When Glenn Kessler, his younger brother Todd and Daniel Zelman got together to create a new legal show, their idea was not to follow the same path as Law & Order or David E. Kelley. There would be no lengthy courtroom showdowns, or any Boston Legal-type comedy stunts. In fact, Damages was serious business and remained gravely earnest, almost to a fault. The camera would often zero in on its lead character Patty Hewes’s stern face, offering a look inside power – and personal ruin.
The setup of the first season set the tone for the entire series. The pilot began with a look into the future where a young woman (Rose Byrne) is running through the streets covered in blood. We soon learn that her fiancé has been beaten to death in their apartment, and the woman is arrested. The action then shifts to six months earlier and we spend the rest of the season working our way up to that dramatic, bloody moment. The woman is Ellen Parsons, an inexperienced lawyer who agrees to work for Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), New York City’s most successful (and, it turns out, most ruthless) female attorney.
Ignoring advice that her choice will ruin her, Ellen eagerly works with Patty on a major class action suit against billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) who’s accused of insider trading. As Ellen will learn over the next few years, Patty will push her close to the abyss and change her life forever.
Credible depictions of powerful figures
The main storyline in the first season was inspired by the Enron case, and it was continued in season two that added a potential environmental scandal as well as Frobisher’s attempts to put his life back together after the events of season one. Real life continued to inspire the writers who based the major case of season three on Bernie Madoff’s huge investment fraud. In the fourth year, Damages portrayed the shady activities of a private military contractor (John Goodman) and his Blackwater-type firm, and in season five Julian Assange was the obvious inspiration for a character played by Ryan Phillippe who became involved in the murder of a corporate whistleblower. All these stories were usually credible depictions of powerful figures caught up in bad business, but the show would never have survived on them alone. What kept it interesting and disquieting was the relationship between Patty and Ellen (unforgettably played by Close and Byrne), a twisted affair between two women who acted like they were mother and daughter, taking turns hating and admiring each other.
Their showdowns led to bloodshed already in the first season, but most of their encounters had a tinge of sadness. There were times when the show suffered from its oppressive, chilly environs and people, as well as its complicated storylines, but it always remained relevant, dark and interesting.
Filling the cast with great actors helped – Danson was fun to watch as the billionaire who eventually wanted to do good, Martin Short was terrific as a family attorney with a secret history, and John Goodman imposing as the contractor who believed in God but behaved like a criminal. And let’s not forget Saturday Night Live star Darrell Hammond who was cast against type as a killer. See, Damages did have a sense of humor after all.
Damages 2007-2012:U.S. Made for TV. 59 ep. Color. Created by Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman. Cast: Glenn Close (Patty Hewes), Rose Byrne (Ellen Parsons), Tate Donovan (Tom Shayes, 07-10), Ted Danson (07-09), Judd Hirsch (11-12), Zeljko Ivanek (07), Noah Bean (07), William Hurt (09), Marcia Gay Harden (09), Timothy Olyphant (09), Anastasia Griffith (09), Martin Short (10), Campbell Scott (10), Lily Tomlin (10), John Goodman (11), Dylan Baker (11), Ryan Phillippe (12), Jenna Elfman (12), Janet McTeer (12).
Trivia: After three seasons, the show moved from FX to the Audience Network.
Emmys: Outstanding Actress (Close) 07-08, 08-09; Supporting Actor (Ivanek) 07-08. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Close) 07.
Last word: “For us, as storytellers, we’re interested in character development and a story that takes more than 42 minutes to tell. I don’t know if we would’ve been able to get the cast that we were able to get had we simply been providing a close-ended 42-minute story. People come on board a show like ours because of the character development and the nature of the roles that they’ll be able to play, and its part and parcel with the genre.” (Glenn Kessler, The Hollywood Reporter)