Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Damages sets a good precedent

Damages continues two of the best trends in cable series right now: movie stars taking a chance at headlining a TV show (see Holly Hunter, Minnie Driver), and strong, vibrant female leads (see Brenda Johnson). Glenn Close's character isn't technically the protagonist, but if you've seen any of the bajillion ads for Damages crowding the internet, you've seen that Rose Byrne's photo is sliced down the middle to reveal a picture of Glenn Close. It's a perfect metaphor for the show: Ellen Parsons is on the surface, but Patty Hewes is at its heart – its dark, mysterious heart.

(Potentially damaging spoilers ahead.)

The story: Ellen Parsons is an idealistic young lawyer (are young lawyers ever jaded?) who comes to work for Hewes & Associates despite dire warnings about the evil that is Patty Hewes. The firm is working on a huge case involving Arthur Frobisher, a CEO whose employees lost millions when the company's stock tanked. Conveniently, the sister of Ellen's fiancé may have seen Frobisher meet with his broker just before he sold his stock. Patty knows all about this connection; it was the entire reason she hired Ellen. And somehow, six months from now, Ellen's fiancé ends up dead, while Ellen, covered in blood, is taken to the police station and asks for a lawyer.

But Ellen's whole experience is only a way for us to meet Patty, a slippery character to whom there are two wholly different sides. Her gentle side is the woman who wins an award for public service, loves her husband and her son, and seeks damages for clients easy to sympathize with, like kids made sick by a big, bad corporation or employees defrauded out of their pensions. But the moment you get used to Sweet Patty, Merciless Patty shows up. She considers family a drain on time and energy, manipulates everyone around her, and isn't above having a dog killed to encourage a witness to testify. It's the ease with which she can switch between these two extremes – for instance, when she "fires" her associate – that makes Patty so chilling, She's worse when she's being kind, because you know what it's hiding – the old "iron hand in the velvet glove" idea. The genius is that the two halves aren't totally irreconcilable; she uses sweet talk to get a good settlement, and when offered a choice of motives between helping her clients and destroying the opposition, answers, "Both."

Overall, the show is a tight, stylish thriller. It has excellent performances from Glenn Close, Ted Danson, and Tate Donovan, and there are enough questions to keep me wondering for quite a while. What's Tom up to now? How did the fiancé die? What happens in the intervening six months? And is there anything Patty doesn't know? Damages leaves you with the sense that you're not sure of anything that's happening, and that's exactly where you want to start with a mystery like this.