Damages is a frustrating show for me, because I absolutely flipped for the stupendous first season, but everything since has failed to live up to that high benchmark. The third season was a definite improvement over the obtuse second year, but the show has now settled into a groove that means audiences know its tricks. Its unique storytelling format is still clever (episodes are bookended by a glimpse of the future, as the present-day narrative advances to that point), but we're now aware of how it's used to manipulate us. Events, locations, loyalties, and identities are never quite what they seem to be in the flashforwards, and after three seasons it's tougher for this show to pull the rug out from under us.
Having been cancelled by FX last year, Damages was given a rare and unexpected reprieve thanks to satellite broadcaster DIRECTV, who picked up the show and commissioned a fourth season for their Audience Network (formerly The 101 Network). The budget has been trimmed accordingly, particularly to ensure big stars like Glenn Close and Rose Byrne don't jump ship now they're in a satellite backwater, but I was pleased the production didn't seem too impaired. It's not quite as glossy or stylish now, and the location shooting's less fanciful, but there's nothing that screams cheapness. And to be positive, its new home means it can be more realistic with any profanity and violence. All this goes to show the disgraceful waste of money bigger networks spend on TV drama, if The Audience Channel can compete with FX to this standard.
This season's storyline, taking place nearly three years after season 3's finale, concerns multi-billion dollar private security firm High Star--the world's biggest private army and brainchild of charismatic CEO Howard T. Erickson (John Goodman). Ellen Parsons (Byrne) is now working at a prestigious law firm, but hungering to breakout on her own using a big case as a springboard. And after reuniting with her high school ex-boyfriend Christopher Sanchez (Chris Messina), a veteran of the Afghanistan War who's now suffering from PTSD following lucrative work he did for High Star, Ellen realizes she may have found a case worthy of her skills: the wrongful death of Sanchez's military team during an illegal mission.
Elsewhere, the redoubtable Patty Hewes (Close) is working on a case involving a French pharmaceutical company's drug trials, that resulted in dozens of deaths, while trying and failing to find time for the young granddaughter she had taken into her custody from her son and his pregnant girlfriend last season. In one brilliant scene we encounter Patty giving a woman a grilling during an interview, whom we assume is there to replace Ellen as a lawyer, but is actually just hoping to be employed as Patty's nanny.
"There's Only One Way To Try A Case" was a fairly generic edition of Damages, which was the troubling thing about this premiere. As I said before, it's now hard to feel invested in the events set three months into the future (where a hooded prisoner is being given a sandwich by an Afghan boy) because we're used to how the show unfolds. You can't trust anything you see, because the show is a essentially a series of traps the writers want you to wander into mentally. The things to lure you back are the guest stars, such as John Goodman (on fine form), or renowned character actor Dylan Baker as a shadowy associate called Jerry Boorman (who's always marvelous playing creeps and villains). The writing can also be rewarding if you invest time and patience into the series, and there are some brilliantly dark and cynical moments (like Patty forgetting her own granddaughter's birthday, so firing her sweet and understanding nanny just to make herself feel better), but it's also true that this year's war-themed story feels five years too late. I'm not sure I'm even in the mood for another season of Damages' usual games, trickery and cheats set against this backdrop—although I'm at least grateful DIRECTV's budget means season 4's had its hourly commitment shaved down from 13 to 10.
And throughout it all there's the Ellen Parsons problem; a character so central, sympathetic and involving in that first glorious season, but now someone who mostly drifts around the show as the writers try to find ways to give her some grounding. Byrne's dazzling eyes continue to imbue the character with sympathy, but she stopped being a compelling lead a long time ago. This season she has a personal connection to the traumatized soldier who wants to take High Star to court (who also happens to be an old flame, so a romantic undertone can blossom), and I suppose that's all very wise. It's just a pity Ellen's slipped so much in my estimation that I'd rather see Byrne on a different TV show now. Maybe a comedy, given she prowess she's shown in Get Him To The Greek and Bridesmaids just lately. Is there anything of interest left to see with Ellen? Every time the show involves her working class family, those scenes rank as some of the worst of a season, and yet without them she's just a ridiculously pretty and clever protégé-that-got-away.
Overall, season 4's premiere wasn't a particularly exciting or engrossing hour of drama, although it naturally picked up towards the end once a few strands came together. I'll be watching every week still, but I hope the writers find ways to inject some life and passion back into the show, which in many ways has since been eclipsed by The Good Wife on CBS (which has a serialized story focused on the regulars, and is able to tell episodic stories in tandem). That's a much more elastic format, whereas Damages has to stick to its one big storyline and try to keep that interesting by deceiving and fooling the audience. I like to be fooled, but it stops being fun if the same tricks are used time after time.
written by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman / directed by Todd A. Kessler / 13 July 2011 / The Audience Network