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Damages: Season 1

Sony Pictures // Unrated // January 29, 2008
List Price: $79.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 22, 2008 | E-mail the Author
No grandstanding or overwrought speeches. Hardly any impassioned objections. No interchangable characters. No cases that are wrapped up in a neat, tidy bow before the end credits for each episode make their upward crawl. FX's Damages shatters every preconceived notion viewers have been trained to expect from a legal drama, and its critically acclaimed first season is now making its bow in high definition on Blu-ray.

The series opens as a young woman -- half-naked, spattered with blood, and shellshocked -- slips out of a high rise apartment building and frantically darts through the streets of New York. Damages then cuts to the exhausted, disheveled woman in an interrogation booth as a couple of detectives almost disinterestedly look on. Far too deep in shock to speak, the only clue as to who this devastated young woman is or what happened to her is a bloodied business card she was carrying, and as the camera closes in, a title card reading "Six months earlier" quickly splashes across the screen.

It may only be a difference of six short months, but the Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) we see when the clock rolls back is an unrecognizably different person. This wide-eyed idealist is in the middle of being courted by one of Manhattan's most prestigious law firms. Even though an offer is slid in front of her with more zeroes than the prospective first year associate would ever have thought possible, Parsons blurts out that she has an interview scheduled with Patty Hewes later in the week, and the cheery atmosphere abruptly turns cold. Hewes has carved out a reputation for herself as one of the most powerful and unrelenting forces in high stakes litigation, and taking it as a foregone conclusion that Hewes will offer Parsons a position that she'll eagerly accept, Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco) warns her that Hewes will irrevocably change who she is.

As Parsons starts to see each and every one of her dreams suddenly lurch within arms' reach, some five thousand former employees of billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) have seen their hopes savagely ripped away from them. His corporate empire collapsed after the SEC caught onto his Enron-like shell game, costing his employees their entire retirement fund -- upwards of a billion dollars -- while Frobisher himself escaped with his checkbook intact. The government was immediately leery of the timing, with Frobisher pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars by cashing out his stock just before a catastrophic SEC report revealed the company's underhanded accounting practices, but an intensive three year investigation was unable to turn up any convincing trace of wrongdoing. The criminal trial may have been a total failure, but Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) has been tapped to spearhead a colossal class action law suit against the billionaire on behalf of his thousands of financially devastated employees, and she's hellbent on fleecing this corporate bully of every last cent. As it turns out, Parsons may be the linchpin to shattering Frobisher's carefully constructed facade, but at least at first glance, that has nothing to do with the neophyte's legal prowess.

Part of what Damages such an infectiously addictive series also leaves it tougher than usual to review. Nothing -- nothing -- can be taken at face value, and there are so many twists, turns, deceptions, and double-crossings in the plot that any attempt at describing what happens even from the second episode would spoil more than I'd like.

Just to be clear, this isn't Anatomy of a Murder; the courtroom is overly familiar territory, and Damages has no interest in retreading it. Tossing aside legal maneuvers and precedents in dusty books, the season prefers instead to pull back the curtain into the extensive prepwork behind an investigation of this scale, including Hewes' deft manipulation of everyone and everything around her, Parsons clawing her way through months of backstabbing and mistrust, and Frobisher's stubborn determination to reclaim his family's name and clear himself of any wrongdoing. With hundreds of millions -- and potentially a hell of a lot more -- at stake, it's an agonizing journey for everyone involved, riddled with blackmail, assassination threats, subterfuge, abortions, bomb threats, murder, blackmail, kidnapping, infidelity, media manipulation, suicide, deranged stalking, toothless, bloody nightmares, and...oh, just for good measure, a book deal. Damages strikes an extremely effective balance in being lurid enough to stay interesting without veering too far over the edge and coming across as some sort of Prison Break-like cartoon. It also gets a hell of a lot more free reign than I'd expect from basic cable, which is made clear early on when Frobisher is screwing a random blonde in the back of an SUV, snorts a line of coke off her hand, and makes a call to have a witness in the wrong place at the wrong time gunned down. The language isn't neutered either, with a "bullshit" or "shit" spat out several times each episode, used sparingly enough that the profanity still carries a substantial impact.

