Two of the biggest fads in American television are all present and correct in Damages. Trend one is to cast, with varying levels of success, actors who are more synonymous with the movies, to give the production a bit more gravitas. We’ve seen this work a treat with something like 24, where Kiefer struck ratings gold, and so producers haven’t been shy to try and mimic the feat. Some haven’t worked as well as they should – James Woods in Shark isn’t enough to lift that show, for instance – yet Damages strikes gold by dragging in Glenn Close, and then enjoys less success by answering the question “What’s Ted Danson up to this days?”.
The second trend is messing with chronology. Damages effectively begins at the start and the end of the story, gradually giving you tasters of how everything is going to pan out, while then jumping back to the journey that got everyone there. So, on one hand, wannabe-lawyer Ellen Parsons (played by Rose Parsons) is trying to land a job with the boss from hell, the widely feared and revered litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). And then on the other she’s running from a crime scene, covered in blood, in what seems like an open and shut case of murder. It then takes most of the thirteen episodes for these narratives to catch up with one another.
It’s worth the effort, though, for Damages is one of the best crime dramas to come out of America in some time. Its wisest move is to effectively focus its attention on one case, a class action lawsuit against the mega-rich Arthur Frobisher (Danson). So on one side of the fence, you get the fearsome Hewes and her company, and they face the silver-haired Frobisher and his equally talented attorney Ray Fisk (brilliantly played by Zeljko Ivanek, previously of 24, who arguably gives the only performance in Damages to outshine Close’s).
Damages is a show where it’s hard to pinpoint any morally clean characters, given that the tactics of both sides escalate as the case continues. But what lifts Damages above the usual templated fodder that attempts this kind of stuff is the writing, and the cast. In the case of the former, the narrative is, particularly in the first two thirds, compelling, without resorting to over-the-top tricks to keep your attention. It’s densely plotted, and doesn’t resort to exaggerated rug-pulls. Instead, it maintains a solid, surprisingly simple core to the story, and builds bloody good scripts on top of it.
And then there’s that cast. At first, it seemed that Glenn Close had been watching The Devil Wears Prada on loop with her portrayal of Patty Hewes. But as Damages continues, that proves to be brutally unfair. For Close has created a terrific character here, and it’s as good as any work she’s done on film before. Quite, quite brilliant, Close is a huge asset to the show, and it takes everything Rose Parsons has to try and match her. And while she’s on to a loser from the start there, she does a solid enough job.
The casting of Ted Danson is more curious. Danson is playing against type here, and it doesn’t entirely work. Damages needs a strong presence on both sides of the case, and Danson feels nowhere near as sinister as Close (which presumably was part of the point). Do you ever buy he’s capable of some of the actions of which he’s accused? Not easily, and that is a slight problem.
The other problem with Damages is the closing of the season. It’s not bad, but after setting up a quite superb house of cards, the back end of the show – where the two narratives finally intertwine –doesn’t gel as well as you’d hope. That said, it’s still far better than the majority of its contemporaries. Plus it leaves the stage set for a fascinating second season.
The DVD set crams five episodes on the first two discs, and three more on the final DVD. We did have a question mark over the image quality a few times (perhaps that’s why Sony is also pumping out a Blu-ray release?), especially when you throw in the decent commentary tracks over a few of the episodes. But it’s decent enough presentation, if it does insist on playing the Dolby Digital demo at the start of each disc (and, of course, reminding you that you wouldn’t steal a car).
There are a few more extras, too, but nothing monumental. The featurettes offer little substance (and shouldn’t be spun until you’ve got to the end of every episode), and an interactive guide to class action ain’t the kind of thing we spend our Friday nights watching.
But Damages certainly is. Because aside from the assorted minor quibbles, this is superb television. Expertly played, and tightly structured, it’s the most interesting new show to come out of America of late, and while the DVD package is unspectacular, the main attraction really deserves watching.