Assessing the Contenders: Damages – “Pilot”

[As the Top 10 Comedy and Drama series contenders have been released, and since Gold Derby has been kind enough to grab us the episode titles, I’m going through each submission judging its quality and its potential on the panel. Today, it’s time to delve into one of last summer’s most high profile series, and one with a lot of Emmy buzz.]

Damages (FX)

Episode: “Pilot”

Synopsis: Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is a high-powered attorney who is known for her cutthroat behaviour and her cruel tactics; Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is a young attorney right out of law school who finds herself becoming tangled in her web. Opening with a bloody Ellen walking the streets, the episode flashes between that terrifying future and the start of it all as Ellen and Patty both get caught up in a civil case with Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson).

My Thoughts: Damages is not a perfect series – it ends up with serious narrative problems that shouldn’t have happened in a short thirteen episode season, and while it ends with a flourish it never quite lives up to the pilot’s potential.

But this pilot is full of potential, and is pretty close to perfect.

The pilot is smart in that it doesn’t rely on Glenn Close and Ted Danson, the show’s certifiable stars. Using Ellen as our eyes and ears, both to the future tragedy and the present madness, we get the right picture of this: Hewes & Associates is supposed to be overwhelming, and our view of her journey is built nicely by the flashforwards displaying someone who has clearly been through some type of struggle. You get sucked into the story of what Ellen did, how it involves this case and these characters – the flashforwards are never too precious (Outside of the green trenchcoat purchase), and they do a fine job of building tension and suspense.

The series was always chock full of great portrayals (Four of the actors made the Top 10 lists for good reason), and the performances here are right on target: Close, Byrne and Danson all do great work of slowly introducing us to these characters. I left the episode desperate to see what happens next, but in a way that wasn’t done with really broad questions but subtle ones. There is no deus ex machina plotting, but rather some subtle twists here and there that allow for us to learn a lot about each character without ever knowing everything. We’re compelled by all of their characters, but not to the point where we’re willing to stereotype them into a particular role.

So as a series, I’ve got a bone to pick with parts of Damages, but as a pilot? I really don’t know if I have anything to complain about.

Panel Potential: This is the perfect panel episode – it offers a self-contained story with multiple twists, plenty of dramatic work from actors they recognize, and most importantly a plot that feels meaningful. Some episodes screened for critics can feel too much like pieces of a puzzle where you have no picture, a confusing prospect for voters. Instead, here you have a story where the puzzle seems very small before growing in size at episode’s end.

The pilot also has a lot of slick elements, from its direction to its writing. Some have compared it to a movie, and I’ll buy that comparison – it’s just a strong piece of dramatic television, and that’s the ideal type of episode to show people sitting through a bunch of shows they’ve never seen before.

Overall: The series has clearly performed well in the popular vote for four actors and the series to break into the Top 10s, and this pilot will only help their case: it’s a fantastic episode that will guarantee a nomination. I’m not sure whether it has the tapes beyond this point to win the Emmy compared to other potential nominees, but rest assured that its name will be announced on July 17th.

Next Up: Either a look at Family Guy’s surprising inclusion or Dexter’s “Dark Defender.”

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