What make 'Damages' different
Review by Peter Hulm
Why do we turn to fiction rather than fact to learn the truth about our lives? Art, whether mass or elite, gives us the answer. The best works expand the range of our sympathies, understanding and imagination. Damages is one of those productions.
With a smart story, stellar cast, Glenn Close as its lead and whipsnap filming, Damages shows us what Suits could have been, if the guys hadn't tried to be so cute, or Scandal, if it hadn't thought of itself as a series for supermodels, or How to Get Away with Murder, if that hadn't been a fratboys' version of the law. Probably only The Good Wife could claim to rival Damages, because the softer series nevertheless tackled more immediately engaging subjects.
So it might seem churlish to complain that the opening series of Damages dragged when it adopted the conventions of the genre. For example, the cutting and story pace was so fast that stopping for the standard "young couples enjoy sex" scene was pointless, since we already knew they were in love. Compare this with Ted Danson's coke-inflamed sex in the back seat of a car, that prompts him to order a murder to protect his family. This had a motivation for the frenzied display.
Similarly, when the showrunners (Daniel Zelman, Glenn Kessler, and Todd A. Kessler) handed on writing to another author, we bogged down in side plots about deceptions and skullduggery that offered nothing new to the main meal: Glenn Close's relationship to new hot-shot associate played by Rose Byrne.
However, in time it becomes clear that Season 1 is inspired by the Enron scandal, Season 2 takes its inspiration from the energy industry's shenanigans, while Season 3 draws on the Bernie Madoff ripoff and Season 4 uses events from the Blackwater consulting scandal, and Season 5 takes hints from the Julian Assange/wikileaks scandal, as the wikipedia article on the series notes.
But not dependent on real life
In contrast to The Good Wife, Damages did not depend on the closeness of its story line to actual events for its credibility. If anything, Damages gained from its riffs on reality: a boss (Ted Danson) blind to his own ruthless treatment of other people, an evangelical Christian running a lucrative mercenary business (John Goodman), the tortured son (Campbell Scott) of a Ponzi-scheme practitioner (Len Cariou), and a web-leaker (Ryan Phillippe) whose failures in personal relationships can be traced back to his childhood autism.
Season 2 diluted the reality-based theme with more obvious speculations about a conficted scientist (William Hurt), big energy manipulation of markets by the boss (John Doman), and a battle between attorneys (Glenn Close and Marcia Gay Harden) while Timothy Olyphant as a suspicious grief counselling participant became involved with grieving Ellen (Byrne). Ted Danson made a surprising return as a boss who is born again but as blind to his own character as before (or is he?).
Casting against type
The series made a speciality of casting actors against type, with the result that viewers couldn't help watching their performance to see where they would go next, perhaps most inventively in Ted Danson's role. But the narrative's serialized approach (jumping back and forth across time) apparently brought it low ratings, despite earning the top cable-viewing numbers for the night (5.1 million with re-airing that day) and critical acclaim (wikipedia).
After the third season, Sony persuaded DirecTV and the Audience Network to take it on (ibid). Tough maybe for weekly viewing but ideal for online bingeing, though it had to wait till February 2019 for the whole series to appear on Blu-ray (ibid).
Non-linear was new
Its narration was innovatively non-linear for the time, though now standard for any series desperate to stop viewers getting up from their seats, strapping the story into a fixed progression unusual for series back in 2007, when producers liked to keep the options open for shutting down an unsuccessful blockbuster.
Throughout, its character depiction remained fresh and original, e.g.:
- Ted Danson as the tycoon who tried to be good but kept finding himself trapped into dangerous decisions while failing to see why he should be punished if he was (originally) innocent, while his employees lost their life savings.
- Ellen Simpson the young lawyer (Rose Byrne) may be a fast-rising newcomer, but it is revealed that her family has always depended on her brilliance, and her (former) cokehead sister-in-law to-be (Anastasia Griffith) has a reckless past.
- Danson's lawyer, played by Željko Ivanek in a deservedly award-winning characterization, is quite the equal of Close's devious character.
- Likewise Martin Short's legal eagle, and Janet McTeer's lawyer associate role, both compulsively watchable, as are Jenna Elfman as a trapped Wall Street trader and John Hannah as the webleaker's manager.
Golden Globes top show
"Since its premiere in 2007, Damages has received a total of 19 Emmy Award nominations," reported DirectTV. "Damages has been nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards. In its first season, the series earned more Golden Globes nominations than any other show on television."
Perhaps its weakest episode was the finale of season 3 (expected to be its last), when it rushed through plot points trying to clean up loose ends. Season 5's finale too seemed to be moving in two different directions, one towards a confrontation between Ellen and Patty, the other raising questions of funding and journalistic ethics.