Fiendishly constructed and compulsively watchable, Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman's magnificent, gripping Damages is one of the best shows on cable hardly anyone seems to know about. What makes me say that? Well, if a new series with the style, grit and ambition of Damages premiered on HBO or network TV, people would be losing their minds over how addictive it is, the uniformly excellent work of its cast and the roller-coaster plots that somehow all hang together week to week. As it is, Damages has been roundly praised by critics, but overlooked by awards shows and much of the general public.
It's unfortunate, but maybe all FX shows can't be instant smash hits (The Shield or Nip/Tuck, for instance). Indeed, another new FX series, The Riches, a compelling drama in its own right, has likewise seemed to only impact a small portion of the population. Ah, well. The first season of Damages, 13 nail-biting episodes in all, is now available on DVD, easily digested in a single or several sittings (I myself spent a solid seven days gorging on the episodes, only some of which I'd caught during the original broadcast last year).
It's a tour de force -- and award-winning -- role for Glenn Close (already so memorable in her season-long stint on The Shield; the actress picked up a Golden Globe for her efforts here) as Patty Hewes, a high-stakes New York City litigator embroiled in one of the biggest, thorniest cases of her career, a lucrative class action lawsuit against wealthy, callous corporate overlord Arthur Frobisher (the magnetic Ted Danson), a CEO who stands accused of defrauding more than 5,000 employees. Rose Byrne co-stars as Ellen Parsons, an ambitious, fresh-faced attorney just out of law school who jumps at the chance to work with the feared, respected Patty's firm. Over the course of the season, she finds herself slipping ever deeper into morally murky waters, discovering just what it takes to put away powerful, determined captains of industry.
I'm hesitant to reveal too much of the show's narrative and structure, since so much of the thrill of watching Damages comes from the jarring moments, unexpected tweaks and subtle curveballs that the Kesslers and Zelman toss at you. In a welcome move, the creative trio maintained a pretty close watch on their baby, writing well over half of the season's screenplays and even directing a few episodes. In addition to the sterling work of Close, Byrne and Danson, Tate Donovan contributes a compelling performance as Patty's consigliere Tom Shayes; Zeljko Ivanek is masterful as the tortured defense attorney Ray Fiske and there's plenty of juicy support from Peter Facinelli, Peter Riegert, Garret Dillahunt, Anastasia Griffith and Philip Bosco, among others.
At times brutal, at times skirting the edge of plausibility (but only briefly), Damages manages that most difficult of tricks: creating, sustaining and rewarding a pretty inventive concept -- beginning near the end and flashing back to the start, with brief flickers of the present interspersed throughout -- not unlike the high-wire brilliance of "24"'s freshman outing. While some of the more unsettling elements of Damages seem cribbed, in particular, from sister series The Shield, the shades of gray on display are of a far more troubling hue; very few redeemable characters make their way across the screen and nearly everyone has an agenda. The few who do not often wind up dead. Of course, it's not all doom and gloom - there are a few moments of jet-black humor spiking the series, enough to keep the proceedings from being wholly depressing.
According to reports, a second season of Damages has been ordered by FX, as well as a third, but with the writer's strike as yet unsettled, it's not known when the show could go back into production. Suffice to say that after you've consumed these 13 episodes (and that delicious twist finale), you'll immediately want to know what comes next. Damages is a masterpiece of episodic television, a bloody, occasionally soapy thrill ride that leaves you dazed and breathless. It's one of the best shows on TV and certainly one worth seeking out for those tired of the umpteenth "CSI" or "Law and Order" spin-off.
Spread across three discs which are housed in two thinpaks, Damages' first season is snugly housed in a holofoil slipcover. More details about the bonus features can be found below.
Presented as originally broadcast on FX, Damages arrives on DVD sporting a polished, near-perfect 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that doesn't suffer at all from any noticeable visual defects. The high contrast "present day" sequences are appropriately blown-out and grainy, while the "past" sequences look slick, dark and clean (some of the more lowly-lit scenes struggle a bit with fine detail, but it's nothing to get worked up over). A very smart-looking visual presentation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track pulses with life from the opening moments -- that great, throbbing theme music -- and doesn't have many chances to rest throughout each episode, whether it's conveying thickets of dialogue, letting the dramatic score build up to almost unbearable levels or allowing the sound effects a chance to breathe. Overall, it's a fantastic track that gets the job done with no audible flaws. Curiously, only optional French subtitles are available - it would've been nice to have some English option.
Two commentary tracks are included in this inaugural season set -- one, featuring writer/creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, along with Glenn Close and director Allen Coulter, is found on the pilot ("Get Me a Lawyer") and the second, featuring the Kesslers, Zelman and Zeljko Ivanek, is on the 11th episode ("I Hate These People"). The remaining supplements are scattered across the three discs.
The first disc, in addition to the commentary track, includes two deleted scenes. The second disc includes four deleted scenes while the third disc houses, along with the final commentary track, the bulk of the supplements. In a very thoughtful touch, the behind-the-scenes material includes spoiler warnings at the beginning of each segment - a great move. The 23 minute, 18 second featurette "Willful Acts: The Making of Damages" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) along with the 12 minute, 37 second "Trust No One: Insight from the Creators of Damages (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are a terrific complement to the commentary tracks, revealing plenty of information for fans. A quartet of deleted scenes, presented in somewhat soft-looking anamorphic widescreen, is here, as is a 27-second teaser for the final season of The Shield. Another forward-thinking feature is the interactive guide to understanding class action lawsuits, which may be extremely helpful for those not exactly up on the ins and outs of the judicial system. Trailers for Rescue Me, Across the Universe, The Jane Austen Book Club, We Own the Night, This Christmas and Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Ultimate Edition complete the set.
Damages is a masterpiece of episodic television, a bloody, occasionally soapy thrill ride that leaves you dazed and breathless. It's one of the best shows on TV, with an exceptional cast, and certainly one worth seeking out for those tired of the umpteenth "CSI" or "Law and Order" spin-off. The consistent quality of the 13 episodes, taken together with the slight in number, but worthwhile, supplements makes Damages a natural for the DVD Talk Collectors Series rating.