Let me begin with a disclaimer: I did not catch this show when it first aired. Before I even watched scene one, I had heard that Glenn Close was in a bar when it was announced with zero fanfare that she had won a Golden Globe for her role as tough-as-nails attorney Patty Hewes. And I had heard the buzz of more than a few critics who hailed "Damages" as the next best thing to a real class action suit that would drop a thousand bucks on every American whose mind has been dulled by bad TV. I also knew that the creators--Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman--had written for "The Sopranos," and so I approached this series thinking I was in for something special.
While "Damages" is an ambitious show--one which tries to be artful, intelligent, edgy, and mystery-packed--I don't think it's in the same league as "The Sopranos." Sure, people get whacked, people betray each other, people use each other, and you never know who's on whose side. But if this is the legal system today, I don't think I'm ever going to recommend another student for law school. Every last one of these people is a sleazeball who shouldn't be allowed to vote, much less practice law. And that's probably the biggest similarity that this show has to "The Sopranos." They're no angels.
Like many dramas today, the storyline continues for the entire season, but it makes you wonder if the show is going to flounder its sophomore season the way "Desperate Housewives" did, once the first-season mystery is revealed. Here, it's the world of high stakes litigation, as we watch ruthless litigator Hewes and the worshipful (and scared writ-less) group of young and middle-aged attorneys that she surrounds herself with as they try to win a single lawsuit. Her case? An Enron-style bit of chicanery that saw one of the nation's wealthiest CEOs, Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), manipulate the books to give himself a silver parachute and the rest of his employees a lead balloon. Five thousand employees lost their jobs, their life savings, and their futures, thanks to this guy, and Hewes is out to get him . . . at any cost. If it takes ignoring the employees' representative (who may or may not be in cahoots with Frobisher) or hiring a bright new attorney not because she's the best, but because Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is close to a woman who could be a key witness, she'll do it. If it means getting one of her employees to pretend he was fired in order to perpetuate the ruse, she'll do it. If it takes blackmail, she'll do it. Even a kindly senior attorney from a rival law firm that first tried to hire Ellen thinks that Hewes is scum.
So how is she different from the man she's after? Well, that's the point, of course, and the creators have tapped into a fairly long-standing tradition in American cinema. Fast-draw cowboys have always been conscious of the thin line between them and the hired guns they're hired to bring down, as are countless cops who know that but for the grace of God they could have been on the other side.
After a kitchen-sink pilot that throws everything at viewers and seems way too self-consciously artsy--if "Blair Witch Hunt" gave you motion sickness, watch out!--"Damages" settles into a comfortable stride as an above-average TV drama. Directed by Mario Van Peebles ("Baadassss!"), the series doesn't have the most distinctive group of actors, but the talent is certainly there. Even Danson brings his A-game, and relative newcomer Anastasia Griffith is especially engaging as Ellen's friend and future sister-in-law.
There are just moments that seem too "pat." It's one thing to give Tony Soprano respect, but when a talented group of adult attorneys sits at the feet of the Master and says, like wide-eyed (and clueless) children, "What can we do about it?," you want to revoke ALL their licenses to practice law. Thankfully, those painfully obvious moments are offset by occasionally humorous ones, as when Frobisher says into his cell phone from the golf course, "I'll be at the ER. My idiot brother-in-law can't drive worth shit," or Hewes opens a package on her desk and, seeing a grenade, remarks, "God, it's gonna be a shitty week." I just wish there were more such moments of snappy dialogue.
But you have to give the creators credit for attempting something other than a straightforward A to Z narrative. The pilot begins with a half-naked and bloody character running from a building and eventually ending up in police interrogation. Then the subscript says we jump "six months earlier" to where we're introduced to the woman, Ellen, as she tries to decide which law firm to join. The rest of the episodes continue to weave back and forth between the current situation with Ellen and the incidents that led to her detainment. Stylistically, the show lightens up a bit after the first installment, which had way too many artsy camera tricks and cuts. Example? As Hewes' team is discussion the case and they talk about what someone is doing--"eating steak"--there's a quick cut to a close-up of a piece of meet being cut. Moments later, one of the team says, sarcastically, "What's she doing? Getting a spa treatment?" And sure enough, there's another quick cut to a face that's presumably en route to a facial. A tacky facial, from the looks of it. Didn't we go through this phase with "Ally McBeal"?
Two other complaints: too many of the characters seem overly familiar or "stock," and way too many lines seem clumsily written to deliver information to the audience. Then too, if you're as over-educated as these lawyers, you won't have much trouble figuring out some of the twists. As my wife put it, "How sad is it when, 20 minutes into a show, I can predict that (blank) is going to be murdered? That should have been the big shocker twist." Yep, it should have.
All those complaints aside, "Damages" is still an entertaining show. It's just not as smart as I would have hoped.
The 13 first-season episodes were transferred to three single-sided discs and housed in a blue plastic jewel case with "page."
"Damages" is presented in 1080p widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio). It's a tough disc to review, because so much of what we'd describe as grainy, poor-quality video are in fact deliberate stylistic choices. But a little of that goes a long way, and by the time you get to the final episodes, if you're like me, you're getting a little tired of the effect. But even if you throw out those flashback sequences, there's still more variation in picture quality from scene to scene than you normally see in a DVD or Blu-ray. It's all the more noticeable when you get a scene where the lawyers are talking and it's sharp as what you're used to seeing in HD. Then, you wonder why more scenes don't look like this. Another stylistic decision? I'm not so sure.
The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is better but again not as strong as some of the best Blu-ray releases. The best I can say for it is that there's a nice spread across the front speakers, and the treble and bass are evenly matched. When there's drama, the music kicks up a notch, overpowering some of the lines. But for the most part it's not a problem. Like the video, it just didn't blow me away.
Three featurettes are included: "Willful Acts: The Making of Damages," "Trust No One: Insight from the Creators," and "Understanding Class Action." The first two are pretty standard making-of pieces that offer the usual blend of clips and talking heads, with an average amount of insights. The third is a click-on primer that schools viewers on various aspects of class action lawsuits, with legal eagles offering remarks.
There are also 10 deleted scenes, none of which are earthshaking, and two pretty decent episode commentaries for the Pilot (featuring Glenn and Todd Kessler, director Allen Coulter, director Allen Coulter, and Glenn Close. A second commentary for "I Hate People" pairs the Kesslers with co-creator Daniel Zelman and actor Zeljko Ivanek. Both commentaries are better than the featurettes, with a good balance of anecdotes, insights, and technical talk.
"Damages" drew an average of 5.1 million viewers per episode, so it's an extremely popular show. I would agree that it's above-average entertainment, but it's not nearly the flawless gem that others think.