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Be it 'Ray Donovan,' 'Billions' or 'Trust,' TV's fixers crank up the tension

Be it 'Ray Donovan,' 'Billions' or 'Trust,' TV's fixers crank up the tension
Liev Schreiber, right in an early season scene with Jon Voight in "Ray Donovan," plays a Hollywood fixer, where loose talk and shameful behavior leads to steady employment. (Showtime)

In real life, Michael Cohen, lawyer to President Trump and self-declared fixer, embodies the risks that come with cleaning up messes for the rich and powerful. On television, fixers tend to be more effective. They might be a PR puppet master like Kerry Washington's "Scandal" character Olivia Pope or the homicidal White House chief of staff Doug Stamper played by Michael Kelly in "House of Cards."

But whatever their official job titles, fictional TV fixers share an ability to crank up dramatic tension through the ruthless practice of skulduggery-for-hire.

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In Showtime’s "Billions," for example, hedge fund mogul Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) uses the spooky "Hall" (Terry Kinney) to contaminate investigations by U.S. Dist. Atty. Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). "Billions" co-creator Brian Koppelman came to understand the role of fixers while researching Wall Street movers and shakers.

Terry Kinney as Hall in "Billions."
Terry Kinney as Hall in "Billions." (Jeff Neumann / SHOWTIME)

"We spoke to many hedge-fund managers, billionaires and powerful people," he says. "One of the things we learned about people with unlimited resources is that those resources can sometimes purchase a heightened level of security, opposition research and help on the edges of what's generally considered acceptable."

Hall exploits that edge with chilling efficiency. This season in "Billions," he slipped into the bedroom of a telecom employee one night and blackmailed him into altering phone records that would otherwise implicate an Axelrod associate on insider-trading charges.

Co-creator David Levien notes that Hall's tactics make perfect sense to titans of industry. "Unless they had their fortunes handed to them, billionaires are highly competitive and aggressive," Levien says. "They aren't going to just sit back and answer questions in court one day with lawyers. They need personnel out there working for them, taking the strong-offense-is-the-best-defense approach."

Unlike the sullen Hall, Brendan Fraser's Texan fixer James Fletcher Chace comes across as a folksy dude in FX Network's fact-based "Trust." Security consigliore to John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, he's dispatched in 1973 to retrieve the oil tycoon's grandson from Italian kidnappers.

"Chace doesn't carry a gun and he doesn't strong-arm," says Fraser. "He wears a Stetson. He's the guy who carries funds into the high-powered meeting with the mob, striding in there all wide-eyed and 'golly shucks,' playing up the brassy American. He has a firm handshake and that all-American smile, and he's going to make it real easy for you to come around and see things the right way."

Hilary Swank as Gail Getty and Brendan Fraser as James Fletcher Chase in the limited series "Trust."
Hilary Swank as Gail Getty and Brendan Fraser as James Fletcher Chase in the limited series "Trust." (FX)

Chace, an actual ex-CIA officer also portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in "All the Money in the World,” ultimately failed to prevent criminals from cutting off young Getty's ear, Fraser points out. "I'm flattered to think that Chace might be a fixer, but he's more of a first responder of sorts, because if he'd done his job, we wouldn't have a TV show. At one point in Rome, he can't give away a quarter-million dollars [to get information]. He's like, 'What the hell do I have to do in this town to get somebody to talk to me?'"

In contemporary Hollywood, loose talk and shameful behavior leads to steady employment for Ray Donovan, portrayed by Emmy nominee Liev Schreiber in Showtime's series of the same name. Donovan deploys baseball bats, suitcases full of cash and embarrassing information to make sure his clients' dirty secrets remain secret. Executive producer David Hollander knows the type. "I've worked in the film and television business since 1992," he says via email. "Anyone who has been in the business that long has seen and heard a lot."

Donovan, psychologically bruised by a brutal childhood on the streets of Boston, often forges a "trauma bond" with his clients," Hollander says. "He's motivated to hide things that people are ashamed of because he wants the same for himself."

On a more pragmatic level, Hollander observes, "A great fixer needs to understand leverage: who has the power, why that person has the power, and how to change the terms of what that power is. If one person creates fear in another, then fear is usually the best weapon to use. If it's about money, then it's usually about more money. If it's about revenge, [the leverage] is usually about love. Understanding the terms of the fix is fundamental."

When the show first started running five years ago, "Ray Donovan" dramatized for a niche audience how people in positions of power maintain a veneer of respectability through any means necessary. But in recent months, the "fixer" archetype went mainstream after Trump attorney Michael Cohen likened himself in a tweet to Ray Donovan.

"We're not tapping into his dynamic so much as he's tapping into ours," Hollander says. "In a strange way, we become the zeitgeist he only wishes he was part of. When Michael Cohen compares himself to Ray, it makes those of us who write the fictional Ray Donovan wince, because Ray is just so much better at doing the job."

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