Is anyone really that surprised by Damages failure in the ratings?
The ambitious thing that Damages has tried to do is to establish story arcs that unfold over the course of an entire season. This is not Law & Order, wherein every week is a new case and things, for the most part, reset back to normal by the time the next episode comes on. Rather, Damages is a show that rewards only those who have stuck through from the very beginning; it’s meant to be watched straight through. As such, despite the immense star power of Glenn Close and the numerous guest stars that fill up each and every season, this is not a show that was designed for casual viewers.
Yet what has made Damages last as long as it has is the fact that it is not a courtroom drama. In fact, in the course of the first three seasons, only one scene has actually taken place in a courtroom was a darn-near trivial interlude in the middle of Season Two. Creators Daniel Zelman, Todd Kessler, and Glenn Kessler initially conceived the show as a psychological thriller, and figured that in order to create a show like that wherein things are lead by a strong female protagonist; the best job to give her would be that of a ruthless career lawyer.
Enter Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). She’s powerful, manipulative, and dismissive of those who can’t keep up. In Season Two, she discovered that her husband Phil (Michael Noun) was having an affair. What troubled her was not the fact that he was having an affair, but because he was “sloppy”, and got caught. That was why she divorced him—because he could no longer keep up with her.
Season Three opens with Patty not even choosing her case this time around. While before she dealt with swindling billionaires like Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and Enron-style energy companies like UNR, this time around a court appoints Hewes & Associates to help locate the assets lost in a gigantic Bernie Madoff-styled Ponzi scheme, run by the dysfunctional Tobin family. Their son, Joe Tobin (in a command performance by Campbell Scott) is floored by this. Still a recovering alcoholic himself, he feels nothing but shame and guilt for his father’s actions, although when he’s faced with the idea of supporting his family using some of those stowed-away funds, Joe is faced with an immense moral dilemma that he spends a lot of time coping with.
His relationship with his father is strained even further by the fact that his ex, Danielle Marchetti, was, he believed, his father’s mistress. The family’s matriarch, Marilyn (Lily Tomlin), is doing everything she can to make the best out of a bad situation. While Patty and right-hand-man Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) work towards recovering funds, Patty’s famed protégé Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is now working for the D.A.‘s office, and her boss (a woefully miscast Ben Shenkman) couldn’t care less about the funds: he just wants at Tobin behind bars.
Just like seasons past, Damages employs a dual-timeline effect, wherein the show opens with a shocking event near the “end of the season” (which here—and this is not a spoiler—is the death of Tom Shayes), and then flashes some three or so months prior where we get to see the buildup leading to how that finalé turns out. What’s different, however, is that this time the show feels dramatically inert. At first, all the elements are in play: Ellen wants nothing to do with Patty but nonetheless gets drawn back into her world, Patty—in dealing with her son’s impending pregnancy—is having recurring dreams involving horses, farms, and a large amount of blood, and Tom discovers that because of the Tobin’s scheme, his family has lost their entire savings, which is something that he keeps from Patty even as the investigation barrels forward.
What makes this season lack that extra punch from the two prior seasons is that there ultimately is not a lot at stake. Although there are billions of dollars hidden somewhere and families are ruined without them, the show has established a stock-and-trade of death and murder to help elevate the stakes. Although there are some deaths early on, the show meanders around between numerous subplots, ranging from Ellen’s sister falling down on her luck (and getting arrested for crack possession), to Phil’s attempts to get back into Patty’s life, to Tom dealing with the toll that the Ponzi scheme is taking on his marriage.
Then, of course, there are two utterly pointless subplots that take away from the action considerably. The first of which is one wherein Ellen has dreams about a woman from her past, which leads her to think she just might be adopted. The other, and far more heinous one, involves the revived Arthur Frobisher pushing his new wind initiative, garnering the interest of a well-known film actor who wants to play Arthur in a movie based on his life. Although this subplot does technically provide some closure for the death of Ellen’s finance at the end of the first season, it goes about it in such a mechanical, contrived way that one can’t help but feel that this was written in as filler, which would make sense given it has, again, absolutely nothing to do with the main storyline whatsoever (and what’s worse is that this arc plays out over half the season).
Give credit, then, to some solid performances and some great last-minute surprises to keep us from writing the show off altogether. Close and Byrne still run that perfect, dry pitch for their power-driven characters (best exemplified by one scene wherein a drunken Patty marvels about how manipulative Ellen truly is), and were it not for that, the entire show simply wouldn’t work. Although the guest stars do a good job here—like Martin Short, playing the Tobin’s lawyer, giving one of the most gloriously restrained performances of his entire career—it’s Campbell Scott that serves as the reluctant moral center of the show: a guy who wants to do right for the world but eventually convinces himself that as long as his family is taken care of, that’s all he needs to worry about.
After a rather bland lull part-way through the season, it’s the third-to-last episode, “All That Crap About Your Family”, that really gives the show that last-minute kick that it needs, wherein yes, the stakes are amped up considerably (killing characters tends to do that). There are still some flaws with the final episode (How did Joe inexplicably wind up at Tom’s house? Is there only one dumpster in the entire city that everyone uses?), its revelation of who Patty’s would-be killer (via a car crash) makes a lot more logistical sense than the deus ex machina that wrapped up the second season. In truth, it’s a solid ending to a rather indifferent season, but one can’t help but wonder if, going forward, the show will pick up the dramatic tension it built in its first two outings or simply drown in its numerous subplots that weigh this one down.
The extras on this DVD set are somewhat typical fare, ranging from deleted scenes (all well-produced but understandable why they were cut) to some everybody-praise-everybody behind-the-scenes docs. In truth, the blooper reel is a bit of a joy to watch, in not just for the fact that for such a deadly serious show, it’s nice to see everyone still being able to make a joke about it.
In the end, Season Three is the show’s weakest season to date, but the basic elements of what make the show work still manage to surprise and engage us. After declining ratings on FX, DirecTV have gone the Friday Night Lights route and helped finance a quality-if-struggling show so that its devoted fans can still catch it (watching reruns on DirecTV is somewhat hilarious, though, as info bars punctuate virtually every scene so that “casual viewers” know what the heck is going on). Yet even as that network had renewed Damages for both fourth and fifth seasons, it should be noted that both of those seasons are only ten episodes long. Maybe this will help bring more focus back to the show, because if Season Three proves anything, it’s that Damages is starting to lose it.