Fixer, fix thyself. Easier said than done in the gaudy cesspool of soul-sucking mendacity we call Hollywood, where Ray Donovan plies his gruff trade as the strong and silent go-to problem-solver of the stars. Showtime's Ray Donovan (Sunday, 10/9c), the summer's best and boldest new show, is a Scandal for the serious-minded: outrageously compelling and teeming with sinister surprise, yet never seeming crazily sensational as it goes to emotional and violent extremes.
This electrifying drama of family and corruption from Southland's Ann Biderman may be the greatest bonanza for spectacular character acting since the glory days of The Sopranos. Liev Schrieber commands respect — at work if not always at home — with his stoic, inscrutably sexy and grave authority as Ray, a Boston Southie transplant who gets his hands dirty and soul tarnished while cleaning up the messes of the famous clients of his powerful lawyer bosses: Elliott Gould as his emotionally fragile and needy mentor and House's Peter Jacobson as his hilariously dyspeptic partner.
Surrounded by liars and hypocrites, Ray seethes with contempt but also has compassion for the pathetic losers in his wake. After all, his own family is such an unholy mess of basket cases it would take the entire Pacific to drown their sorrows. As the series begins, the architect of Ray's misery — his incorrigible con-man father Mickey (Jon Voight, riveting in a career-redefining role of gleeful malice) — is released from prison early and heads west with bloody baggage, eager to upend Ray's tenuously ordered life. Mickey quickly insinuates himself with Ray's broken brothers: Eddie Marsan as broken-down boxer Terry, whose Parkinson's tremors act as an emotional shield as he explores a tentative romance with a nurse (the wonderfully sympathetic Brooke Smith), and Dash Mihok as Bunchy, a pathetic Peter Pan of an overgrown arrested adolescent who's never healed from the psychic trauma of being abused as a child by the neighborhood priest.
Ray is under no illusions that he's a hero, a self-loathing underscored by his fractious relationship with wife Abby (Deadwood's gritty Paula Malcomson), who weeps during yoga and yearns to better her children's lives. (The kids, who have their own issues without coming off like precocious brats, are well played by Brothers & Sisters' Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby.) Ray and Abby's turbulent bouts of passion and despair are so real and raw it's not a stretch to compare them to Tony and Carmela.
This could be the start of something great. In just a handful of episodes, it's already powerfully terrific.
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GOOD TO THE LAST DROP? Showtime is smartly pairing the new Ray Donovan with one of its most popular long-running melodramas in its final stretch. And for all rabid Dexter fans who've been eagerly anticipating, or possibly dreading, this final season (Sunday, 9/8c): Wait until you meet Dr. Evelyn Vogel (chillingly provocative Charlotte Rampling). She not only knows Dexter Morgan from the inside out — she helped create him. And this Frankenstein-style neuro-psychiatrist is his greatest cheerleader.
"You're exactly what you need to be, Dexter. You're perfect," Vogel comforts her favorite closeted psychopath with a hug. Despite the impressive body count he has amassed over eight seasons of surreptitious slaughter, she insists he's no evil monster. "You're actually making the world a better place."
Dexter certainly made Showtime a more interesting place, expanding the definition of a serial-killer thriller with ghoulish wit as its emotionally detached anti-hero (Michael C. Hall, droll and devastating) cleansed Miami of its most monstrous criminals. His spree hasn't been without its ups and downs, but Dexter roared back to life last season, and in what's shaping up to be a fascinating and freaky last chapter, Dexter once again faces his inner demons, unnerved by the mad doctor who studies and admires him like a pet lab rat. Vogel is unwilling to accept that he actually has human empathy, but we know better.
"What kind of 'gift' destroys everything it cares about?" Dexter skeptically wonders, surveying the emotional wreckage of his adoptive sister Debra (the operatically profane Jennifer Carpenter), who's never been the same since discovering his bloody secret — a sensational plot twist that revived the show a year ago. Having quit the police force, she's now in a self-destructive spiral of sex, drugs and bad attitude, barking at her twisted sibling, "Anything can happen in this hellhole that is now my life. Your gift to me."
Dexter's scenes with Vogel and Deb are so electrifying and morbidly juicy that the subplots involving Dexter's co-workers in Miami Metro Homicide seem more than ever like dreary padding. If only Dexter would cut to the quick the way Dexter does when he has his victims bound in plastic. That's a ritual we know we'll miss — and what does that say about us?
BLOOD TYPE OH-SO-NEGATIVE: At least Dexter knows when to call it a day. As HBO's True Blood flails its way through a sixth season (Sunday, 9/8c) of heavy-handed allegory and nonsense involving royal fae bloodlines, Billith's apocalyptic visions and, among many other unappealing subplots, Sheriff Andy's fast-growing magic litter of fairy daughters, what was once a rapturously sexy Southern Gothic free-for-all has atrophied (as it did much of last year) into an anemic shell. When Eric surveys the shuttered Fangoria and shrugs, "It's just a bar," his irate mate Pam — who thankfully hasn't been defanged of her feistiness — replies, "Not even you believe that." The sad truth is that True Blood is now just another monster mash, and The Vampire Diaries and even MTV's Teen Wolf are delivering more satisfying supernatural-romantic action these days.
