TV Review: 'Damages'
It took only one season, but "Damages" has become the television equivalent of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Wait. That's a little harsh, isn't it? Sorry, "Damages." Allow me to explain.
After "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," it became impossible for Shyamalan to trick his viewers anymore. Part of the problem was that his movies were getting progressively worse, but audiences were also catching on to his games. Anticipating the surprise of Shyamalan movies became so simple that I guessed the twist in "The Village" based on one viewing of the teaser trailer and all of America had guessed the twist of "The Happening" -- You know... That it sucked -- before it was ever released.
The question became, "Hey Shyamalan, what else you got?"
And the answer has been, "Ummmm... Nothing."
The team behind "Damages" hasn't hit a Shyamalan-esque slump with the early episodes of the second season, but it remains to be seen if they've raised their game to meet the level of a viewership trained to assume that every character has double and triple motives and that half of the characters are lying to each other, half of the characters are lying to the audience and another half (it's a tricky Venn diagram) are lying to themselves. If you aren't careful, it's entirely possible for unpredictability to become predictable.
As I said in my list of the spring's 15 most anticipated TV events, "Damages" got a bit of a pass in its first season. The first three or four episodes were deliciously twisted and twisty and the last couple episodes tied everything together well. In between, though, viewers had to plow through seven or eight episodes that offered red herrings, filler and Zeljko Ivanek's Emmy-winning highlights. "Damages" isn't the first show to suffer from that degenerative condition known as "24" Syndrome, but it remained to be seen how it would evolve to meet the challenges of a second season.
Premiering on Wednesday (Jan. 7), "Damages" begins from a point of darkness. The Frobisher case may ultimately have been a big win for Patty Hewes and associates, but it didn't come without a cost. Formerly bright-eyed young attorney Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is still mourning her dead fiancee and grief counseling doesn't seem to be helping. She's also still working with the FBI to take Patty (Glenn Close) down, but that process may take longer than expected. Ellen is haunted by bad dreams, but she may be better off than Patty, who's literally seeing ghosts. The show is called "Damages," but based on the psyches of its leads, it could be called "Damaged."
Both women are about to become involved with men who may be good for the series' drama, but probably won't be good for their well-being. Daniel Purcell (William Hurt) a man from Patty's past, shows up asking for a favor, but soon has to put his life in Patty's hands. Meanwhile, Ellen is attracting the interest of a man from her counseling group. He looks friendly enough, but since he's played by Timothy Olyphant, he's bound to be a bit off-kilter.
It's Purcell who puts the season's plot in motion, but there are enough tensions simmering that Ellen and Patty would probably be able to keep things interesting even without the addition of murder and some very high level (and hot-button) corporate misdeeds.
As if that isn't enough, Arthur Frobisher's demise at the end of the first season? Well, let's just say that viewers may have written Ted Danson's character off a little prematurely. No more spoilers from me on that front.
As they did last year, series creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman have structured the season around a framing device. Six months in the future, we find Ellen sitting down, seemingly at a bar but maybe not, with a mystery person. Their conversation -- one-sided, as only Ellen speaks -- involves the importance of telling the truth and let's just say things escalate quickly. Since everybody on the show is lying, the mystery will be who Ellen's talking to, which lie she's peeved about and what happened in six months to get us there. I'm not sure it's quite as instantly compelling as last year's framing device, with Ellen, covered in blood, being arrested, but few things would be.
Even when last year's storytelling unspooled in the middle, "Damages" was still compelling for its New York City texture and for Glenn Close's performance at the center of it all. Steely and entirely unpredictable, Close instantly made Patty Hewes one of TV's great characters and watching her play off of Ivanek and Danson was something to savor. Close may have been given an even better foil this season in her "Big Chill" co-star Hurt. In the season's first three episodes, the two titans of '80s cinema (eight Oscar nods in the decade between them) are mostly circling each other, pawing around, insinuating, pushing buttons. Even if I'm skeptical that the show's writers will be able to play out a season with more consistency than last, I have total confidence that at some point Hurt and Close are going to tear into each other. And I can't wait.
There are also early signs that Bryne may be evolving into a better foil for Close as Ellen becomes a more worthy opponent for Patty. Last season, Ellen was becoming increasingly less innocent, but it was necessary for Patty to steamroll her. This season's version of Ellen may have already become more vicious and feral than her mentor. In fact, with Patty showing hints (only hints, mind you) of weakness, this could be a big season for Ellen and Byrne looks ready to handle it.
She'll be helped by Olyphant, instantly a stronger young male presence than any of last season's interchangeable characters.
Oh and did I mention that Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden shows up in the second episode? And that she looks fabulous and appears to have unexpected ties to several characters?
It's really an embarrassment of riches.
As our heroine is advised in the second episode, ""You have to be careful, Ellen. Everyone is looking to play an angle." That's even more true on "Damages" than in ordinary life. What that means is that from minute one, you're playing a guessing game and, not to toot my own horn, several plot twists that I guessed in the first episode have already played out as seeming shocks by the third episode. Since more of "Damages" fans are more passionate than I am, I'm guessing I won't be the only one suddenly working from ahead. Do the "Damages" producers still have enough tricks to keep the drama satisfying? If not, I'll keep watching just for the actors.