DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The Showtime cable network presents two drama series this Sunday, series at different ends of their life spans. "Dexter" presents the premier episode of its eighth and final season while "Ray Donovan" unveils its very first episode. For at least as long as there have been fall preview issues of TV Guide, there's been a sense of optimistic excitement about the start of new televisions series.
But more recently, producers of long-running TV shows have injected excitement into the ends of their programs' life spans as well. By announcing in advance that a show is going into its final season no matter what, it ups the emotional ante on what to expect and, with a finite end in sight, what might happen.
This year, no TV series exemplifies that sense of anticipation more than the final episodes of "Breaking Bad" which AMC begins rolling out this August. But closing the book on a TV series and allowing it to end like a book is becoming more common. This weekend, Showtime's "Dexter" begins its final lap. And it's first four episodes reveals some strengths as well as some weaknesses.
The final season of "Dexter" begins six months after last year's killer cliffhanger in which - if you're behind, lower your radio volume now - Dexter's sister Deb pulled a Vic Mackey from "The Shield" and killed a fellow police officer in cold blood. She did it to protect her brother who had been cornered and caught as a serial killer by the other cop. But in the months since, that decision hasn't sat well with Deb.
She's quit the force, numbed herself with drugs and alcohol, and avoided her brother completely. Until he tracks her down in a convenience store and confronts her. Michael C. Hall plays Dexter, Jennifer Carpenter plays his sister Debra.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEXTER")
JENNIFER CARPENTER: (as Debra) Do you want to know why I'm not returning your phone calls? Because I don't want to talk to you. And I really don't want to (beep) see you.
MICHAEL C. HALL: (as Dexter) Why?
CARPENTER: (as Debra) Why? Because you made my compromise everything about myself that I care about. And I hate you for it.
HALL: (as Dexter) No, you don't.
CARPENTER: (as Debra) I shot the wrong person in that trailer.
BIANCULLI: The emotional dance between Dexter and Deb is one primary plot thread of this last season of "Dexter." Another more successfully unraveled one is an examination of Dexter's past, courtesy of a doctor, a specialist in psychopathic behavior, who turns out to have known Dexter's father quite well. That doctor is played by Charlotte Rampling, who delivers the best guest performance in this series since John Lithgow dominated the screen in the best season of "Dexter," the one about the trinity killer.
For now, "Dexter" has some plot holes that don't make sense but some performances that make for a strong start. Right after the season premier of "Dexter," Showtime presents the premier episode of "Ray Donovan." It stars Liev Schreiber in the title role, playing a tough, well connected guy who fixes things when Hollywood celebrities get in trouble. It's a violent, morally murky business but its rewards include allowing Ray to provide for his wife and children in a posh West Coast lifestyle.
Until, that is, his even more morally corrupt father is released from prison after 20 years and returns to town. This new Showtime series is created by Ann Biderman, whose credits include the impressively raw TNT series "Southland." Equally of note is that one of the executive producers of "Ray Donovan" is Mark Gordon, one of the guiding forces of Showtime's "Homeland."
So the off-screen pedigree is strong, but no stronger than the actors on the screen who turn "Ray Donovan" into something special. Liev Schreiber in his first TV role since a one-season stint on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" plays Ray Donovan as a towering, mostly silent, often menacing presence. Like Liam Neeson in the "Taken" movies. And Schreiber might run away with this show except that before the first hour is over he runs into an equally strong and scary force.
It's Ray's ex-con father Mickey played by Jon Voight. Voight plays every scene as though he's already holding his Emmy statuette. He goes for it all out, bringing as much menace and mischief to his pauses and glances as he does to his dialogue and action scenes. In the opening episode, Ray and his father reunite at the family boxing gym where they're surrounded by Ray's siblings. They're happy to have Mickey back but Ray isn't. And even though father and son are not inside the ring as they lock eyes, they might as well be.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAY DONOVAN")
LIEV SCHREIBER: (as Ray) What are you doing here, Mick?
JON VOIGHT: (as Mickey) What am I doing here? Last time I saw you, I was the one going to Hollywood. What the (beep) happened? You set me up. Twenty years. Now look at you. That's your big shot. Well, this is great. This is great. All my boys are together. Everyone's great.
SCHREIBER: (as Ray) Everyone's great, Mick? Really? Ridge is dead. Terry's shaking like a (beep) leaf and Bunchy can't stay sober more than a month. That's your legacy, Mick.
VOIGHT: (as Mickey) Hey, Hollywood big shot. I want to date Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno, or Dianne Carroll. Boy, that don't take me back. Can you hook me up?
BIANCULLI: The first four episodes of "Ray Donovan" suggest a "Sopranos"-type tone and approach and that, of course, is high praise. The fixing that Ray does on the job ranges from comic to brutal and his home life is just as messy as Tony Soprano's. Who's a worst parent, Ray's dad or Tony's mom? Tough call. But adding "Ray Donovan" to your weekly viewing list and staying with "Dexter" to the end, those are easy calls.