The International Writers Magazine: TV
Creators: Todd A Kessler, Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zelman
'Everyone’s looking to play an angle’ – Patty Hewes
The genre of legal drama is one that brings to mind a lot of smartly dressed people shouting objection in a courtroom, as they attempt to decipher some kind of thinly veiled mystery with quick wit and a snappy tone. But Damages goes further than this. In fact we barely even see the inside of a courtroom. Instead were given an emotionally charged character driven story with both a commentary on the legal system and its problems, and an intimate insight into the people that make it work.
Ellen Parsons is a young lawyer, fresh out of law school and oblivious to the workplace politics and complicated relationships that appear to dominate every aspect of a lawyers being. Naive and innocent, she gets taken under the wing of a hard-headed veteran in the business, Patty Hewes. Known all over New York for her ruthless tactics and questionable morals, she has no hesitation in bending or breaking the rules she claims to uphold if it means winning a case. Throughout the first season, Patty Hewes manipulates and controls Ellen with masterful strokes of well placed questions and inappropriate anger, and Ellen is none the wiser. Glenn Close does a fantastic job of portraying Ms. Hewes, which is no surprise considering the entire show was written for her in the first place. After having a short guest appearance on NYPD: Blue, Fox liked her so much that they wrote Close her very own show. She stands at the centre of the cast list and of course all of the story. Everybody in the world of Damages always has some constant thought about Patty Hewes niggling them at the back of their mind.
The massively high stakes that the lawyers play for in Damages is reflected very nicely in the intensity of the characters. You can see the passion flare up in their eyes and often the only glimpse of true sincerity you see in these deceitful characters is usually when they discuss the hidden mysteries and untold truths of the case at hand. The high stakes also make it much more exhilarating and suspenseful; we’re not looking at people getting sued over trivial bumps in the car but at situations where people stand to lose millions of dollars and go to jail for the rest of their life. And when someone stands to lose this much, it can make them do some drastic things and go down roads they swore they never would.
But this only makes up half of what the show is about. The writers have been playing with some interesting time-skipping techniques rarely seen on television these days. In each season there is always another aspect to the story presented in the form of flash-forwards. At first we wonder how on earth the characters, with their relatively normal lives, end up at the centre of several murders, but as the season progresses tiny droplets of information are fed to quench our thirst for answers. It is never quite enough until the very last episode, and the way in which its presented is designed to lead you to false conclusions and throw you off track as much as possible, which makes it all the more enjoyable and impossible to actually attempt to figure out what the hell is going on. The stark contrast between the two timelines is made visual by a dulling of the colours in the flash-forwards that gives the world a joyless and bleak feeling to it, reminiscent of age-old horror movies. This succeeds in building up just the right amount of tension to keep you on edge while the mystery unfolds. The onscreen reminders about timescale for example ‘6 months later’ are used a bit too much though. They only really need to do it once per episode for us to understand the two different timelines but they do it every single time they jump from one to the other. It may seem like a trivial matter but the result is somewhat condescending.
While the method of storytelling combined with the subject matter make for a rather unique and daring venture by a broadcast network, Damages inevitably still has a few problems. The writers could most likely have handled some of the characters with a bit more realism in mind. While being a thrilling and unusual character, Patty Hewes is hardly grounded in any kind of reality the viewer would be familiar with. It would have been nice if she had been balanced out a bit more effectively with characters we could empathise with, but each one has their own crazy past and typical TV show problems that rarely affect anyone in the real world. Unfortunately, this is why it will perhaps never rival shows like The Wire or The Sopranos where, even though their worlds are so outlandish, we can get inside the characters heads to better understand them. In Damages its all about hiding who you are as best you can, which can eventually get a bit tiresome. In this respect it achieves its goals better as a social commentary than an engaging character piece.
But as social commentary goes, Damages has to be one of the most in-depth and detailed looks at some of the systems, laws, and civil crimes that can literally affect almost any of us. The storylines of each season are echoes of large scale events that affect people in the real world. For example the Enron scandal and corporate pollution of the environment that many huge companies are accused of. It delves beneath the glossy and presentable fronts that we members of the general public get our general impressions through and goes into the human aspect of these important institutions. . And unsurprisingly, like anything that involves money and high stakes, there is corruption everywhere, even at the highest levels. Damages concentrates less on the outcome of the cases that everyone is involved in and looks more at the process from start to finish, how complex interactions and violent emotions can affect judgement and decisions. The people in power have control over the system, and in every season of Damages, that system is abused and taken advantage and true justice is never truly achieved.
In fact it is quite disturbing that the lawyers, who claim to work for what is right and fight corruption on behalf of the regular Joe whose money was stolen by his boss, indulge themselves in the same dark practices to get that crucial piece of evidence or protect the credibility of a witness. It really just goes to show the inherent flaw within our society; it seems that the only way to fight corruption is with more corruption. When nobody really cares about the negative consequences of their own actions they unfortunately are going to be a lot more successful than someone who strictly follows the rules. In America, where one gets the impression self-interest now predominates most aspects of daily-life; the good fight isn’t even conceivable anymore because against people with no moral compass or humanitarian concern, it just doesn’t work. Watching Damages is both an enlightening and frightening experience as it dawns on you that the elite worlds we take for granted to work as they should need some serious rethinking.
To lighten the mood slightly before I come to a conclusion, there is one small gripe I have with the new season that needs mentioning. I’m not sure what has happened in US broadcast TV politics since the conclusions of Damages last season but for some reason they are now allowed to say ‘shit’. And they really are making the most of it. At every opportunity its ‘shit’ this and ‘shit’ that and ‘this place is a shithole’. It really starts to grate on your nerves after a while and sounds a bit unnatural. It was fine with no swearing and if you’re going to have some it’ll only pay off if you go all the way to make it as authentic as possible. It’s like introducing the odd bit of cockney slang without any explanation, it’s just ridiculous.
Aside from its few shortcomings Damages is genuinely a pleasure to watch. Constantly exceeding expectations and surprising even the most attentive viewer in the most unlikely ways, if you’re looking for something that has a relevant and interesting story filled in with exciting characters and unique narrative techniques then you’d be hard pressed to find something so revealing. While its broadcast network roots stop it from being everything it could have been, it is certainly an educational and informative use of anyone’s evening.
© Dan Crossen March 2010
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