THE SHOW "Ray Donovan"

WHEN | WHERE Season premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime

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WHAT IT'S ABOUT Still estranged from his family, fixer-to-the-famous and powerful Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) has a new, mysterious adversary -- Father Romero (Leland Orser), who's looking into the disappearance of the murdered priest who molested Ray's brother Bunchy. Ray also gets some new clients -- treacherous plutocrat Malcolm Finney (Ian McShane) and his even more treacherous daughter, Paige (Katie Holmes). Meanwhile, Ray's father Mickey (Jon Voight) is exploring new business opportunities along with Daryll (Pooch Hall); Bunchy (Dash Mihok) is running the gym; Terry (Eddie Marsan) is in jail; and Abby (Paula Malcomson) gets a friend -- a four-legged one.

MY SAY The third season is either a bet or a question mark -- maybe both -- revolving around this: Can Showtime's signature drama thrive without creator and guiding force Ann Biderman, forced out last season over "cost overruns" (per trade reports)? Those overruns must've been whoppers because you don't need to be a Hollywood accountant to know that "costs" aren't usually the biggest problems a hit series has to worry about.

But Biderman was special -- a gifted Emmy-winning writer ("NYPD Blue") who put the grit, dirt and grime in every syllable of the supremely gritty, dirty, grimy dialogue. Along with Schreiber, she was indispensable -- or seemed to have been.

With the first couple of episodes as guide, "Donovan" is in good shape. The voracious consumption of story and characters in the second season feels like a distant memory in the third. The pace has slowed, the ride less wild, the story refocused on Ray's "fixer" skills. Biderman (who remains as consultant) will be missed, but maybe she wasn't so indispensable after all.

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GRADE B+