Reviews Too Late: Damages

by wjw on March 1, 2011

Season One of Damages is the best first season of  dramatic television since Season One of Veronica Mars. Which, if you know my tastes, is really saying something.

I’ve been obsessively watching this three-year-old series courtesy of Netflix.  It apparently never quite found an audience on FX, and has recently moved to a network I never heard of, and suspect do not receive.  (Oh well— there will still be Netflix.)

The first episode of the season opens with Ellen Parsons, the protagonist, half-naked and covered in blood, trying to hide from police.  We also see her in the room where her dead fiance lies spattered with his own blood.  And then the title tells us, “Six Months Earlier,” and we see Ellen, fresh out of law school, applying for work at the law firm of Patty Hewes, played by the superb Glenn Close.

Time is the most flexible dimension in this series.  Scenes are always cutting back and forth in time, reminding us that this story is leading us to the moment when Ellen is arraigned for murder.   Which is also an indication of how tightly-plotted this series is— certainly the most tightly-plotted since— wait for it— Season One of Veronica Mars.

All the plotting is done by the same three writers, who are also the producers and creators, having migrated over from The Sopranos. One of them even has a minor recurring role.

This is the only lawyer show I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have a trial scene.  It doesn’t need one.  There’s more than enough suspense to go around.

Kudos to the always-spot-on Glenn Close for her portrayal of Patty Hewes, the brilliant, Machiavellian lawyer so obsessed with victory and with having her own way that she’ll crush anything in her path, including her family, including her own associates.   The Australian actress Rose Byrne plays Ellen, and is good enough to hold her own with Close, which is about as complimentary as I can get.

It’s fascinating watching Close get a grip on Hewes, a character so manipulative, so soulless, so completely without conscience, that watching her is like watching a cobra stalking a mouse.

I can see why the series didn’t quite find the audience it deserved.  Aside from one of its principals being a radically unsympathetic character, the story is so tightly woven that no single episode can stand on its own.  If you dropped into the story at random, you’d be completely bewildered, and if you were watching it week-to-week, you might get lost because you couldn’t remember everything that happened before.  It’s not so much a TV series as an epic 13-hour thriller chopped up into episodes.  It’s probably best viewed as I did, in a 10-day Netflix binge.

Season Two is less interesting for the same reason that Season Two of Veronica Mars was less interesting— the first season was so completely and intimately tied into the life of its main character, that once all that unraveled, nothing could quite be as intense or as fascinating.  Large chunks of Season One flop over into Season Two and drag the energy down, and Season Two shifts the focus more toward Patty Hewes in an attempt to make her more sympathetic.  (I didn’t want sympathetic.  Having seen her portrayed as a malevolent cobra goddess, I wasn’t interested in seeing the past traumas that turned her into the person she is.  I didn’t want her human.  I wanted more cobra!)

Plus, Season Two doesn’t quite have as tightly-woven a plot.  When it threatens to become unraveled, it’s saved by some wild coincidences and by what I can only describe as a Deus ex U.S. Marshals Service.

I’d advise watching Season One, and then watching Season Two only if you can’t help yourself.  (I couldn’t.)

Incidentally, this series, along with some other works I’ve admired, like State of Play (the UK version) and Michael Clayton, more or less assume that, if you’re rich and/or powerful enough, you pretty much know who to call in order to have someone killed.

Do you think that the rich and/or powerful can whack anyone they like?  And if they can, why don’t they do it more often?

Urban March 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm

…opening other browser window with Amazon… secondhand 1:st season+shipping+tax =£4.81 which in real money = 2/3:rds of what lunch cost today; And Veronica Mars was the best in a long time, so delivery estimate is March 8:th. Thanks for the recommendation.

As for the last paragraph, the glib answer is of course “And how often do YOU think they do?”.
But I’ll answer the second sentence first: Because humans are mostly harmless. Really. Yes, I know about Milgram and Zimbardo but it takes work to get people to behave like that. The proof of that is that we’re sort of the vertebrate response to the cockroach. No way we’d be this many if more than a tiny fraction would whack others even if the risk of getting caught was minimal, which it actually is. Unless the victims are family or business relations.

Furthermore, there’s a category of rich and powerful people who certainly do. Many who don’t even need to keep it a secret.

But normal, civilised, people who happen to get rich and/or powerful would find it very unnatural to solve conflicts that way and often they have other, effective, ways. And look at the rich and famous who get — maybe dangerous — stalkers and thus could have a rational reason to have someone terminated with extreme prejudice. What do they do? They usually rather spend money and restricts their own lives instead, because that’s the human thing to do.

Ted March 3, 2011 at 9:30 am

I agree that the first season was top notch: some of the best use of flashback/flashforwards I’ve ever seen in television, and culminating in a really excellent finale. However, I felt the season overall wasn’t as tight as it might have been. I remember there being at least a couple episodes — like the one focusing on Tom Shayes’ wrestling with his career, or Ellen’s father’s car accident — that didn’t contribute to the overall plot arc. A minor complaint, really, but those are when it felt more like a TV series and less like a 13-hour thriller.

wjw March 4, 2011 at 5:50 am

Urban: good points.

Ted: Though I’m not obsessive enough to check this out, I suspect the bits you mention were (1) meant to be character-revealing, (2) intended to give principal players something to do while the plot was focused elsewhere, or (3) padding because an episode ran short.

Or all three.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.