Making a desperate plea for ‘Damages’

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Times Staff Writer

I didn’t expect to get my heart broken quite so soon in this job. This summer, two great shows appeared as if from a planet more advanced than ours -- AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages.” But while “Mad Men” has, justifiably, grabbed magazine covers and top 10 lists, “Damages” has gone begging. Indeed, FX has not committed to renewing the show and I don’t quite know how to come to terms with this. Glenn Close, people. As Patty Hewes, the toughest lawyer you’ll ever hate to want on your side. Ted Danson, acting up a storm as corrupt chief executive Arthur Frobisher, snorting coke and pushing around hookers. Ted Danson! A twisty turny plot in which no one seems totally evil or totally innocent, great cinematography and some very yummy Upper East Side interiors.

What else do you need in a television show?

For those who have not been watching “Damages,” and it seems there are too many of you, it follows a civil case tried by Patty against Frobisher, who has apparently bilked the employees of his company out of millions through a stock dump scam. If that sounds boring, there’s been plenty of murder and mayhem to go around as corruption was revealed and possible witnesses got whacked. The show opened with Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) running through the streets of New York practically naked and covered with the blood of, we later learned, her fiance. For a legal drama, the body count is pretty high, not surprising when you consider that writer-producer Todd A. Kessler also wrote for “The Sopranos.”

“Damages” was, for many weeks, a classic whodunit, working backward and forward at the same time until a nexus of real time was reached last week.


Tonight’s season finale should, we hope, ensure that justice is done and all loose ends are tied up. Of course it could do the complete opposite, or something else entirely, but that’s why I can hardly wait to watch.

There have been murmurs, mutterings, that there are too many characters, that the plot, with all its flashbacks, is too hard to follow, that it’s not a show you can just dip into and hope to understand. But that is precisely what makes it so compelling. Forget dipping. “Damages” is not just appointment television, it’s commitment television.

Unlike some of the quasi magic-realism on TV these days -- “Lost,” say, or even “Heroes” -- “Damages” does not invite a total Zen surrender. It is an intellectual rather than experiential show, an almost literary reminder that God is in the details and the revelation of character is just as important as cracking the case.

Patty, Ellen, Arthur and Patty’s associate Tom (Tate Donovan) all slink from villain to victim and back again, as actions and motives are revealed and revisited. In one of the more effective subplots, we watched events eat into the soul of Frobisher’s lawyer, Ray Fiske, transforming him from ruthless nasty to pathetic suicide. (Which is too bad since he was played by the splendid Zeljko Ivanek, a veteran of every show you’ve ever watched and who will be missed.)

Likewise, Ellen has always been an enigma, showing steely spine and strange ambition at the most unlikely moments. When her fiance, David, told her to choose between her career and him “right now,” she teared up but did not falter. The ring came off and out she went. (It was worth watching the show for this moment alone -- there is a disturbing trend in TV and movies to have young women harangued for their ambitions by their boyfriends, and it’s good to see one push back.)

“Damages” is the kind of good, old-fashioned drama that requires a viewer to pay attention and think. It doesn’t rely on polar bears or superpowers or quirky back stories and pie references to hold your interest. It sticks with great storytelling and superb acting. It’s television for smart people.


And maybe that’s the problem. Too many smart people still consider television beneath them. Despite the welter of great drama and comedy on cable and the networks, otherwise intelligent people will look you straight in the face and say: “Oh, I don’t watch television because there’s never anything on.” And these are people with cable!

The thing about television is that for it to be good you have to watch it. It isn’t a movie you can snooze through and then suddenly decide you loved it when Oscar nominations are announced. If you are the type of person who regularly decries the passivity of the television experience, then sign on for “Damages” before it’s too late. Watch it tonight for the same reason you clapped for Tinkerbell. If FX decides to pull the plug on this show, our persistent demands for more quality shows will become that much emptier. Because we had one, and we lost it.



Where: FX

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)