Monday, July 18, 2011

DAMAGES: There Is Always An Angle

My friend, Annie B., asked me to watch and write about the show Damages (basically only available on Netflix, iTunes, and if you have DirecTV, but it originally began airing on FX Networks), and I am going to try my hardest to make something worth reading.  I actually got a subscription to Netflix, in order to watch this show, and I was by no means disappointed.  I had never heard of this show, until Annie mentioned it, and I'm glad she let me know about it.  My wife and I ended up watching 16 episodes (all of season 1, and 3 in season 2) this weekend, so you know it must be doing something that can hold interest.

As a disclaimer, I never watched 24 (cue horrified gasps), but I imagine this show is not dissimilar, in a lot of ways.  This is one of the most ambitious shows I have ever seen on television, and that ambition is likely what made it unable to attract any kind of audience.  The first episode premiered to what would be considered very high ratings for FX Networks, yet by the end of the first season, it had hemorrhaged well over 2 million of its initial 3.7 million viewers.  This show requires an extreme investment of your time, and if you are not willing to make that investment, you are best off not ever starting this show.  Since you can watch the first two seasons via instant streaming on Netflix, you won't have to worry about waiting a week for the next episode.  You just want to make sure you have a lot of time to sit down and watch what is a thoroughly engrossing show.

Before talking about the show, I will break down the three major characters, and then give an idea of what the show is about.  There are numerous characters in the show, and each one plays an important part in the overall experience of the show.  Regardless of how many characters there are in the show, I feel it all still breaks down to these three main characters.  I'm not trying to give anyone a short shrift here, so I will mention, right now, that Ted Danson and Zeljko Ivanek, respectively, were nominated (Danson) for and won (Ivanek) an EMMY for their performances in the first season.  Glenn Close has won two EMMY Awards for her portrayal of Patty Hewes.  The show is extremely well cast (it won an EMMY Award for Best Casting, as well), and the performances are all uniformly solid.  It's just important to know that the three main characters I list below (at least in season 1), are what makes this show go around.  Anchor your viewing experience with these three, and then watch how everything, and everyone, revolves around them.

The Characters:

Patty Hewes (Glenn Close)
Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne)
Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan)

Patty Hewes is a high powered, high octane, civil lawyer.  She specializes in very large lawsuits, and it is clear you don't really want to get in her way.  I don't know much about this kind of stuff, but my guess is that the goal of all lawyers of this type is to get the maximum amount of punitive damages awarded to their clients.  This one quote sums up the Patty Hewes character perfectly, and we don't hear it until episode 5 of the first season.  "I don't give a shit about changing the world, but I hate bullies."  If you're a bully, it's likely Patty Hewes is going to want to destroy you.

Ellen Parsons is fresh out of law school.  The audience is told that she is very ambitious, and is a special type of lawyer, even before seeing her do any type of work.  Ellen has very good instincts about people, but you will quickly learn, in the first season, that she often ignores her gut instinct.  This makes her come across as naive, but it's still fairly clear she's not nearly as naive as she leads people to believe.

Tom Shayes is Patty's second chair, and right hand man.  He's clearly a good enough lawyer to become a Partner, but Patty doesn't work that way.  Patty trusts no one else to handle the responsibility she gives to Tom.  Tom is forced to do a lot of dirty work for her, and it appears that not everything he does is above board, ethically.  To put it delicately, Tom is used as a point of influence between Patty and Ellen.

I don't want to reveal too much about these characters, because watching their stories unfold is what this series is all about.  Remember, I titled this blog post "There Is Always An Angle".  It won't take you long to realize how true that title is.  There is a motivation behind nearly every single action in the series, from all sides involved.  It would be grave understatement to say that this series does not portray civil litigation attorneys in a positive light.

Now that I've given you a little back story on the characters, I'll try to break down what this show is all about.  The name of the show is Damages.  That name comes from the award a plaintiff wins from a defendant.  The show is about civil litigation, yet it spends almost no time in a court room.  I think there were maybe ten minutes of the first season dedicated to court room or Judge's chamber scenes.  That is unique for this type of show. 

