‘Damages’, My Bad Memory, and John Grisham Novels

I queued up the third-season premiere of FX’s Damages earlier this evening with a good bit of uncertainty. Part of this uncertainty was because, despite my appreciation of its taut first season, the second left me completely cold. Even after watching the enjoyable and promising start to the new season, I still cannot remember the events that unfolded in the final episodes of season two. Seriously, where did Timothy Olyphant’s character go? And how did Ellen end up in the DA’s office? And what happened to all those characters we spent season two learning about? William Hurt, are you in prison? These are all questions that I once learned the answers to (and that, yes, I know, I could look up online in ten seconds), but it feels like a major problem that nothing has yet jogged my memory.

Fortunately, I think this only says profoundly negative things about last season and leaves me still jazzed about the apparent resurgence onscreen here at the start of the new season. The fresh start brings with it a new cast of characters (and, more importantly, a new group of actors). On paper, I find Lily Tomlin and Campbell Scott less appealing than Olyphant and Hurt from last season, but, if the premiere is any indication, the new crop of actors has been given a better storyline to function within (and Martin Short’s character echoes Zeljko Ivanek’s Emmy-winning performance from season one). Glenn Close remains arresting as Patty Hewes, and Rose Byrne plays Ellen with a newly found confidence which suits her better than the furtive glances and double-crosses of the ill-conceived undercover storyline of season two (if I wanted to watch Alias, I have the DVDs).

I remember comparing the show’s impressive first-season (which itself was not without its share of problems… remember those episodes with waaaaay too much Peter Facinelli?) to a John Grisham novel. It continually wrung a tremendous amount of suspense out of situations that, in hindsight, were not nearly as compelling or suspenseful as they seemed when you were first experiencing them. After the second season, I realize that my comparison was not specific enough. The first season was like an EARLY John Grisham novel. Remember those? I remember how fresh and original those early novels felt at the time, and that was definitely the feeling that the first season of Damages elicited in me. And, like Grisham novels after, let’s say, The Client, Damages’ second season just seemed to be playing all the same notes but with none of the previous effect. There were a lot of smash-cuts and ominous gazes, but it never really added up to much.

I realize that comparisons to John Grisham are pretty passé, but Damages is not a show that attempts to work on the level of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or about a half-dozen other great shows on the air right now. Instead, it aspires to that level of Grisham-like suspense and intrigue, as a bunch of really rich people do really bad things to each other. As the current season unfolds, replete with flash-forwards of impending death and destruction, we should keep our fingers crossed that we are watching Damages’ equivalent of The Firm. Or, you know, at least The Pelican Brief.

RATING 7 / 10