The Three Strike Rule: TV on DVD: “Damages” (FX)

FX recently released the first season of their original series, Damages, on DVD. You may have heard some buzz when the show began airing last July, and perhaps some new murmurs as the first season came to a close. Noteworthy for its cast and innovation, Damages proved to be a challenging series for any viewer, no matter how loyal: the show’s use of frequent flashbacks meant that missing just one show would potentially left viewers in the dark. However, in the end, Damages proved to be one of the most compelling shows to air on television — not just of the summer, but of the entire year.

Rose Byrne stars as Ellen Parsons, fresh out of law school and naively hoping to better the world. She is engaged to a great guy, David (Noah Bean), and appears to have the world on a string. However, we don’t learn any of this until 15 minutes into the show: Damages opens with Ellen wandering the streets of New York covered in blood and in a state of shock. David is dead. Ellen is the primary suspect in his murder. As she sits in an interrogation room, Ellen demands a lawyer. More pointedly, she wants to see her boss — the one person who may be able to save her. Ellen’s boss is a manipulative, icy lawyer named Patty Hewes. Glenn Close is brilliant in her portrayal of Patty, reminding us why she is one of he greatest actresses of her generation. In the pilot, Close displays all of the cunning and venom, vulnerability and pain of which she is capable. In my opinion, Patty easily joins the canon of Close’s greatest character performances, which includes Alex in Fatal Attraction and the Marquise de Merteuil from Dangerous Liaisons. From those opening moments in the pilot, the series takes off at a nonstop pace. Instead of using expository dialogue to detail past events, each episode cuts back in time, as often as four times per episode. Subsequently, there was nary a chance for a viewer to drift off; one had to pay close attention.

I believe these frequent flashbacks were a strong factor in the show’s dwindling ratings, following stellar pilot episode. Damages is not the type of show where one could get up to make a sandwich, feed the cat, or leaf through the latest issue of Rolling Stone: there’s simply too much information being dished out in each episode. However, the luxury of a DVD release is that it allows viewers to watch several episodes in one sitting, like chapters in a good thriller novel.

To summarize these flashbacks: Patty has personally chosen Ellen to join her firm. Her motives are cynical — although Ellen is deeply qualified, in truth, Patty wants Ellen for her association with David’s sister, Katie (Anastasia Griffith). Katie is about to open her own restaurant, which is being financed by Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), a multi-billionaire in the middle of a class action suit with his former employees (represented by Patty). Arthur is being sued after engaging in insider trading, and quietly selling all of his company’s stock. Danson expertly sheds his “Sam” image from Cheers once and for all, cavorting with hookers, snorting coke and lying to just about everyone, yet still showing a compassionate side as a loving husband and father. Danson brings so much humanity to this role, it’s often difficult to determine whether we should hate this SOB or empathize with him. In truth, he’s a much more likable character than Patty, one of the “heroes” in this series.

Katie may have witnessed an illegal transaction between Arthur and a mysterious man named George (played by the reliable Peter Riegert). If Patty can get to Katie (through Ellen) and convince her to testify against Arthur, then she can get her clients hundreds of millions of dollars. Rounding out the cast are Tate Donovan as Tom Shayes, Patty’s loyal number two (and the only ally Ellen may have), and the great character actor Zeljko Ivanek, who some of you will recognize from his years on Homicide: Life On The Street or his appearances on 24 and Oz. Ivanek plays Arthur’s lawyer, struggling with the moral dilemma of knowing Arthur’s secrets and trying to maintain his own identity in the shadow of his client. By the end of the season, Ivanek’s performance proved to be one of the most interesting and sad ones on television this year.

That’s the basic plot — from the past. In the present, Ellen sits in jail, and the mystery of who killed David, Patty’s disappearance and the secrets Ellen has are what keep the story propelling forward. By the end of the 12th episode, the past catches up with the present, leaving one shocking episode to sort out everything. It is a compelling story structure, and a gutsy one, too.

Damages is the creation of brothers Todd and Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman. Although Todd Kessler is a former writer for The Sopranos, the three men were sure to distance Damages‘ identity from that seminal series. (Side note: Both Damages and Mad Men — another one of last year’s finest shows — came from the minds of former Sopranos staffers. Hopefully, the end of The Sopranos will continue to release a floodgate of talent onto the television industry, and we’ll see more quality and less crap.)

Throughout these thirteen episodes, Damages encountered a little trouble maintaining the oomph of the pilot. This may be because the pilot was so damn good (one of the best in recent years). Some of the character subplots felt forced, too. Although the creators tried to tie together all of the subplots to help build doubt into who was the actual murderer, in some cases, it just built confusion. By the last two episodes, though, Damages became as riveting as anything on television. With the fate of the show dangling on cancellation, the writers went for broke and created a cliffhanger, opening up the possibility for a second season. Fortunately, FX did decide to renew the show. I won’t reveal the setup, though, as it would ruin the finale for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Like any continuing series, I’m sure the producers will look back on the first season to see what worked and what should have been left in the editing bay. I look forward to the progression of their new storyline; whatever they invent, I know it’ll be a joy to simply watch Rose Byrne and Glenn Close sparring for another thirteen episodes. Until the Season Two premieres sometime later this year, take the time to check out Season One of Damages on DVD.