We devote quite a bit of copy to almost all of the best dramas currently airing on American television: “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “Lost,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Big Love,” “Breaking Bad,” and even “Sons of Anarchy” (which will be far more discussed in future seasons, as I just finally got around to watching the first two, and was thoroughly blown away). One show that’s fell a bit under the radar around here has been F/X’s brilliant “Damages.” Truth be told, in my quest to watch at least one season of every Emmy-nominated drama of the last 15 years, “Damages” was inexplicably last in line.
I finally completed that task a few days ago, having banged out the first two seasons of “Damages” in under two weeks, a little ashamed of myself for waiting so long to get around to it. “Damages” is a superb drama — it’s not only wildly addictive, but top to bottom, it’s the best acted show on television. Glen Close as Patty Hewes — the Miranda Priestley of the legal world — is deliciously narcissistic and so power hungry she borders on psychotic. She’s calculating, manipulative, and plain fucking evil, and she (and Katy Sagal in “Sons of Anarchy” to a nearly equal degree) are exactly the kind of women we don’t get enough of in either television or film: Powerful, conniving female villains we love to loathe. Patty Hewes is as soulless as Dexter, as unscrupulous as Tony Soprano, as cool as Stringer Bell, and occasionally nearly as unhinged as her “Fatal Attraction” character.
The central relationship in “Damages” revolves around Patty and her once naïve but not anymore protégé, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), and each of their attempts to outflank and out-manipulate one another. In the first season, Patty used Ellen to get closer to a key witness; in the second season, Ellen tried to play Patty after she tried to have her killed. The first two seasons have also featured some remarkable performances, including those of William Hurt, Ted Danson, Marcia Gay Harden, and two alumni of “The Wire,” in John Doman and Clarke Peters, though none of them have matched the exceptional performance of Zeljko Ivanek as Roy Fiske in the first season (that Emmy rightfully belonged to him) Personally, my favorite character in the show is the unsung Tate Donovan, who plays Tom Shayes, Patty’s right-hand man and now partner at the law firm.
Season three may actually give us a chance to really appreciate Donovan, as the show’s major mystery seems to focus on Shayes. I won’t rehash the first two seasons (or spoil the third season’s premiere), if only because I don’t want to ruin anything for those who might be motivated to visit the show for the first time. Season three, however, does keep the show’s framing conceit intact — offering us glimpses of the future before backtracking six months to show us how we got there. That chronological device worked to perfection in the first season, but seemed almost extraneous in the second. However, after watching the last minutes of the first episode of this season, which offers the biggest shock of the entire series, it appears that the conceit is already beginning to work its magic again.
The major case this season revolves around Louis Tobin (Len Cariou), who has been indicted for a Ponzi scheme that fleeced his clients out of billions. It feels a little too ripped from the headlines, though I’m almost certain that the actual scheme is something of a MacGuffin. The real focus will be on the hidden money and on Tobin’s family: A conniving Marilyn (Lily Tomlin); an outraged son, Joe (Campbell Scott); and the deliciously sinister family lawyer, Leonard Winstone (Martin Short). And though he’s mostly considered a comedic actor, believe it or not, in a few minutes of screen time, the casting of Martin Short already makes up for the lone casting misstep of the series, in last season’s creepy hit man, played by Darrell Hammond.
Patty has seized the Tobin family finances, with an eye toward recovering the hidden money and returning it to Tobin’s clients. Meanwhile, Ellen Parsons has moved on to the District Attorney’s office, which pits her against Louis Tobin as well, but in such a way that it’s in direct conflict with the interests of Patty. As you can probably guess, their paths will be crossing plenty over the course of the season, as they play family members off of one another.
There’s little reason to get too much further into the plot — it’s too dense and convoluted to do justice in print, which was to its credit in the first season, though season two admittedly stumbled narratively. Suffice to say, there’s a murder at the end of it all, the identity of the victim is crushing and will only become moreso as the main plot nears its conclusion and the victim’s murderer is revealed.
That first episode is one hell of a tease, and it’s got me fish-hooked by the mouth. I was a little disappointed with the way that season two wound down and the way it ultimately revealed too many red herrings and wasted subplots. Still, the plot is almost secondary to the show — it’s the performances that keep you glued to the set. As long as they keep rotating in brilliant character actors, and as long as Patty Hewes remains the biggest bitch on television, I’m in for the long haul.