Tuesday, 2 September 2008

DAMAGES: The Complete Season One (2007)

Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Creators: Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman

Writers: Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zelman, Mark Fish, Aaron Zelman, Willie Reale, Davey Holmes, Jeremy Doner & Adam Stein

Directors: Allen Coulter, Greg Yaitanes, John David Coles, Lawrence Trilling, Jean DeSegonzac, Mario Van Peebles, Dan Attias, Guy Ferland, Thomas Carter, Timothy Busfield, Ed Bianchi & Todd A. Kessler

Main Cast: Glenn Close (Patty Hewes), Rose Byrne (Ellen Parsons), Ted Danson (Arthur Frobisher), Tate Donovan (Tom Shayes), Noah Bean (David Connor), Željko Ivanek (Ray Fiske), Sarah Shahi (Jennifer Carillo), Adam Rothenberg (Evan Wexler), Cole Hauser (Jack Shale), Kristen Lehman (Susan Keever), Anastasia Griffith (Katie Connor) & Donnie Keshawarz (Andrew Vida)

Episodes: 1 "Pilot" 2 "Jesus, Mary And Joe Cocker" 3 "And My Paralyzing Fear Of Death" 4 "Tastes Like A Ho-Ho" 5 "A Regular Earl Anthony" 6 "She Spat At Me" 7 "We Are Not Animals" 8 "Blame The Victim" 9 "Do You Regret What We Did?" 10 "Sort Of Like A Family" 11 "I Hate These People" 12 "There's No 'We' Anymore" 13 "Because I Know Patty"

Legal dramas have been a staple of film and television for generations, but they're extremely difficult to get right. For many viewers, the thrill and excitement of catching criminals is preferable to the pen-pushing means of punishing them in a courtroom. Fortunately, the creators of Damages have approached things from a fresh perspective; creating a compelling drama set in the world of cutthroat lawyers that focuses on its characters and a complex plot that's teased apart over 13 enthralling episodes. Not only that, but over the course of the whole season, we only spend a few minutes inside a courtroom...

Australian actress Rose Byrne (Sunshine) plays saucer-eyed Ellen Parsons, a prodigious New York attorney who accepts a job with her profession's most infamous face: Patricia "Patty" Hewes (Glenn Close), a ruthless legal eagle whose company are currently representing the jobless former-employees of Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) -- a famous billionaire who lost their pensions and life savings following the collapse of his company.

After meeting Patty's "number two", nice-guy Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan), Ellen settles into her dream job at Hewes & Associates, but soon comes to realize she was only hired because of her family connections. You see, Ellen's the future sister-in-law of Katie Connors (Anastasia Griffith), an enterprising chef who met Frobisher in Florida back in 2002 when he allegedly sold his ailing company's stock.

Season 1 charts the machinations of this high-profile case, as Patty grapples with Frobisher's equally-manipulative lawyer Ray Fiske (Željko Ivanek), while uncovering a sinister conspiracy with the help of her new, idealistic protégé Ellen. Every episode also includes mysterious flashforwards to a bloodied, distraught Ellen, arrested by police on suspicion of murdering her loving fiancé David (Noah Bean). Half the fun comes from discovering how present-day events lead us to that unsavoury "ending", as the narrative pincer-grips the present and future together.

The twists and turns are enjoyable and benefit enormously from their plausibility, in contrast from the gleeful rug-pulling of shows like 24. Damages is a series that's clearly been plotted from beginning to end, meaning there are no slumps or obvious moments of improvisation to keep the wheels turning. I'm assuming every episode was written before filming began, meaning it's a genuine "television novel" comprised of 13 chapters that jig-saw together perfectly. Serialized storytelling isn't new, but Damages is the first show in a long time to achieve near-perfect narrative build and connection. Seriously, it makes Heroes look positively cavalier and reckless. I can only hope the same level of complexity and depth works its way onto 24's delayed seventh season.

Another strong suit is the performances. Hollywood star Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) headlines as the indomitable Patty Hewes, another ready-made TV icon thanks to her scheming attitude and bullish determination. But she's far from a clichéd ice queen; as her relationships with her husband (Michael Nouri) and rebellious teenage son proves. Well, if you overlook her rather extreme parenting techniques. Close is superb as the heroine who knows she has to play nasty to beat Frobisher's wealth, contacts and resources.

In many ways, Rose Byrne has the trickiest role to play -- as she's the only character who changes significantly between episode 1 and 13, becoming less naive and more ruthless after locking horns with Patty and Frobisher's cronies. Byrne gives an open and fragile performance, but nicely balances her character's "weaknesses" with an intelligence, wit and resourcefulness even Patty comes to respect and admire.

Ted Danson (Cheers) undoubtedly has the most fun, using his everyman persona (indelible to audiences after years spent headlining sitcoms) to twist our expectations. Interestingly, Frobisher isn't a black-hearted villain who deserves his comeuppance -- he's much more nuanced. No, Frobisher's a self-made family man who made a terrible mistake and is paying the price. You can sympathize and occasionally laugh with him, even when he becomes complicit in nefarious gambits to stop his case going to trial. It was also a neat twist to have Frobisher (our villain) resemble an affable father-figure, while Patty (our heroine) resembles an untrustworthy bitch.

Beyond the three main leads, the supporting cast are equally textured and enticing. Tate Donovan's pleasant and amiable as right-hand man Tom, although his role does begin to drift into the sidelines half-way through the season. Željko Ivanek is excellent as the rival attorney representing Frobisher; a charming southern lawyer, with unusual tweaks and weaknesses. Ivanek's repartee with Close and Danson are particular highlights.

The slightly more perfunctory roles are well-handled, too -- such as Noah Bean as Ellen's surgical intern fiancé David, beautiful Anastasia Griffith as party girl Katie Connors, hunky Peter Facinelli as case lynchpin Gregory Molina, Peter Riegert as shadowy operative George Moore, and Victor Arnold as blue-collar informant Larry Popler.

Overall, throw away any baggage you have regarding legal dramas. Damages is slick, intelligent, fresh and textured writing that shakes the genre by the scruff of its neck. The only cause for concern is how the writers can keep the quality this high for future seasons. The finale lays solid foundations for a sophomore year of double-crossing with Patty Hewes, but it'll be difficult to live up to this year's Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated high standard.