Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Damages" from 28.2.2008

My must-see programme just now is the dark American legal drama Damages on Monday evening on BBC1. 

Its tortuous plot is slickly edited and embellished with quick-fire flashbacks and grainy leaps forward contrived to create a strange and unsettling e-moral atmosphere – not entirely unlike most systems of civil litigation. The viewer feels a detachment similar to the weird, almost out-of-body frisson of rural Americana in Twin Peaks.

It’s difficult to sum up the complex plot of Damages. The story is set in New York and follows Ellen Parsons, a newly-appointed associate in a leading litigation practice, portrayed by Rose Byrne.

The firm is headed by charismatic Patty Hewes played by Glenn Close – for which she won a Golden Globe. Her firm is involved in a mega-bucks class suit by workers against billionaire baddie Arthur Frobisher, who made a fortune selling his stock in his company before it went bust leaving thousands of his employees facing poverty. In the role of the villain, Ted Danson is about as far away from Sam Malone in Cheers as is possible.

Much of the pleasure in watching the show derives from the icy Patty who is glamorously successful, ruthless and fascinating. Glenn Close avoids histrionics and any vulgar large acting. Her iconic performance is subtle, understatedly mannered and almost painfully quiet – not dissimilar to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

It is difficult to imagine so deadly an operator, who is capable of having a pet dog killed to advance her case, having the emotions to sustain motherhood and marriage – unless perhaps the husband is killed and eaten after mating. Patty’s dysfunctional relationship with her Mephistophelean son makes an intriguing subplot that may assume even greater significance later in the proceedings.

If Damages is primarily the story of Ellen, it serves mainly to tell the story of the corruption of youthful decency or more particularly of a Faustian pact.

From the outset, it seems Ellen increasingly risks loss of her integrity and is fated to sell her soul for the largesse Patty can bestow – a smart Manhattan apartment, large salary, professional prestige and most tellingly of all, Patty’s approval.

Ellen’s journey away from the light is crystallised in her firing of her incompetent assistant which was prompted by Patty. Much of the series is spent wondering whether this journey will climax with blame for the gory murder of her fiancé.

The theme of selling one’s soul is repeated by other characters such as the double-dealing elderly former employee, the sister of Ellen’s fiancé, a key witness and even Frobisher’s lawyer. Each is tainted and somehow damned by their dealings with the satanic Frobisher.

Ted Danson’s performance is intricate and multi-layered. His character ranges from the warm family man by the pool to the degenerate high on cocaine in his car with a hooker and the violent bully assaulting his insufficiently sycophantic ghost-writer. He exudes an unbalanced feral quality all the more difficult to deal with since he seems to have convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He embodies the devil and is entirely corrupt and corrupting.

I am writing this after four episodes and have not yet seen Patty and Frobisher in the same scene. Their characters are charismatic and repulsive at the same time. It will be interesting to see the chemistry if they appear on screen together: there may be spontaneous combustion.

As well as exploring the Faustian pact, Damages paints a savage picture of a system of civil litigation rife with cynicism, greed, lies, corruption, brutality and any number of character defects most useful in constructing compelling drama. It is not genteel. Eminent but hugely flawed lawyers seek the massive fruits of victory at any cost.

The sub-plot of the crossing lady’s suit against Ellen’s under-insured father shows how corrosive and potentially ruinous even cases much smaller than class actions can be. Ellen’s father’s decency seems a potentially disastrous delusion in a system that can often be vicious in effect.

I recommend Damages for its accomplished leading performances, thought-provoking writing and pacy editing. It intrigues, entertains and occasionally shocks. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.



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