[6 April 2008]
Although it may look like just another TV legal drama, Damages proves to be quite another thing altogether. Staying out of the courtroom for the most part, it’s really about what goes on before the trial, a period of brinksmanship that plays like an intense secret war waged between truly ruthless enemies. What’s most startling is the level at which this war is waged. Methods go far beyond mere blackmail and bribery into murder so casually committed it seems almost routine.
The premise seems simple at first: Ambitious but naive young attorney Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) accepts a job with a prestigious law firm run by the notorious and enigmatic Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) who quickly schools her in the ways of her twisted world. As a lawyer, Patty is brilliant, but as a person she’s almost sociopathic. If she displays anything resembling human emotions or socially acceptable behavior, it’s most certainly coincidental. In fact, at first she seems like a complete lunatic, showing up at the wedding of Ellen’s sister uninvited to have a quick bathroom chat with her young protégé about her future with the firm.
It seems like a dream sequence or merely bad television. What kind of person does this? It takes a little getting used to, but it’s really a masterstroke of writing from creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman. This is the first but certainly not the last time when a character will do something seemingly insane which is later revealed to be a carefully performed act of manipulation. No one can be trusted in this story, and everyone seems to be a heartbeat away from betraying everyone else.
The entire season is devoted to one case, the Arthur Frobisher class action suit. Frobisher (Ted Danson) is a Donald Trump-type real estate developer, but with much better hair and an Enron-like concern for his employees. Patty is certain that she can prove that Frobisher is guilty of defrauding his employees of their pensions, but her motivations are enigmatic. Is she trying to win the case for her clients because she cares about their plight, or is it all some kind of Machiavellian game?
For much of her behind the scenes wrangling, Patty depends on, uses, and abuses her whipping boy Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan). Tom is spineless and will do anything to please Patty. Which is what Ellen is told to do, as she is manipulated daily by both of them to get what they want from her: testimony from her soon to be sister in law, Katie Conner (Anastasia Griffith), who has a surprising connection to Frobisher.
The series is structured along multiple timelines beginning, with Ellen discovering her fiancé David (Noah Bean) dead in their apartment. She is picked up by the police under suspicion of murder. The story shifts between her interrogation and the sprawling events of the last six months that led up to this tragedy, peeling the layers back on a labyrinthine mystery. The structure gives a real edge to many details encountered throughout the series as we recognize objects and people who we know will become central to the murder. At first, it seems coincidental that Katie Connor is connected to Frobisher. But as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing is in the slightest way coincidental and everyone is playing some kind of angle.
The performances are nothing short of extraordinary. As Frobisher, Danson plays on the charm that’s served him well as a sitcom star his entire career. Frobisher is affable in that I-could-buy-you type of way, and clearly has told so many lies that he’s come to believe his own line of BS. Danson does a wonderful job in finding the subtleties of this man’s monstrosity, particularly in a scene in which a sinister associate makes the not-so-subtle suggestion that a troublesome witness should be killed. Danson brushes this off and even displays some kind of personal morality. “You’re crazy,” he says, “You go down that road and there’s no way back.” But just a minute later, we can see the gears in his mind turning as he returns to the idea and asks if it could actually be done.
Danson doesn’t play the scene like some B-movie villain, but shows how the man instinctually rebukes the idea of murder until he has a chance to wrap his mind around it and question whether it’s something he can really live with. It turns out that he can. It turns out, in fact, that this man can live with almost anything that will protect his fabricated sense of self. It’s not money that really drives Frobisher, but rather a need for acceptance and respect.
At one point, he decides to write his autobiography in order to propagandize himself for posterity. Like most megalomaniacs, he keeps framing his life as a story and explains how he overcame dyslexia to become the powerful and successful man he feels he is today. No one seems to care, not even his loyal and tortured attorney Ray Fiske (Zelko Ivanek) or his wife, who merely serves him with divorce papers.
Glenn Close won a Golden Globe for her performance here and it’s much deserved. Her portrayal of Patty Hewes is unapologetic. Close doesn’t try to humanize her so much as she makes her as complex and sphinx-like as possible. In any given scene, it’s hard to tell whether Patty is being honest, manipulative, caring or divisive. This is a woman who shows that she loves her teenage son by having him kidnapped by a “Scared Straight” juvenile program and then offers him a contract for a legal separation so she can wash her hands of the boy.
As great as Close is, however, the rest of the cast is her match. In many ways, this should’ve been awarded with a Best Ensemble award, since every player contributes so much to the final drama. Tate Donovan, Noah Bean, Anastasia Griffith, Phillip Bosco, and Peter Riegert as the sickening and ice cold George Moore, are all excellent. But in many ways, longtime character actor Zeljko Ivanek steals the show. The character of attorney Ray Fiske seems to be set up as the villain during the pilot, but he becomes a powerfully tragic figure as the series progresses. In particular, his scenes with Peter Facinelli memorable as the doomed Gregory Malina are very sensitive and moving. Ivanek holds the screen with a calm gravitas that makes his character’s final choices in episode 11 all the more startling.
Rose Byrne ends up giving a very good performance herself but she’s crippled by the writers for about half the series with a character who seems way too naive. The actress comments on this in one of the DVD extras, and it’s true that Ellen Parsons is kind of an annoying character until her moment of truth in episode 10 when she finally stands up to Patty. From this point on, Ellen earns her place as the story’s pro-active protagonist and Byrne seems to find her own footing in the character. In fact, there is great pleasure in watching her turn the tables on her manipulators as Ellen has learned a most important lesson from them: Trust no one.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment releases Damages: The Complete First Season on DVD in 1.78:1 wide screen presentations that feature anamorphic enhancement for 16:9 displays. All of the episodes come with Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtracks.
Three short featurettes are included.Willful Acts: The Making of Damages is a decent look behind-the-scenes with a focus on the large cast of characters. Trust No One: Insight from the Creators is a discussion with the writers about the show’s thematic background and Understanding Class Action: Interactive Guide is here to provide an idiot’s guide to class action lawsuits if the show’s legalese makes your head spin.
Extras include Audio Commentaries with writer-producers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman on the Pilot with Glenn Close and I Hate These People with Zelko Ivanek. Deleted Scenes have been included for eight episodes. None of these are really worth saving from the cutting room floor.
Damages is the kind of storytelling I haven’t experienced since Paul Abbott’s riveting BBC series State of Play in 2003. A complex serial story, it’s even more suited to the DVD medium as the show can be picked up and followed at your own pace without fear of missing some of the story. Highly recommended.