“Damages” may be responsible for more cases of whiplash than a demolition derby.
It’s been more than 14 months since the last jaw-dropping episode of the FX series, but diehard fans are just recovering from the constant strain of twisting their necks to the rhythms of the series’ three-faced characters and unpredictable twists.
Those who dare to take on the second season, which starts Wednesday, might as well book an appointment with their chiropractors.
“We’re continuing to put these characters in an increasingly complicated and pressurized crucible,” said co-creator Todd Kessler. “That’s what ‘Damages’ has become.”
It’s hard to imagine the series getting any hotter than it was where we left off, with Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) discovering that her mentor, high-powered attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), had put out a hit on her. At the same time, devious billionare Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) was cut down by a disgruntled employee in an empty field.
But viewers learn they’re in for another wild ride in the premiere’s opening scene, a flash-forward (the show tinkers with time more than H.G. Wells did) in which the once-naive Parsons is guzzling Scotch and talking tough to an unseen character.
Just who that person is becomes more vital when Parsons fires a round of bullets in his/her direction. Is the victim Hewes? Parsons’ new lover, Wes Krulik (Timothy Olyphant), whom she met in grief counseling? Frobisher, who had her lover assassinated? Barney the Dinosaur? In the world of “Damages,” each scenario seems equally plausible.
“It’s an amazing mind game,” said Close, who won an Emmy in September for her work as an attorney who can build up the audience’s sympathies one minute, then dash them with one coldhearted glance. “The peeling away of all these layers is a revelation for me as well as for the audience. I’ve really gotten into that.”
That slow sense of discovery helped attract Oscar winner William Hurt, an actor who can make boiling eggs seem like an enigmatic process. He plays new character Daniel Purcell, an egghead scientist who appears to be confronting his bosses at a corrupt company, as well as Hewes, a former lover who may hold the key to Purcell’s freedom after he becomes the suspect in a murder.
Hurt, who previously co-starred with Close in “The Big Chill,” said he was hesitant to sign up for a TV series, but was struck by the show’s approach while watching a marathon of “Damages” episodes until 5 one morning.
“The standard operating procedure for TV is very, very quick, and normally I wouldn’t want that,” said Hurt, who is joined in the cast by another Oscar winner, Marcia Gay Harden, playing a powerhouse attorney. “But in this case, I could see them punching through the typical format with truly original, very intelligent, very imaginative characters. I was also watching Glenn very close to see how she was resonating. And I thought, ‘OK, maybe the format has been busted.’ That was it.”
Last year’s big-name draw, Danson, continues to get significant airtime, despite speculation that his character perished. Frobisher is alive (barely) and is just as duplicitous as ever. In one of the pilot’s most rewarding moments, he vows from his hospital bed that he’s changed his evil ways, turned over a new leaf - and then requests that his doctor stick some tubes up his nose so he will appear more fragile when his wife visits.
But the juiciest scenes belong to Byrne, an unknown actress last season who was handicapped by both the weight of her co-stars (Zeljko Ivanek, as Hewes’ nemesis, won the show’s other acting Emmy) and her character’s innocence.
This time around, she has a steely-eyed determination that makes her a fair match for Hewes - or any other poor sucker who gets in her way.
“She’s really more of a warrior in season two,” Byrne said of her Parsons character. “Her vulnerability got her into so much trouble before, but now she has none. She’s made of more steel now. Last season, the audience was so much ahead of her, which was a tricky thing to play, and this season, it’s sort of the reverse. In terms of evolution, it’s really exciting.”
That sense of growth, and new mysteries, make season two of “Damages” more compelling than all the mystery novels in an airport bookstore. Just remember to wear a neck brace. You’ll need it.