Paula Deen has had, to put it lightly, a rough week, but in the last few days things have started to look up for her: She made it through a “Today Show” interview; her cookbooks have shot to the top of the bestseller lists; and—most promising of all—she’s procured the services of Judy Smith, Washington’s premier crisis consultant. Smith is known as a high-priced reputation-saver, but it’s only in the past year that she’s become a minor celebrity herself, as the model for “Scandal”’s Olivia Pope. Pope—like the real-life Smith, who has represented Monica Lewinsky, Michael Vick, and Kobe Bryant—is a professional “fixer,” hired to clean up the messes of the rich and connected. It’s a nebulous job title, but one that’s becoming increasingly familiar to audiences who watched Michael Clayton and eagerly follow “Scandal.” And when Showtime aired the first episode of “Ray Donovan” last night, we got to see the premium cable version: an Olivia Pope by way of Tony Soprano.
So why are we fixated on the fixer? These shows offer many of the classic procedural thrills: a new problem introduced and taken care of within a tidy 48 to 60 minutes. But there’s a quality to “Scandal” and “Ray Donovan” that makes them fresh: Instead of solving a crime, Olivia and Ray keep it quiet; instead of uncovering the truth, they bury it. It’s messier and more intriguing than another “Law and Order,” with leads who ignore justice and morality to protect image and reputation.
Instead of “Scandal”’s Washington power players, Ray Donovan—played by Liev Schreiber—services Hollywood’s vacuous celebrities and smarmy executives. With shades of Phillip Marlowe and Pulp Fiction’s Mr. Wolfe, Ray is a South Boston transplant with a distracting accent and a gangster father just out of prison. Schreiber plays him with a brooding physicality, at once intimidating and elusive. Like Tony Soprano, men fear him and women want to sleep with him. “You don’t talk a lot,” one client tells him. “It makes you very mysterious.”
The Showtime series, lacking “Scandal”’s manic energy and twisty plots, is made weighty by Ray’s struggles with his Southie family. His father, a slimy Jon Voight—in an early scene, he leers at a breastfeeding mother—returns from 20 years in jail to weasel his way into Ray’s life. His older brother has Parkinson’s disease and his sister committed suicide as a teenager. (Much of this information is relayed through lumpy exposition.) More engaging is Ray’s younger brother, Bunchy, a nervy alcoholic who was molested by a priest. When the show starts, Bunchy has just received his settlement from the church: $1.4 million, “just because some priest messed around with me as a kid.” He’s the ultimate problem that can’t be fixed, not even by Ray.
Because as other characters keep telling us, Ray is the best. (In shows like this, they’re always the best.) He’s confident and calm and hyper-competent. In the pilot’s first few minutes, Ray is woken by a call from a young NBA star, panicking in a 5-star hotel room with a bloody, dead woman in his bed. Schreiber barely reacts: “You think you’re the first person I dealt with who woke up in bed with a dead body?”
Ray’s cases are nothing we haven’t seen before: an actor hiding his trysts with transsexuals from the tabloids; a star blackmailed with a sex tape. (The pilot does have one nicely strange moment of specificity, when Ray deals with a pop-star’s stalker by soaking the pervert in a tub of green dye.) Still, there’s something satisfying about watching him take charge. “Scandal” provides the same pleasure, grounding the show’s high-strung chaos with the solidity of Olivia’s self-assurance and poise. She can handle your problems. She will tell you exactly what to do. “I’m a janitor,” Michael Clayton says, as he helps his law firm’s clients evade hit-and-run charges. Ray has his own slogan, a line he feeds clients after laying out his plans: “Don’t worry. You’re in the solution now.” It’s cheesy, but Schreiber delivers it with a certain detachment, leaving it unclear if he buys in, or if he’s winking at his own mystique.
Ray and Olivia are distinctly amoral figures, mercenaries working on the boundaries of the law. Ray may first try legal means to fix his clients’ messes, but his tough-guy quality is more than an image. Olivia Pope may not commit any violence herself, but she outsources that to her employees, who go by the name “gladiators” to convince themselves they are on the side of justice. Olivia play-acts as a good person, a gladiator who “wears the white hat,” but the show keeps lowering her back into the murk: election rigging, blackmail, manipulation.
Ray, for his part, shares some DNA with cable TV’s anti-hero archetype: Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper. He’s macho but damaged, with a family he can’t connect with and a past he can’t escape. It's nothing we haven't seen before. But when we see him at work, he recalls no one so much as “Breaking Bad”’s Mike Ehrmantrout, silent and effective and a little mysterious: a sliver of order in a chaotic world. What's alluring about this kind of character isn't the violence or the sex or that he does bad things. The professional fixer appeals to a different kind of fantasy: that someone can clean up all your messes.
Esther Breger is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow @estherbreger.