By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - From the FBI agent tripping on acid to the action film star marrying a transsexual, the Sunday night Showtime drama "Ray Donovan" has served up its share of bizarre twists.
In the tale of a ruthless yet morally conflicted Hollywood "fixer" played by Liev Schreiber, "you never know where it is going to go," executive producer Mark Gordon says.
What the premium cable network does know is that "Ray Donovan" - now heading into the final three episodes - will be its biggest show in its first season. Ratings are outpacing the current record holder, domestic terror thriller "Homeland," by almost 40 percent.
The show already has been renewed for a second season, and CBS Corp-owned Showtime Networks Inc has bet on "Ray Donovan" as its next big showcase.
Popular serial killer drama "Dexter" concludes next month after eight seasons, and "Homeland" embarks on a crucial third season after a more lukewarm reception to season two.
"We are trying to have one anchor show each of the four seasons of the year," said David Nevins, Showtime's entertainment president. "I think 'Ray Donovan' has already established itself as one of the anchors. It will probably be our anchor in the summer for years to come."
Building a stable of strong shows is key to Showtime's strategy of developing original programming to compete with HBO and Netflix, which have come to be known as much for their own productions as for running Hollywood films.
Early reviews for "Ray Donovan" were mixed, though most critics praised Schreiber and Oscar winner Jon Voight, who plays Ray's menacing father, Mickey, a Boston mobster jailed 20 years for a crime he did not commit.
It's the relationship at the heart of the drama, and it's still a mystery. Mickey wants to reconnect with his family in Los Angeles, but the baseball-bat wielding Ray, who can fix the worst problems for his Hollywood clientele, can't fix Mickey. He wants him dead and viewers don't know why.
Nevins said the show draws around 5.7 million viewers each week, either on Sunday nights or through digital recording, a number he calls "remarkably solid."
It would be higher if not for the Time Warner Cable Inc blackout in some major markets due to a weeks-long fee dispute with CBS, he added.
ABOUT MEN, BY A WOMAN
Women, it turns out, are showing keen interest in the show, which was created and is written by a woman, Ann Biderman.
"You've got very interesting moments of male psychology written interestingly by a woman, and I think that true look at the way men think and approach the world is fascinating to women," Nevins said.
Gordon, a TV and film producer behind hit network shows like ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," paired up with Biderman for his first premium cable production.
After Showtime accepted the pitch, they spent months developing the "Ray Donovan" script, finding the director and casting the show.
It took a "very long time" to convince Schreiber to play Ray, he said.
"We had the time to do it right," said Gordon, a benefit of working for a network that does not need to heed the accelerated schedules of broadcast and commercial TV networks because of advertiser commitments.
For Gordon and Nevins, the unpredictability of the "Ray Donovan" storyline and the character of Ray is key not only to the show, but also to Showtime's profile.
"There's a place on television for comfort TV. I don't think they come to Showtime for comfort," Nevins said. "Our shows are challenging, subversive and unpredictable."
Eric Deggans, TV critic at the Tampa Bay Times, said he likes Voight's and Schreiber's performances, but believes the show's meandering storylines can be problematic for retaining viewers.
"I don't know if that is because they are moving so slowly or if it's because the storylines are not compelling," he said.
Final episodes will answer questions like why Ray hates his father, and Nevins says he believes the show will end up being different from anything people have seen on TV.
"'Ray Donovan' I think comes in with a group with 'Homeland,' with 'Masters of Sex,' with 'Shameless' that I think are taking us to a new level," Nevins said. "Only history will tell if it has the long-term impact that the 'The Sopranos' has on HBO."
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Xavier Briand)