03.31.09

So Why Aren't You Watching Damages?

FX’s dark, suspenseful series has plotlines as complex as Lost, writing worthy of Mad Men, and a cast that includes Glenn Close, William Hurt, and Marcia Gay Harden. Justin Ravitz argues that all it needs now is an audience.

Among the many mysteries embedded in the addictive, Mobius-strip narrative of Damages: Why hasn’t it generated a cult following as obsessive and vocal as the likes of Mad Men and The Sopranos before it? With a reinvented, always-revelatory Glenn Close at its helm, the FX drama couldn’t be timelier, homing in on pandemic corporate corruption and its terrifying enemy: a zealous, egomaniacal attorney (Close) with a fractured psyche, a bitter, overworked underling, and a city full of enemies.

There are difficult bosses, and then there’s Close’s titanium-boned Patty Hewes, the rageaholic, corruption-busting NYC litigator of Damages. Her handpicked second-year associate Ellen Parsons (the deceptively delicate Rose Byrne) struggles to punch in at the office, and it’s not just the 70-hour work week or Patty’s fire-and-ice, no-boundaries management style—in season one, Patty may have tried to have Ellen murdered. She definitely hired Ellen under false pretenses and killed her fiancé’s sister’s dog, all for a case against pension-stealing CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), whose goons successfully murdered Ellen’s fiancé, a brutal crime for which Ellen was briefly charged. Devil Wears Prada, this is not.

“If you do a scene with Glenn Close, you don’t want to be the idiot who doesn’t know his lines.”

The tightly, elaborately coiled series, in fact, hews as closely to the flashback/forward mindscrews of Lost (without the supernatural) and Jacobean revenge tragedies as it does to crime and legal procedurals. Particularly in season two, which concludes Wednesday, Damages’ crackling, darkly comic, psychoanalyst-fodder dialogue suits a distinguished cast which now includes William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and alumni of The Wire. Close—a five-time Oscar nominee, never a winner—has made the role of Patty as indelible as the deeply human monsters of Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons.

If you’re just catching up now, here’s the CliffsNotes guide to Damages:

In this season, Ellen is still in Patty’s employ, secretly colluding with FBI agents to bring down Patty, and still hoping to snag Danson’s character. Patty’s firm, meanwhile, takes on a case Erin Brockovich would love: UNR, a global energy behemoth, primping for a merger, covers up a toxic killer, stages brownouts, manipulates stock prices (via a cocaine- and hooker-loving analyst and a Cadillac) while the wife of a hired scientist (Hurt) turns up dead; that moody scientist also happens to be Patty’s ex. By last week’s penultimate episode, a newly vulnerable Patty has shown signs of maternal affection toward Ellen, Ellen’s duplicitous new boyfriend Wes (Timothy Olyphant) has to kill her, and UNR’s jerky CEO Walter Kendrick (John Doman of The Wire) has outwitted his lead counsel Claire Maddox (Harden). And then there’s that flash-forward scene that has been replayed, shuffled and elaborated upon throughout the entire season: Ellen, swigging whiskey, waves a gun in Patty’s face (or someone else’s?) in a hotel room; Patty eventually stumbles out, bloodied.

So…what gives? The Daily Beast interviewed some of the show’s cast and crew, all stoically refused to divulge any spoilers about the finale and its probability of wrapping up so many labyrinthine plot threads.

The show’s creators are Daniel Zelman and brothers Todd and Glenn Kessler, known collectively as KZK, all with experience as writers, directors and producers. (Todd A. Kessler wrote several episodes of The Sopranos, and that show’s brutal beauty is apparent here.) KZK were once young, would-be protégés under the thumb of “powerful, twisted people” in the entertainment industry, Zelman said. “All the ideals you were taught in college aren’t what runs the world or what motivates people.” Their interest in writing about the evolving dynamic between a female boss and an underling (“men in power had been explored a lot”) led to the law, which by nature dips into a wide array of other arenas.

Patty’s character is an amalgamation of real-life figures, including David Boies, an omnipotent, helicopter-traveling attorney who once deposed Bill Gates in an antitrust lawsuit and defended Al Gore versus the Supreme Court in the 2000 Florida election debacle. (John Doman, as the down-and-dirty UNR CEO, said that his character is “inspired by a real person, which I won’t get into. I don’t want [KZK] to get sued.”) While KZK didn’t specifically have Glenn Close in mind when they pitched the show, script-less, to FX, the network suggested the actress, who had just ended a fruitful season on The Shield. The team wrote the pilot imagining Close-as-Patty, and she quickly signed on. “There was never any discussion of any other actor,” Zelman said.

Although the show, built essentially around the Patty-Ellen relationship, isn’t “ripped from the headlines” in the style of the Law & Order franchise, “there are so many articles relevant to our show daily—another episode of corruption here, another executive hanging himself there,” Zelman said. The breakdown of corporate culture and the veritable castration of crooked executives in the real world, Todd Kessler conjectures, is part of Damages’ timely appeal. “There is fascination worldwide with what corruption actually is. And here’s an American show where corruption is front and center.”

Far more than a prescient exploration of American power and its foibles, however, Damages presents one of the most elaborate, unpredictable TV narratives in recent memory, a constantly morphing M.C. Escher puzzle that will, hopefully this week, unlock this season’s mysterious centerpiece: What happened in that hotel room with Ellen, the gun, and Patty? How and why, exactly? “We know point A, we know point Z. The fun of it, for us, is how we get there,” Todd Kessler said.

“It’s not that we have no idea what the ending is. It’s that we have several specific ideas for how the season could end, “Zelman explained. “We leave the possibility of changing our minds.” Their creative process involves script rewrites up until the night before a scene is shot, collaboration with actors, and editing sleights of hands even the actors can’t predict. For the gun scene, they instructed Rose Byrne to perform multiple takes with these open-ended possibilities in mind.

“I felt like I was back in acting class,” Byrne said (in a startlingly thick Australian accent) of the unconventional shoot. “Very nerve-wracking. KZK work in interesting ways. They’re very collaborative [but] they’re very creative in the editing suite. I don’t really know, ultimately, what I’m going to be watching that week. They’re always fucking with the timeline.”

Olyphant, Ellen’s not-who-he-seems love interest, embraces the creative possibilities of working with KZK’s always-remixable scripts. “They have a terrific understanding of basic storytelling,” he said. “Less information is better.”

Tate Donovan, who plays Patty’s loyal, blinders-on lieutenant Tom Shayes and who directed two episodes, said “It’s one of the greatest experiences of my career working on this show. I can tune in and I am just as excited to see what they do with what we shoot as an audience member.” And, despite the intensity of the material, the last-minute rewrites and the A-game professionalism its star brings (“If you do a scene with Glenn Close, you don’t want to be the idiot who doesn’t know his lines.”), Donovan said that the mood on set is “shockingly ridiculous. We all realize that we don’t really know what’s going on. We spend a lot of time trying not to burst into laughter.”

Since Damages—never a ratings powerhouse despite critical acclaim and star power—has been guaranteed a third season, audiences can probably assume that Patty and Ellen will avoid death and extended jail time. But what of…everything else? On serialized shows like Lost and 24, Todd Kessler said, “an audience has been burned in the past. An audience has invested in stories and characters, and then the shows don’t deliver. At the end of the season, they just ask more questions. Our audience wants to believe that they are in good hands.” And they are.

Justin Ravitz has written, edited and/or reported for New York, Out, Us Weekly, Time Out New York, New York Press, Worth and elsewhere. He lives on the Upper East Side and grew up in Bergen County, N.J., and doesn't care who knows.