I can't say this for certain, but I believe the general style of the show is to have two competing story lines, that will converge by the end of each season.  In the first season, the two story lines are a case that mirrors a smaller scale Enron (Enron scandal from wikipedia), and a murder.  The stories are told in a series of flashbacks and also the present.  The present is shown in a super gritty way, and there are various shades of filming styles being used for the flashbacks.  The vast majority of the show is told in a flashback, while only giving the audience short returns back into the present.  The Good Guys (FOX) employed a similar storytelling technique, if you are looking for any type of parallel.  The audience is always given a graphic to tell us how long ago something happened, but we are never told overtly that we are back in the present.  The shooting style shows us where we are.

The series begins with a half naked woman, in a trench coat, covered in blood, wandering the streets of New York City, while looking extremely confused.  She is taken into police custody, and then we are thrust into the past with a graphic that says "6 Months Earlier".  The first scene of the flashback has Ellen Parsons interviewing for her first job, with Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco), out of law school.  She is offered a 5 year $150,000 a year contract, and is very excited.  She is then asked if she is interviewing with anyone else.  She tells him she has an interview with Patty Hewes, next week.  Everyone immediately has a drop in enthusiasm for Ellen, and Nye tells her that she should have let them know sooner. 

I watched a lot of episodes of this series, this weekend, so I may get some of this wrong.  I'm sorry if I do.  Ellen later runs into Nye in a bar, and they have a conversation about Patty Hewes.  Nye basically tells Ellen that she is making a big mistake by going to work for her, to which she responds that she hasn't even interviewed, yet.  Nye tells her that Patty Hewes will see what his firm did, in regards to Ellen, and he has no doubt that Ellen will be hired.  After that, he asks her to sign the back of his business card.  After she signs her name, he writes the words "I was warned" above her name.

I'm not going to get into all of the intimate details of the first episode, because that would ruin the show for you.  You must let this show unfold before you, and me ruining much of it will just take away from your experience.  I will say that Ellen's job interview, with Patty Hewes, did not go as planned.  During Ellen's interview process, it is revealed what a master manipulator Patty Hewes is.  Over the course of the first season, she gives Ellen precisely one piece of useful advice.  I will let you discover what that is, on your own.

Damages is a very fascinating show to watch.  It reminds me a lot of a book you just can't put down.  The best writers (or most manipulative, depending on your perspective) love to leave a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.  When the reader is reading the chapter, the reader says, "Okay, this is the last one I'll read right now."  Unfortunately, the reader gets to the end of the chapter and realizes it's not time to stop, yet.  This is how Damages does the TV show.  I won't lie to you, Damages is a highly manipulative TV show.  I hate putting it in the same sentence as the TV show HawthoRNe, but Damages uses manipulation properly, whereas HawthoRNe manipulates you to the point of anger.  Each episode of Damages ends with an unexplained cliffhanger, which makes you want to find out what happens in the next episode.

I think the reason this show lost so much of its audience is because the audience had to watch basically a single story unfold over 13 episodes.  If you come in late to the series, it's really hard to follow, even with the extended bore before every episode.  If you start from the beginning, you may have impatience with the lack of resolution over such a long period of time.  The whole first season of the show is dedicated to the two story lines I mentioned above (murder and Enron style case).  That is ambitious.  As long as you have Netflix, or some other delivery medium, just block out a bunch of time to watch, and enjoy the show.

There's no way this show would ever have made it on network TV, because audiences are too impatient, and network executives like ratings.  I find it amazing the show lasted on FX Networks, as long as it did, due to the sheer cost of the show (it was actually shot in New York City, and employed a significant amount of name actors), and complete lack of ratings.  The series was highly acclaimed and was nominated for numerous EMMY Awards.  The show has now moved to DirecTV, for a fourth season, which makes me wonder how I'll get to watch it.

If you're a fan of great acting, extremely complex, well-written story lines, and heavily stylized directing (think Traffic), you should not miss this show.  If this blog post makes you want to watch the show, head on over to Netflix, and set up an account, if you don't already have one.  To tell you anything else about this show would just rob you of one of the more unique TV experiences you should have.  Thanks for reading.

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