According to ANDREW JOHNSTONE, Damages is a searing critique of power and corruption, and a Citizen Kane for the 21st Century. Read his review.
CAPSULE COMMENT: The ‘legal drama’ television category offers us one of the best narrative platforms from which to investigate the human condition, and few have managed this task as successfully as Damages. Helmed by the incomparable Glenn Close, this show is built in the finest of Shakespearian traditions, dissecting as it does the nature of greed, power and the relationship of these emotions to psychopathy, sociopathy and narcissism. For five triumphant seasons this show towered above its competitors with stories that sought to dispel some of America’s most treasured myths about itself. Be warned – this series is a feast of joys and very addictive.
Superstar Lawyer Patty Hughes (Glenn Close) is a character cast from the grandest Shakespearian traditions. She is larger than life awful: a Machiavellian schemer who is ambitious to the point of psychopathy. She is also rapier smart with it, and imagines she’s smarter than everyone until she meets a young law graduate called Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne, who to her credit stands up well against the tsunami of talent that is Close).
Ellen becomes the obsessive focus of Ms Hughes who wants Ellen on her team more than she wants anything else, except that poker-faced Ellen proves to be very much her own person and is obtuse with it.
Nevertheless, they can’t stay out of each other’s way and their complex relationship makes for one hell of a series foundation, not least because Hughes imagines Parsons as the daughter she lost early on in her quest for greatness. Yes, for all her bravado, Patty is one mixed up psychotic dream who destroys what she loves and loves what she destroys.
Season One stars Ted Danson as Arthur Frobisher, an appalling billionaire tycoon who has ripped off his employees’ pension fund and left them all destitute. While he is busy living it up, Ellen and Patty are quietly working out how best to derange his house of cards. Screeds of preposterous behaviour follow in the race to the try line.
This story arc carries on through into Season Two, hallmarking one of the great joys of Damages: the engaging plots that infect preceding seasons with their delicious malice. By Season Two, Frobisher has transformed himself into a kind of new age Buddhist, making himself even more unlikable in the process. As for Danson, he is astonishing.
Meanwhile, somewhere down country (the America that is not New York), a coal company is in need of a decent spanking (class-action) for poisoning the water and the people who drink it and making a fortune in the process, while back in New York (the centre of the world) a Ponzi schemer aka Bernie Madoff has destroyed the lives of thousands, and the search is on to recover the money and apply retribution.
On top of that there’s an allegory about religious terrorism helmed by John Goodman. In this story arc we replace the Mullah with the righteous Biblical Christian, make the Islamic terrorist cell Christian and the financier the American Industrial Military Complex. Here, Ellen proves once and for all she has Patty’s number and Patty doesn’t like it one little bit.
Oh, and I forget to mention William Hurt and Martin Short who, alongside Danson and Goodman, lead an astonishing cast of guest characters. (Martin Short, that B-movie comedy guy? Short is one hell of a surprise but if you have seen PT Anderson’s excellent film Inherent Vice you’ll already know he has serious chops). The supporting cast also need a mention – to the tee they are on-form and deliver compelling (if sometimes strange) performances, and at the end of the day great writing is one thing, but having a cast with the wherewithal to make it work is quite another. This cast is gobsmackingly good.
The final scene at the end of an emotionally exhausting five season run sees Patty dressed in her best power finery, looking into herself and wondering at the choices she has made as she watches an oblivious Parsons (who has made the choices Patty might have made) from the window of her chauffeur-driven car. Here the show is reminiscent of 1941 film Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ masterpiece narrative examining the corrupting influence of power and wealth.
Kane (the central figure of the film and modelled on William Randolph Hurst – the Rupert Murdoch of his time) is a tycoon who has lost his humanity. As he takes his last breath in the closing frame he reaches for his memory of ‘Rosebud’, a childhood possession that links him to a time before it all went wrong. For Patty this moment is a self-induced miscarriage, a moment when ambition took control of her psyche. She often returns to the grave that marks her lost daughter to seek solace if not her soul. Damages is a Citizen Kane for the 21st century, a potent critique of the neo-liberal excesses that darkens society’s heart.
This is a series that is not afraid to address some of the burning issues of our time, and it’s all its done with finesse, wit and a knowing eye that lifts the veil of some of America’s worst vanities. It also asks some potent questions of our aspirational society, the one that values economic success and celebrity above all else, and wonders if in the end such ambitions are worth it. As for Glenn Close, well she is in a class all her own and Patty Hughes is a triumph.
* The Internet and ‘TV on Demand’ has revolutionised the way we watch TV shows. No longer beholden to television networks and their programming whims and scheduling, we can watch back-to-back episodes of new and old shows to our heart’s content without those annoying advertisements interrupting the narrative flow. TV viewing has suddenly become more accessible, democratic and a hell of a lot more fun. ANDREW JOHNSTONE scours the available channels and finds the best of the best, so you don’t have to.