is on a roll.
The hourlong series stars Liev Schreiber as a powerful Los Angeles fixer, a well-dressed arm-breaker who’s brought the entire family from Boston and gets paid big money to solve inconvenient problems for Hollywood’s rappers, sports stars, celebrities and wanna-bes. With replays, the Ray Donovan season finale drew 2.52 million viewers, topping the season-two premiere night by 43% and the season-one finale by 21%. Now just hitting its stride, Ray Donovan ranks third among all Showtime original series behind Homeland and Shameless, averaging 5 million viewers per week across platforms.
Multichannel News editor-in-chief Mark Robichaux caught up with Schreiber as he walked the streets of lower Manhattan one morning to talk about the Donovans, directing and the DVR. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: Are you surprised by the trajectory of the show after the second season?
Liev Schreiber: I’m kind of stunned by the following; it really is pretty remarkable. It’s a really strange thing, you know, not having done much television before this. When you work on a television show, you can almost feel it immediately, the appreciation and the recognition factor has just skyrocketed. On the one hand, it’s really exciting to be a part of something that people seem to love so much. On the other hand, it’s a nightmare going to the corner coffee shop.
MCN: What kind of demographic do you think Ray Donovan appeals to?
LS: It’s hard to tell. I think it’s definitely a grownup audience. I get tripped up in that every once in a while, when I see some younger people tweeting about it or log onto the Facebook page to check out what people are saying.
I guess one of the things that I credit the writers with is it seems to be a fairly diverse demographic. I take my kids down to school in Tribeca and I get just as many finance guys on the way to school as I get Parks Department workers.
MCN: The Donovans have been compared to [HBO’s 1999-2007 megahit] The Sopranos, but the show is more Hollywood than mob. How do you describe the show?
LS: When I first read it, I kind of thought of it as a sort of interesting sort of fish-out-of-water story. And the juxtaposition between a Southie [South Boston] family coming to do business in Los Angeles. It’s the juxtaposition of character, and there’s the crime element and certainly the family element.
Los Angeles is historically the place where people come to reinvent themselves, and I thought was a really interesting idea. I think for me that was the hook inasmuch as a godfather going to a therapist was the hook for The Sopranos.
MCN: Reality TV has been a big staple of audiences now for the past decade or so. How much room is there for serious scripted television?
LS: I think those things are cyclical, and I think that people get hungry for story and character. The foundation of any solid television is that story and character come first, and all good things follow that. I think, ironically, that’s also what draws the people from the film industry to television, especially these premium cable shows.
I’ve said this before but I really think it’s true: It used to be that television was for children and movies were for grown-ups. And a reversal has occurred now with the financial climate of the movie industry, with the big tent pole movies dominating, mostly the superhero movies and young adult — those are the films that can really justify the kind of budgets that it takes to make those films.
Actors and writers and directors and people in the industry who are looking to do more serious narrative work are looking to these premium cable outlets. I think Showtime has done a really good job in the past couple of years of developing a consistency in their programming and I think even a perspective and a theme in their programming.
MCN: Why do you think Showtime has excelled with dark shows and broken characters? Dexter, Nurse Jackie, Ray Donovan — really messed-up people.
LS: Well, I think one of the things that [Showtime Networks president] David Nevins has done really well is understanding that the foundation of drama is conflict and duality. In order to draw artists to his network and to draw audiences to his network, I think he’s designed a slate of shows that reflect that, and in almost a pulpy way. But at the core of that is really good writing and, again, the principles of dramatic literature.
So you take these characters, who are these antiheroes, if you will, people who are damaged in one respect but really gifted in another way, and not only do they make for a great drama, but I think what they do is they reflect inner struggle in all of us that I think makes us identify with the program, if that makes any sense.
MCN: You made a transition to director on one of the episodes, which was definitely high-energy, for lack of a better term.
LS: It was a really terrific experience for me. The hard part is that my hours on the show are already so long, and I average a 14-hour day. Then when you get into directing, all of that doubles, and it is intense. But the tremendous outpouring of support and enthusiasm from the crew and the cast just made the whole thing happen, not to mention a beautiful script from [creator and showrunner] Ann Biderman, who really deserves all of the credit for that episode.
And David [Nevins] is an incredibly intelligent and accessible guy. He was a real mentor to me and a really solid guiding force. He gave me great notes. And to have a guy running your network who has that depth creatively and in terms of production, I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced that at any studio or any network before. I think his chops in production really, really define him as the head of that network.
MCN: How much TV do you watch and what do you think of multiplatform viewing?
LS: I’m someone who never watched much television. But because of the DVR now I’m able to follow these programs that I want to catch and I can catch them whenever I want on my time.
I’m not an iPad guy. With two kids I still rarely watch TV, but I think part of that is a little symptomatic of the fact that I work in television. When I was doing theater I rarely went to the theater.
If something catches my interest I’ll stick it out. And to that end the DVR is indispensable. I see tons of people [watching video on tablets] and I’m very impressed. But it’s not my thing. To me, if I have an hour off and I’m in bed, I’ll watch something.