Yes, I’m Still Watching…FX’s Damages

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Yes, I’m Still Watching…Damages

February 25th, 2009

Oh, Damages.

When the show debuted in 2007, there was something very fresh about its structure, something that I couldn’t really put my finger on at the time. It was a show that brought to the table some great acting talent, in particular strong work from Glenn Close and a career re-making role for Ted Danson, and a flash-forward plotline that at the very least kept you guessing of how the show was going to traverse from Point A to Point B. I never had a problem with either of these two elements: I thought the show started on a good note with the introduction of Ellen Parsons as a naive young attorney in the cutthroat world of Patty Hewes, and I felt the end of the season was similarly sophisticated in its handling of the long known climax.

But when Damages began its second season, I was reminded that the journey between Points A and B was more than a bit meandering, and while a few stops along the road were worthwhile (Hi, Zjelko Ivanek!) there were other storylines that felt like killing time. I began to think back to another show that had followed almost exactly the same road, a show that I once thought quite fondly of and now have very little interest in. But I didn’t want to, early in the season, so quickly link Damages with 24, a show that I have more or less written off.

As the season has gone on, however, the similarities are getting tougher to ignore: the show has become about a constant state of well-acted but poorly executed elevation. Characters and storylines are tossed aside at the writers’ whim as soon as they find something more interesting, and mysteries are solved without resonance but instead with a sense that one can’t linger on one moment too long before the next storyline needs to get started. If each of these arcs felt like they were being sufficiently wrapped up, that we got out of them all that we could, I’d be fine with this: but Damages, like 24 in its hey day, is all about leaving you wanting more, and the bad news for Damages is that I’m starting to see through it all too clearly.

Which says more for the writers’ reliance on the same ol’ bag of tricks than it does for the actors who are at their whim, a disconnect broad strong enough on the latter end to keep me watching but weak enough on the former to keep me at an emotional distance.

When Ted Danson returned to the show more or less full time, emerging as Patty’s secret plaintiff for the case against Ultima National Resources, I got that feeling I often got during later seasons of 24, where a perpetrator or characters is revealed to be someone we know in the form of a shocking twist. Of the season thus far, this is actually one of the show’s more interesting turns, and I think that there is something to be found in Frobisher’s character that is worth investigating. But the show needs to decide what it’s trying to do at this point, as this is yet another branch of sorts in an ever-growing tree of complicated connections.

If they want to actually investigate Frobisher as a character, the show is going to have to head into the territory that they mined with Ray Fiske last year, episodes that really led a character lose as opposed to having them play on the sidelines. Frobisher feels too much like a contrivance, an easy way to keep him close to the show while Ellen tries to pin David’s murder on him; it feels like he isn’t actually there because the show intends to spend time on his character, but rather because his character is conveniently already established for the audience and can be ushered in quickly without the need to slow down and actually let his character sink in. And I feel like the show is operating more or less without character right now, which is going to become a problem as things move forward.

It’s the show’s biggest problem right now, actually. Ellen, while zombie-like and kind of the show’s weak link last year, has become entirely one-dimensional this time around: she hasn’t been given enough time to appear slavishly devoted to proving Frobisher murdered David, and her once fiery determination with the FBI has faded into a relationship of convenience, something she thinks about every now and then. Her once smoldering tension when relating with Patty has become a functional working relationship, not because Ellen is getting better at hiding it but because the show was too busy with other storylines that Ellen went back to being a character about nothing. While the return of Katie Connor has brought back her past trauma, at least, Katie is just plain annoying and Ellen’s involvement with her has her back to that doting supportive role.

It’s frustrating because it doesn’t match up with what we saw of Ellen in that initial flashforward at the beginning of the season, and it’s also frustrating because what we’re seeing of Ellen has her becoming progressively stupider. Specifically, she needs to think through Patty’s insistence that keeping Frobisher close to them will help Ellen prove he’s the killer: as long as Frobisher is Patty’s client, they’re going to have to sit on anything they get or else risk Frobisher bailing. Their new proximity makes it much more likely that it is Frobisher in the chair (or perhaps his security-friend considering we saw him entering Ellen’s apartment in our most recent flashforward), and it just seems like Ellen has a long way to go before she puts together that Patty is never going to turn Frobisher over as long as the trial is ongoing.

The show’s other major problem right now is that the one person we got to meet with a personal connection to the UNR case, Daniel Purcell (William Hurt), has been entirely marginalized and more or less written out of the show’s narrative in favour of Walter Kendrick and his creepy hitman (Darrell Hammond doing some really interesting, if weird, work). It’s a tough pill to swallow because it’s so much less personal: it feels like we have yet to get an image of Kendrick as a person, whereas we had a very complicated image of Purcell that was literally bought out and shoved under the rug. It was one thing for Purcell to have been complicit in his wife’s murder, wrapping up a mystery and ending it without much fanfare or discovery, but it’s quite another for that to suddenly render him irrelevant to the series narrative. It doesn’t feel like that represents evolution, but just switching him out for Claire Maddox (Marcia Gay Harden), who besides sleeping with everyone but her sadsack setup really isn’t much of a character or, to this point, an adversary for Patty.

It just feels like one of the show’s key elements of the first season, Patty’s duplicitous nature, is missing and yet still present in storylines where it matters. When Ellen wants help tracking Frobisher, Patty is a key asset, and in fighting against environment-killing UNR we presume that Hewes is the “good guy.” But when poor Uncle Pete chooses to kill himself instead of exposing Patty or going to jail, leaving his dying wife behind, it felt like the show trying to blame another man’s death on Hewes (as they did with Ray Fiske’s suicide), and I don’t necessarily think we’ve seen Patty do enough things underhanded or evil this season to justify this. Patty’s bite seems to be gone: with so much setup required with all of this UNR business, she’s taking a back seat, and the result is the writers relying on previously-established character actions as opposed to new ones that we actually get to see in the context of the season.

I just don’t feel that enthralled by any of this: while we’ve been shown many things that should make Ellen’s time with Timothy Olyphant tension-filled, when their latest interaction boiled down to Ellen being jealous over Katie flirting with him forgive me for not being that engaged. While there is yet to be anything as tangential as David’s red herring stalker from the show’s first season, it just feels like nothing is adding up, and while the show might pull a 24 and try to tie things up in a pretty bow at the end this middle portion of the season feels like they’re having to stop and start various storylines in a precise rhythm in order to keep things moving along, and they don’t quite have that rhythm down to a science.

Maybe next season?

Cultural Observations

  • I’m not sure if I’m as outraged or shocked as I’m supposed to be by the level of subterfuge required to provide stock trading information – is insider training really supposed to seem like a big bad evil to me requiring a mysterious SUV parked in the middle of nowhere with a GPS system? I just don’t see how it’s creating any sort of payoff to the confusion aspect of the storyline.
  • I might not quite be buying into Kendrick yet, but I can’t REALLY complain when we get Lieutenant Rowles and Lester Freamon together on the same show again.
  • While stretching the show to 22 episodes a season would damage it greatly, they don’t seem to know how to use 12: why in the world was there even a seed of doubt planted about whether Tom would stay and have sex with that prostitute despite having a baby on the way? Are they seriously considering turning that into a storyline – if so, they need to trim this cast if they’re going to insist on giving everyone a “highlight” storyline despite its total irrelevance.

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