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TV Picks: 'Ray Donovan,' 'Matador,' NOLA on 'P.O.V.'

Robert Lloyd this week nods approvingly at 'Ray Donovan,' 'Matador' and the POV doc 'Getting Back to Abnormal'

"Ray Donovan" (Showtime, Sundays). Ann Biderman's series about a Hollywood fixer, the dysfunctional (Boston Irish) family he came from and the dysfunctional family he heads begins a second season. (The last finished with revealed secrets, a degree of reconciliation and recovery, and the blood of James Woods.) As antiheroes go, Ray is among the anti-est -- that he sometimes does bad things for good reasons, and that he is usually on the side of better people against worse ones, doesn't make the bad things particularly less bad. But Liev Schreiber's performance, like that of (Emmy-nominated) Jon Voight as his troublesome father Mickey, is so balanced and nuanced, so subtle and unshowy and so palpably wounded that Ray remains, if not always likable, usually relatable. It helps too that, while he is abnormally good at solving other people's problems on the fly, we also see the limits of his comprehension, of his authority and of his ability to manage the very things that cause him the most pain. (As the new season opens, he is sublimating his anger with sex; Mickey, some miles to the south, is having a spiritual experience with a dolphin.)

There's a streak of humanity that runs through the show, a hopefulness that does sometimes pay off, room for growth in which growth sometimes occurs. It helps too that everyone around Schreiber and Voight is doing sensitive work: Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok as Ray's equally, if differently troubled, brothers and Paula Malcomson as his wife, most crucially, but the acting is first-rate all up and down the line, from the main cast to those just passing through. Except perhaps in its portrayal of some show business or criminal-justice types, it is not a freak show. Your pity is excited more than your prurience. The new year adds Wendell Pierce as a parole agent with money problems, Ann-Margret as a former film star and Hank Azaria as a tough-guy FBI chief with a surprising sideline. 

"Matador" (Tuesdays, El Rey). The World Cup final makes timely the scheduling of this sparky new series from Robert Rodriguez's genre-friendly El Rey Network, a kind of Latin American "I Spy" update, though with James Bond appointments, in which the secret agent  is not a tennis bum but a soccer star. (Football player, if you like.) Gabriel Lunda plays a DEA agent with speed and skills pressed into service by CIA siren Nicky Whelan -- yet another Australian blond, like Yvonne Strahovski in "Chuck" and Anna Torv in "Fringe," playing an American action hero. Alfred Molina is the two-faced billionaire owner of the team that Bravo infiltrates. It gets a little sanguinary here and there -- an ax goes into a head fairly early in the pilot -- but its level of mayhem is for the most part Saturday matinee: Not for littler kids, probably, but nothing older ones won't have seen a million times, and by current standards remarkably reserved in matters of language and sexual implicitness.

"Getting Back to Abnormal" (PBS, Monday). The recent sentencing of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to 10 years in prison for bribery, wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and tax evasion makes timely the scheduling of this 2013 documentary (mostly) about the changing political climate and complexion of the Crescent City. (It comes packaged into the PBS series "P.O.V.") Its four filmmakers -- Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian, Paul Stekler, collectively the makers of "Louisiana Boys, Raised on Politics," "Vote for Me: Politics in America," "People Like Us: Social Class in America" and "The Choice 2008" and "Yeah You Rite," the last about the accents of New Orleans -- focus on the 2010 reelection drive of city council member Stacy Head. The filmmakers clearly like her: They are not out to expose Head, who is white, as the racist some opponents believe or claim to believe she is, though she does come off as a slightly peculiar, sometimes difficult personality. "If I could change one thing to make my life easier," says her (African American) friend and adviser Barbara Lacen-Keller, who in some ways is the star of the picture, "it’s that she’s just be a little more calmer. If she just be a little more calmer and think before she speaks, that’s all I ask."

But this is a film full of peculiar personalities whose often contradictory points of view make its fabric and whose expression is its poetry. The themes are race, class, home and change; who's the boss of whom; and how a city defines itself: the ways that progress threatens essence and preserving essence hinders progress. (Especially in a place as in love with its past and its own resistance to change, even when it looks like improvement, as New Orleans.) Where one real estate developer finds the post-Katrina city, to which some 50,000 black residents of public housing never returned, "a great opportunity to de-concentrate the poor," a woman who lived in the projects points out: "A lot of people do wish that public housing [would] just go away, but if I loved my community, what is it to you? Don’t come in my community if you don’t love my community, stay in your own community." Bemused/amused long-view commentary floats above the fray from journalists and historians; also heard from are "Treme" co-creator David Simon, as well as Davis Rogan, the NOLA musician, DJ and eminent personage who inspired the series character Davis McAlary; fans of the series will find this familiar ground, although the dialogue goes places no screenwriter ever would: "We pray every voter is released now to pull the lever for number 45. In Jesus Christ’s name, and who dat?" No conclusions are drawn, but every frame is full of life: Good side or bad, New Orleans is always ready for its closeup.

Robert Lloyd is waiting for you with chicory-flavored tweets at @LATimesTVLloyd

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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