Guest Post: Damages Returns by Serena Donadoni

by Melissa Silverstein
July 15, 2011 2:45 AM
2 Comments
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The relationship between Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) on Damages has typically been described as that of a mentor and protégé, but itʼs even deeper and thornier. The FX series created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman explores one of the most complex female partnerships on television: an almost maternal bond super-charged by ambition. From the first episode, itʼs clear that as an attorney, Ellen wants to be Patty – she tries to emulate her ferocity and single-minded devotion to that all- important case – but doesnʼt literally want to step into her shoes (this isnʼt All About Eve). Despite fissures that would have separated most people, Ellen maintained her fierce loyalty through the third season, while Patty exuded the regal devotion of a proud but distant parental figure.

Damages returned this week for a fourth season (now on DirecTV), and their alliance is still intact, but three years and new demands have created some distance. Ellenʼs prior move to the district attorneyʼs office, followed by the death of heir apparent Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan), left a void at the Manhattan law firm of Patty Hewes, and in the first episode sheʼs conducting a job interview. The young woman looks eerily like Ellen but with a harder shell, grinning confidently as she asserts that she can handle the “brutality” of the job and cooing, “Women trust me.” She was indeed hired, but as the nanny for Catherine, Pattyʼs sullen 3- year-old granddaughter. Turns out that Pattyʼs mothering instincts only apply to molding careers, not caring for actual children.

Meanwhile, Ellen has returned to the law firm of Nye, Everett & Polk and is working up a case against High Star Security Corporation and its founder and CEO Howard T. Erickson (John Goodman). The private military contractor supplies security for the U.S. in war zones, but Ellenʼs high school friend (Chris Messina) holds the key to an illegal High Star mission that resulted in the deaths of three men in his squad. Still under Pattyʼs tutelage, Ellen approaches her for advice about pursuing a lawsuit against High Star unaware that initial inquiries have put Parsons on the radar of an operative (Dylan Baker) who wants to assure that government money continues to funnel into Ericksonʼs coffers. And so the machinations begin for another season.

The shift to DirecTV has meant a few changes to Damages. The satellite network picked up the series last summer for two ten-episode seasons, airing longer shows (around 55 minutes) that run commercial-free. Thatʼs the length of season threeʼs final episode, which aired with commercials at 90 minutes. The co- creators, who wrote season fourʼs first episode (Todd A. Kessler directed), continue to use the flash-forward storytelling device, but sparingly, allowing more of the internal lives of the characters to unfold in each episode. They still utilize New York City extremely well, but this season is not as sleek – gone are the location set pieces that oozed Manhattan powerbroker grandeur – but that also fits the current storyline. Wealthy Erickson projects an average Joe demeanor, and Ellen returns to her working class roots.

DirecTV, which reports 19.4 million subscribers, made a different deal for Damages than the Friday Night Lights arrangement: that drama aired each season first on DirecTV, then on NBC. Damages was picked up after its cancellation by FX, and now runs exclusively on DirecTVʼs Audience Network (channel 239). Even though Damages received strong critical acclaim (and enough network support to last three seasons despite eroding ratings), it was always an anomaly on FX: a show built around a dominant, unsympathetic, but charismatic woman with Glenn Close as the ideal centerpiece. She was a proven quantity to FX audiences, making her first foray into series television as Capt. Monica Rawling during the 2005 season of their signature show The Shield (2002-8). Close would also win back-to-back Emmys as best actress in a drama series (2008 and 2009) for playing Patty Hewes.

Shows that have been ratings successes on FX have been as dark as Damages, but theyʼve been also been grittier, testosterone-heavy and use more linear storytelling. Rescue Me, which aired the first episode of its seventh and final season at the same day and time that Damages debuted on DirecTV, is a prime example. The series challenges the notion of firefighters as cookie-cutter heroes by focusing on the complex lives of a post-9/11 crew in Manhattan, with episodes jumping from harrowing blazes to black humor to soap opera to surrealism, sometimes within the same scene. Sons of Anarchy (entering its fourth season) and Justified (entering its third) both explore the intricacies of familial obligation, criminal organizations and small town communities – albeit viewed from different perspectives when it comes to the law. Women from those dramas have recently received awards: a Golden Globe for Katey Sagal as best actress in Sons of Anarchy and Margo Martindale as best supporting actress from the new Criticsʼ Choice Television Awards. (Margo Martindale also received an Emmy nomination today.) Their characters are as singular and powerful in their worlds as Patty Hewes is in hers.

So when John Landgraf, FXʼs network president, said in The Hollywood Reporter that “youʼd be crazy” to put another Damages on television, he was referring more to the format than the content or the characters. Although these other FX shows have running storylines, each episode is self-contained: Damages requires that viewers watch the entire season to put together the puzzle of whatʼs happening. For fans, thatʼs part of the pleasure of the show, and DirecTV hopes theyʼll follow Patty Hewes & Associates to their new location. But its cancellation from FX (which reaches around 90 million homes) means that quality television is fragmenting even further than the broadcast/cable divide, and programming is now being placed into increasingly specialized – and smaller – niches.
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Check out Serena’s site: The Cinema Girl

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2 Comments

  • Allison | July 17, 2011 12:41 PMReply

    I won't watch this show after they killed poor Tate Donovan in a toilet last season!

  • Linn D. | July 15, 2011 5:16 AMReply

    Ms. Donadoni, I have a request please. You seem like a very smart writer. If you choose to post on this blog again, I would ask that you consider doing less plot-breakdown and more insights into what makes the show work, what holds it back and therefore what your bigger points are. The first couple paragraphs above felt like a book report. It wasn't until I got toward the end I understood where you were going. I like to read this website for the insights, not book reports on specific episodes or TV shows. There are plenty of other resources for that. Share your insights, please. I'm sure you have plenty of them and I'll find them fascinating. :) Thank you.

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