I have a friend who considers Damages (2007-present) trashy schlock. In a sense, he's absolutely right: compared to the best shows about the law and lawyers, from The Paper Chase to Rumpole of the Bailey, Damages is pure pulp, sharing more in common with programs like 24 than most other legal dramas, though at times it resembles David E. Kelley's The Practice.
Ah, but what great trash it is! Damages is less about the law and courtroom procedure - indeed, rarely do its characters appear before a judge, and never do they go to trial - than it is a slickly-produced and especially well-acted melodrama about manipulation and the power and limitations that come with extreme wealth, and its dehumanizing effects.
The program moved from FX to Audience Network for its fourth season, and because several multi-season story arcs concluded at the end of season three, Damages' fourth season also feels slightly disconnected from its past. Conversely, its new, season-long story arc, a case involving a Blackwater-type private military contractor secretly being employed by the C.I.A. to outsource torture of Afghani citizens, is ambitious and a bit more politically daring than past shows.
Although the first season of Damages made it to Blu-ray as well as DVD, subsequent years have been DVD-only (though HD streaming is available). The Complete Fourth Season offers lots of extra features, deleted scenes and outtakes, as well as two well-made featurettes. All ten episodes are included in 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is supported by numerous subtitle options.
For the uninitiated, Damages mainly explores the unusual personal and professional relationship between a high-priced, take-no-prisoners Manhattan attorney, Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), a master manipulator, and her young protégée, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), in whom Patty sees her younger, less cynical self. Each adopts an outwardly cool and professional air toward the other, while simultaneously using the other to their own ends. When the series began, Ellen was mostly on the receiving end of this manipulation, but her growing experience, coupled with the horrific murder of her finance (indirectly caused by Patty), have hardened her to the point where she can be nearly as calculating and effective as her mentor. Ellen struggles to maintain her humanity and basic moral code, things all but lost on Patty.
The series' structure is somewhat unusual. Each season revolves around a single though massively complex case. It's also structured like a puzzle, with non-linear glimpses from Patty's past as well as characters' dreams, and especially glimpses weeks and months into the future. These foreshadow, if deliberately cryptically, how it will all end.
The fourth season revolves around a wrongful-death case against all-powerful private military contractor Howard T. Erickson (John Goodman). Ellen's key witness is soldier-for-hire Chris Sanchez (Chris Messina), a young man haunted by events in Afghanistan that involve the secret torture of native Afghanis kidnapped and questioned on orders from this Dick Cheney-esque private security company. Erickson is a true believer, regarding himself as a patriot and piously Christian, yet simultaneously partners with shady fixer Jerry Boorman (Dylan Baker), who has mysterious ties to the CIA, to get him out of trouble whatever it takes.
Goodman and Baker are believably evil; the former creating a character convinced the ends always justify his means, while Baker's casual sadism is unnerving. Neither though comes close to capturing the revelatory performance by Ted Danson as a conceited, self-absorbed, emotionally insecure, arrogant billionaire CEO of an Enron-type public company. That character, the focus of season one but who turned up again in seasons two and three, is Damages most fully-fleshed-out antagonist, a character so creepily authentic every time I see it I can't help but wonder exactly who Danson based his performance on.
The series has always attracted top actors (William Hurt, Željko Ivanek, Lily Tomlin, Campbell Scott, John Doman), often in against-type casting that probably appealed to them, talent drawn as often from the stage as films and TV. (This season also features the welcome addition of Judd Hirsch as Patty's one-time mentor, now a functioning alcoholic.) Unfortunately, the series arc has required Patty's friends, family, and associates (and even a rival or two) to gradually abandon her or to meet with violent and untimely ends. Last season saw the departure of Patty's right-hand man, junior partner Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan), while in season four Patty's estranged son, Michael (Zachery Booth), has been out of the picture for some time and is largely absent. Though extras and bit players continue to wander the halls of Hewes & Associates, the impression is created that Patty now operates in a virtual vacuum, rather than supervising with an iron hand an always-bustling high-end firm.
Other than that, Damages is pretty much (nefarious) business as usual, and the show remains engrossing, though not nearly as engrossing as season three, its best-to-date.
Video & Audio
The ten, sometimes over-length episodes of Damages are presented across three single-sided, dual layer discs, with four episodes on the first two discs, and three on the last. The image is excellent, 16:9 enhanced widescreen, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio likewise, with (Parisian) French on an alternate channel. Subtitles are offered in English, English SDH, French, Chinese (Mandarin and Traditional), Korean, and Thai.
Supplements include deleted scenes, outtakes, and two featurettes: "A Case for War: The Cast and Crew Discusses the Fourth Season" and "The Evolution of Patty Hewes." The extras are spread across all three discs and, considering this is basically self-promotional material for an ongoing series (season five is reported to be its last), it's well done and enlightening.
Interested viewers are strongly advised to watch Damages from the beginning rather than with season four. But, I confess without guilt, I've been enjoying it immensely. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.