Cognition & Reality

Sunday, 17 October 2010

“Damages”

Filed under: Television — drtone @ 12:19 pm

Before I discovered “Damages,” a lawyer show that streams on Netflix, I doubt that I had ever watched more than a minute of material from the FX cable channel. Over the last couple of days, I have powered through the first season of the show, and I enjoyed myself immensely. With some reservations, I give it 5 stars, and would place it above all but the very best on British or American television.

The headliner is Glenn Close, who plays Patty Hewes, a high-profile, narcissistic, NYC litigator with a habit of skirting the law–pun intended. Although Close provides the star power, the actual protagonist is her character’s protege and sometime sparring partner, Ellen Parsons, played with an American accent by Australian actress Rose Byrne. The magnificent supporting cast includes Zeljko Ivanek, whose face is more familiar than his name, as the soft-spoken opposing counsel, and Ted Danson, perfect as a corrupt but appealing, sports-obsessed billionaire.

The story revolves around a lawsuit against Arthur Frobisher, played by Danson, by Hewes on behalf of Frobisher’s 5200 former employees. The plaintiffs lost everything when Frobisher’s company went under and the stock tanked. Frobisher sold his own stock days in advance of an SEC report regarding accounting irregularities, a report that precipitated the unraveling of the company’s finances and its rapid demise. Although it is clear from his actions that Frobisher had engaged in massive fraud, no smoking gun appeared. As the action opens in the first episode, Frobisher remains a very rich man, cleared of wrongdoing in a previous federal trial.

Flash-forwards tell us that Ellen’s fiance, David, a young intern, will be brutally murdered, and that Ellen will be arrested for the crime. The action moves freely back and forth along the story’s timeline, revealing more and more about why the murder occurred and its connection with the Frobisher case. Along the way, we meet George Moore (Peter Riegert), a dangerous and unscrupulous man who is somehow involved in the criminal dealings. Early on, Ellen discovers that, although she is qualified for the position, Patty has really hired her because David’s sexy sister is potentially a key witness in the Frobisher fraud case. There are a lot of characters and many plot turns, but it all works. Along the way, we discover how complex Patty Hewes is.

As is universally true, the writing is what separates “Damages” from the competition, most of which is lackluster or worse. Unlike some TV series that  preserve some continuity from week to week but focus on the dramatic arc of each episode, “Damages” resembles a very long movie with one dramatic arc supported by the action that occurs in each  episode. I don’t watch a whole lot of regular TV, other than sports, but I know that other shows, such as “24,” are built along the same lines. “Damages” succeeds in pulling off this difficult feat by repeatedly flashing forward to the climactic action and by careful titration of the information it delivers as the mystery unfolds.

Because of the subject matter, moreover, television’s usual obsession with wealth and with opulent surroundings, rather than seeming pretentious, as it usually does, adds spice to the action. I fell in love with the car Patty drives, a black 2008 Cadillac CTS, although a person like her, who can afford anything, would surely drive something German. The interiors are expensive, although they seem sometimes to be deliberately terrible. Patty’s taste is not the best, as we see from the way her office and her apartment are decorated. Indeed, taste is a subtle background theme, a factor in Ellen and David’s relationship, and a reason to like Arthur, whose luxurious trappings are much more pleasing than Patty’s.

The reservations I mentioned are two-fold, one minor, the other major.

My minor reservation concerns the time stamps on the action, which appear so often that they are unintentionally funny. The “future” and “past” of the drama are so finely interlaced that one can understand the concern of the creators, Todd and Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, that viewers will become confused. Nevertheless, the constant notation drains away some of the tension upon which the action depends.

My major reservation concerns the casting of Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, supposedly a brilliant, ambitious graduate of an Ivy League law school. The producers essentially went all the way to Australia to find their lead actress, only to bring back someone who is too girlish and dim to be fully believable in the part. They were clearly looking for someone with olive skin and dark eyes and hair as a counterpart to the blond, blue-eyed Close. In addition, they needed someone who could be smart and sophisticated, while remaining sympathetic. Although Byrne grows into the part somewhat over the course of the season, she remains a bit of a naif, hurt and surprised by the hurly-burly of big-time legal wrangling, a milieu she has supposedly been preparing to enter since before she had tits. Granted, it’s a tough assignment to remain an appealing female character while being tough, smart, and bitter. Byrne is not quite up to the task, but there must be other actresses in their mid to late 20s who are. Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played Tony Soprano’s daughter, Meadow, has the right look and the acting chops, but I’m sure there are others.

“Damages,” which streams in full HD, is worth a look. I’m all revved up for the second season.

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