MORE SUNDAY DRAMA: As odd couples go, it's hard to beat Falling Skies' heroic Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and thorn-in-his-side rascal John Pope (Colin Cunningham), yoked together in a desperate trek through treacherous woods after their plane was shot down in last week's cliffhanger of TNT's popular alien-invasion drama (Sunday, 10/9c). "You are the king of chaos, Mason. It follows you," Pope grumbles as they avoid Skitters and other dangers, and even when it looks like they're bonding over stories of family and executing escapes in Butch-Sundance mode, the real trick will be for them not to kill each other before they make it back to Charleston. Back home, the hunt is on for fugitive Dr. Anne and her hybrid-alien baby Alexis, but with the possessed Bad Hal among the search party, it's not going to be an uneventful quest.
Also facing daunting odds: the despairing detectives of AMC's dour The Killing (Sunday, 9/8c), who hit roadblocks wherever they turn, with vague witnesses, uncooperative guardians and a stubborn boss. "We're never gonna get him, are we?" mutters a downbeat Holder (Joel Kinnaman) as he gazes upon a wall of the so-called "Pied Piper's" too-young victims. His intense, obsessed partner Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) doesn't contradict him, having just been dressed down by her annoyed supervisor, who helpfully reminds her: "This job is not for human beings." We're also reminded of the inhumanity on Death Row, where an increasingly fatalistic Seward (Peter Sarsgaard), now 12 days away from hanging, concludes, "Dying in a jumpsuit doesn't make you a man." Never the cheeriest of shows, this is another gripping hour of a comeback third season.
FROM ANNIE TO ADVERTISERS: PBS's typically diverse cup runneth over this weekend, starting with Friday's fascinating backstage look at a current Broadway musical revival: Annie: It's the Hard-Knock Life, From Script to Stage (check tvguide.com listings). Using the orphan girls' best-remembered production number as a focal point, this hour-long special examines the collaborative process of a big-budget musical, with ebullient but nerve-wracked choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler putting the eight enthusiastic child stars — including 9-year-old scene stealer Emily Rosenfeld, the show's Molly — through their paces, while costume designer Susan Hilferty and set designer David Korins work their magic (including building a clever bed for little Molly that doubles as a drawer that emerges from the staircase). The challenge is to satisfy an audience that knows the show all too well while also putting a new stamp on the material. Although Annie was upstaged this season by the dazzling Pippin revival — talk about your hard knocks — this celebration of the creative process could rekindle anyone's childhood dreams of making it onto the Great White Way.
Airing on just a few PBS outlets Sunday (but available afterward online at thirteen.org/real-mad-men), Mad Men fans in withdrawal can find an entertaining historical overview of the creative revolution in the modern ad business in The Real Mad Men and Women of Madison Avenue. "I was much better looking than Don Draper back then," crows ad legend George Lois, a "rock star" of the Mad Men era who has the photo evidence to back up his claim. (He was at least as dashing.) With three-martini-lunch anecdotes about the lusty "fraternity" atmosphere of the times — "We made Mad Men look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," boasts Jerry Della Femina — the special also spotlights female pioneers including Mary Wells Lawrence, Paula Green (who conjured Avis's revolutionary "We try harder" campaign) and Jane Maas, who declares, "Sex was in the air. People sort of breathed it." The vintage ads are fun to watch and remember, too.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: As the world awaits word of who'll replace Matt Smith and become the Twelfth Doctor in Doctor Who, BBC America continues its 50th-year Who celebration with Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited — The Sixth Doctor (Saturday, 7:30/6:30c), profiling Colin Baker (the 1984-86 version) and recalling his Doctor's most exciting exploits. ... The biopic you knew would happen: Lifetime's Anna Nicole (Saturday, 8/7c), with Agnes Bruckner as the ill-fated celeb-utante Anna Nicole Smith, leading a cast including Virginia Madsen (as her mother) and Martin Landau (as her tycoon husband). ... The suspense, and thus the thrill, may be gone regarding Nik Wallenda's much-watched tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon last Sunday, but Discovery isn't about to let a hit show slip away this quickly. In Skywire: Nik Talks the Walk (Sunday, 8/7c), Wallenda will watch a replay of the mega-stunt for the first time and narrate it, step by step. ... Smithsonian Channel's The Real Story (Sunday, 8/7c) explores the still-thriving Star Trek phenomenon, with Gene Roddenberry's son Rod putting a family spin on his dad's enduring science-fiction creation, and Leonard Nimoy sharing his thoughts about Mr. Spock. The show also looks at how Trek reflected and inspired actual scientific innovations.
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