January 13, 2009

Damages: "I Lied, Too"

Back with a bang (or not)!

When we last left the turbulent world of Damages, first year lawyer Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) had just discovered that hot-shot plaintiff's attorney and manipulation machine Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) had tried to have her killed in the wake of their law firm's $2 billion triumph over Enron-proxy Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). Upon realizing that fact, Ellen had turned the Damages world upside-down by agreeing to work with the feds in a multi-year sting operation designed to take out the ruthless attorney, thus setting up the premise of the follow-up season(s). Did the premiere live up to the hype? In short, yes and no.

While the show is as competently written and directed as I remember it (seemingly years ago), there is no question that the second season premiere had a great deal of difficulty re-capturing the magic that was an incredibly strong freshman season. To begin, the producers of the show apparently thought that critical to Damages' success was the use of its patented "time-jumps" to keep the audience in suspense. Like the first season, this season begins with a vision of the future. Unlike the first season, this year's version simply features an extreme close-up of Ellen speaking to camera. Not quite as memorable as a bloody Ellen running hysterically through the streets of New York, now is it? After the uneventful flash-forward (apologies to Lost), the familiar "Six months earlier" timestamp arrives and the plot begins in earnest. Or at least it would, if there was an actual plot to begin at this point.

Like the Scrubs premiere last week, this first episode seems mostly focused on putting the pieces in place to explain to newcomers just exactly what is going on. As such, in this episode we get a lot of flashbacks to Patty's apparent hit on Ellen, and Ellen's actions in the immediate aftermath thereof. The plot, what little there is, is mostly designed to set up the character traits with which regular watchers will already be familiar. Patty is ruthless and calculating (here exemplified by her calling in a drug bust on a friend's daughter as an end around to get him to finance her pet charity). Ellen is smart and angry, but
just a little bit naive (and here one can't tell whether this is the fault of Ellen or her portrayor).

Unlike the first season, the law firm of Hewes and Associates does not have a major high-profile case as the season commences. (The season appears to begin almost immediately after the first season finale. This, despite the marked changes in the appearance of many of the cast). Instead, both Ellen and ultra-passive Hewes and Associates partner Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) spend the bulk of the episode convincing Patty to pursue one. Trying to take advantage of this scenario, the feds feed Ellen a case about "infant mortality" (this phase is highlighted multiple times throughout) which they want Patty to take for undisclosed reasons. It's unclear even by episode's end whether or not Ms. Hewes will take the bait.

As the last major (but as of yet unconnected) plot point, an apparent pharmaceutical scientist named Daniel Purcell (William Hurt) has his home invaded by an unknown intruder, which he thinks is related to a secret he knows about his employer. He contacts Patty, who he says "owes him" and tells her that he wants to go public with something that could bring down an industry. Patty being Patty, she rejects his pleas, and leaves him to his misery. In the second-to-last scene of the episode Patty arrives at Purcell's home to find his wife strangled and his home ravaged. An emotional Purcell asks Patty if she is willing to help him now.

Oh, and Future-Ellen(TM) shoots someone in the face.

While there are certainly a lot of plot threads to begin the season (I didn't even go into detail about Patty's charity, Timothy Olyphant's pseudo-stalker, the unexpected return of Arthur Frobisher, or the interminable Regis and Kelly segment), one can't help but think that there's simply a lot of smoke with very little fire. Just playing armchair show-runner, it appears that the feds have some plan to smoke Patty out with a case that mirrors her own difficulties with a miscarried child, that Purcell is essentially "The Insider" with some kind of pharmaceutical compound (probably with fake corporate mortality tests or the like), that Ellen doesn't have any idea what she's doing (including in the final, oh so unexpected scene), and that Purcell probably killed his wife to get Patty to help him. What, you say? That last plot point wasn't hinted at? Well maybe.

You see, the difficulty with a show like Damages is that it runs the risk of out thinking itself. After all, when everything's a twist, then nothing really is. Take the case I mentioned above regarding the wealthy financier's daughter. As soon as her bright future was introduced, any veteran Damages watcher worth their salt knew that it was going down the drain. Now that's okay. It's a noir-type show. I get it. But any veteran Damages watcher worth their salt also knew that conniving manipulator Patty Hewes was almost certainly behind whatever horror the girl now faced (a moment for poor Saffron, please). And they were right. As a result, when Patty refuses Purcell and looks to walk away, one can't help but imagine the ways in which a conniving manipulator could convince her to help him. And when one of them happens, well...Let's just say that it's possible that a show so twisty winds up being the most predictable of all.

Which isn't to say that I thought the episode was bad. Throughout its entirety (which was blessedly uninterrupted by commercials, thank you FX) I watched intently and look forward to doing so again in the very near future. It's just that, for a show that prides itself on shocking revelations and unforeseeable twists, I worry that maybe, just maybe, the magic was only good for one season.

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