If Judge Ryan Keefer can't get in on the ground floor of a really good television drama, than at least he'd like to add as many levels as possible.
Our reviews of Damages: The Complete First Season (published February 13th, 2008), Damages: The Complete Second Season (published January 19th, 2010), Damages: The Complete Fourth Season (published July 12th, 2012), and Damages: The Final Season (published July 25th, 2013) are also available.
What do you call a legal thriller which rarely sees a courtroom during its season? Well in the case of Damages, you call it really good viewing.
Glenn Close had apparently made such an impact on the F/X cop show The Shield that the floating heads at the same network offered her a show of her own. The result? A show that earned critical acclaim for the cast and crew (and a recent Golden Globe for Close to boot). So now that it's out and on high definition, is Damages worth the shizzle?
Facts of the Case
Glenn and Todd Kessler's professional careers have been anonymous for the most part, though Todd has written and produced episodes for The Sopranos, and Daniel Zelman seemed to be better known for being married to Debra Messing of Will & Grace fame. However, the three are the creators behind this legal drama.
Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne, Troy) is a young lawyer who is looking to catch a break and work for a law firm in New York under the prestigious yet hard-hitting Patty Hewes (Close, Fatal Attraction). With the help of Hewes' second in command Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan, Good Night, and Good Luck), she manages to get the job, however it becomes more of a professional and personal strain on her than she imagined, and causes much tension between her and her fiancée David (Noah Bean, Stay). However, if she thinks that just some fights between her and David are going to be the worst of it, she has no idea of what's ahead of her.
There are a lot of images in Season One of Damages that are powerful, even jarring. But there's a sequence at the end of the pilot episode that made my jaw drop. That never happens to this crusty old man, and it inspired me to call my wife and say "Hey, you've got to watch this." Sure enough, the same thing happened to her too. That sequence did two things for the show; it set the tone for the main characters, though one was in a much less obvious manner than you might think, but it also helped show you that even if you think you know what's going to happen next, you really don't. And that happens quite a bit in Damages.
The reason for that is both how the show is written, along with its execution. The Kesslers and Zelman have brought in a few capable directors in Season One of Damages to help underscore this belief. Among those who contributed were Allen Coulter (The Sopranos), Jean DeSegonzac (Homicide: Life on the Street), Timothy Busfield (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and Mario Van Peebles (Baadasssss!). Combine them with a stable of long familiar and polished acting talents like Zeljko Ivanek (Dogville), and Peter Reigert (Local Hero) as a man playing both sides of the fence, but both actors appear in supporting roles that are memorable in their own rights.
Then you've got the stars. First off, the main antagonist to Hewes is Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson, Cheers), a curious choice to be sure because of his previous comedic work. Frobisher is the head of a company that went bankrupt, Enron style. He pals around with republican bigwigs, and Ivanek's character has a picture of him with Dick Cheney. Hewes represents the employees in a civil suit against Frobisher, after they lost their pension plans from the corporate malfeasance. Frobisher is an easygoing guy, even friendly and principled in his own way. When trying to find out the location of a witness that will harm his case, he seems more concerned about the witnesses' well-being than what said witness might to do Frobisher's prospects of winning the case. This isn't an endorsement of Frobisher's behavior by any means; he's on his second wife and actively cheats on her in several cocaine-fueled parties with escorts, and even sends overt threats to Hewes as well. Danson is certainly separating himself from his past work, using grey hair and possibly a slight dental prosthesis, but his performance mixes both benevolence and an understated mean streak, which, in the context of every character's personal motivations, helps to blur the picture of who's right and wrong even more effectively.
Close and her Golden Globe is well-earned simply for her character arc over the season. She starts out as manipulative and abusive, and she still retains that countenance to some degree, but that façade seems to show some cracks, even as she's sending her son to some sort of "camp" that's designed to remove his violent behavior and tendencies. The way the story is told through the flashbacks and her actions, one would get the idea that she's got no real upside as a person, and is willing to play as dirty as it gets to get what she wants. Though her tutelage of Ellen leads to a power transference of sorts, where she becomes the semi kinder, gentler soul and Ellen becomes the cold precise bitch. It really pains me that I can't get into too much detail why, but trust me, watch the first shot, which sets the pace for what goes on in the show, and you'll see why.
The first season of Damages was shot on high definition and presented in 1.78:1 widescreen viewing with the AVC MPEG-4 codec. The look of the show might turn off some people, but the scenes designed to show flashback are exaggerated for a reason, in fact the flashbacks end in the season's final for obvious creative reasons. Having said that, the picture throughout the season looks good, with a lot of detail in tight shots, though there's not a lot of depth in the background to jump up and down about. But you won't go wrong by watching the Blu-ray version. And on top of all this, Damages comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack that is much livelier and immersive than I was expecting for a television show. There's some subwoofer activity and even a bit of panning and directional effects, like hearing the music in a club's secondary room, and other audio sequences. And any show that can close its first episode with the White Stripes and end its last with James Brown? Thumbs all the way up.
In fact, the only spot that the show seemed to be lacking was in the extras department. The show's thirteen episodes are spread over three discs for the discerning Blu-ray viewer's entertainment, with commentaries on two of them. The first is on the pilot, with the Kesslers, Zelman, Coulter and Close talking about it. They discuss the inspiration for some of the shots in the film, and the men are pretty soft spoken and low key, and the track is pretty dry in delivery, partially due to Close's lack of participation. The second track is on disc three's "I Hate These People" with the Kesslers, Zelman and Ivanek, and Ivanek is a much more active contributor, but it covers much of the same ground as the first one. Nine minutes of deleted scenes on eight different episodes are next, spread out over the discs, and short of showing Tom's wife, none of these are significant or memorable. Disc Three also has the only featurettes on the set, each of which starts with a disclaimer on possible spoilers, a nice touch for the viewer. "Willful Acts" is a little over twenty minutes and covers the making of the show and features interviews with the cast and crew as they discuss their thoughts on the show and the characters they play, and the show's creators talk about how the ideas came up. This leads to "Trust No One," which is about ten minutes shorter and features the creators exclusively, talking about the stories and characters, and their intents for each. "Understanding Class Action" is a nice interactive guide on the legal process for suits and the legal terminology involved which is a nice primer for the layman, and aside from that, there are some Blu-ray exclusive previews that complete the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Very few shows seem to break out of the basic cable stigma, and very few pay cable shows seem to reach any sort of crossover success. The worst thing going for Damages is that it's on the unappreciated and seldom watched F/X network, which has had a couple of shows reach some level of success in the past with Nip/Tuck and The Shield. As the television viewing public is hopefully starting to get tired of recycled shows about spandex-clad, muscle-filled people who engage in physical challenges with "real" people, Fox should take a flyer and air Season One of Damages on network television, on the nine o'clock hour of course so that not as much of the profanity has to be dealt with, and only a few small trims would have to be made. CBS is employing a similar strategy with the Showtime hit Dexter, and with a couple of familiar faces in Damages, you've got a marketing idea waiting to happen.
It's great to watch something that I didn't have any preconceived notions about and be totally amazed by the result. Combining excellent storylines with capable performances, it's on the short list of best dramatic television shows that aired in 2007. What especially works about Damages: The Complete First Season is that even though there is some sort of resolution near the end, there are enough loose ends and enough of a window to see what the big themes of Season Two are going to be, and I for one can't wait to see what happens.
The cast and crew of Damages are acquitted of the charges, even though the characters involved are guilty as all get out. Must watch viewing at its best.
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Scales of Justice
• Cast and crew commentaries on select episodes
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