Unlike most legal dramas, Damages is an intensely serialized series, focusing squarely on a single case for the entirety of these first thirteen episodes. The writers have a knack for lobbing out a big revelation in each installment, continually maintaining the momentum set into motion in the premiere. Damages has a unique structure that suits the material particularly well. For one, no meandering subplots creep in as filler. Virtually everything that happens is either essential to the Frobisher case or to understanding these characters. There are really only three subplots in the entire season: one involving a mentally unhinged stalker, another following the drastic measures Hewes takes to rein in her rebellious teenaged son, and a third swirling around her number two's possible defection from the firm. The writing mixes in these stories deftly enough, ensuring that the pacing of the Frobisher case doesn't stumble along the way and that the audience doesn't get overly distracted. The only of these plot threads that's ineffective revolves around Tom Shayes' loyalty to Hewes and the firm; its inevitable resolution is the only particularly predictable element in the entire first season and the only time the writers seem to be fumbling to fill time.

Damages also effortlessly juggles two separate timelines. There are brief stretches in each episode set in the here and now, revealing tantalizingly vague clues as to what it is that's left Parsons drenched in blood and shellshocked: a bloodstained shoe, a disappearing corpse, and a garish bookend caked in blood and tangled with hair, to rattle off a few. The majority of the season takes place in the past, starting off six months earlier and inching forward to the present day from there. As Damages go on, we find out who the players are...what these visual teases entire lives were upended or butchered outright. The series would've been compelling and tense even if it had unfolded in a more linear, traditional way, but the additional layer of that second timeline really adds another layer of intrigue, making it that much more of a suspenseful mystery. For all of this to gel under a slew of different writers and directors shows how strong a hand was guiding the series, and the work in piecing it all together in editing is exceptional.

Damages lives and dies by the strength of its performances. As effective as the twists and turns of the investigation into Frobisher's machinations are, this is inarguably a character-driven series. The centerpiece is, of course, Glenn Close as Patty Hewes. She's a legal shark, and much like the great white in Jaws, the writers avoid overexposing her to ensure that every appearance -- every line of dialogue -- carries a dramatic impact. Essential for this sort of puppet master, Hewes remains impenetrable throughout. There are no weepy monologues or impassioned speeches in front of a sobbing courtroom. There's a vulnerability she tries her damndest to mask -- something that leaks through as the season draws to a close, despite her best efforts -- but that steely veneer remains intact whenever someone else shares the scene. It's an exceptional performance by Close, who infuses the character with a strength, intensity, and slightly elusive charm that make it instantly clear why Hewes so utterly dominates the field: beloved by her clients, at least when victory is in sight, cautiously admired by her associates, and terrified by any lawyer ambitious enough to sit on the other side of the aisle.

Hewes is far removed from any of the attorneys I've seen in dozens of other legal dramas. Hewes wants to give her clients what they deserve, of course, but it's not about altruism or doing the right thing; this is a game to her, and Hewes is a damned good player. Being pitted against an arrogant bully like Frobisher just makes the battle that much more compelling, and Hewes is so determined to pull a win that the law itself is incidental. She's not a do-gooder or a staunch heroine, and the steps she takes to ensure victory and to get her unwitting pawns to step in line are nearly as repulsive as the lengths Frobisher goes to in order to protect his bankroll. This intense character isn't watered down to be more easily embraced by some particular TV viewing demographic. Hewes is humanized just enough to make her seem like a well-realized character and not a one-note force of nature, defined largely by her relationships with her family: her husband is a jet-setting financier who she barely sees, and Hewes' son is a brilliant but rebellious teenager who resents his mother and is teetering on the brink of expulsion.

Ellen Parsons too is defined in large part by her relationships. Parsons thinks she's lost her shot at working under Hewes when her interview is inflexibly rescheduled to her sister's wedding day, and she without hesitation chooses family over her budding career. Two of the driving forces this season are part of Parsons' extended family: her fiancé David (Noah Bean), whose grueling hours as a surgical intern make any chance of spending time together that much more remote, and her best friend and future sister-in-law Katie (Anastasia Griffith). Parsons' personal and professional lives are continually colliding, and there's an instant level of intrigue by how in the space of six months she devolved from an upbeat, optimistic, naive law school grad eager to start her first day at a prestigious firm to an embittered, disheveled mess accused of see just how her short time at Hewes and Associates so profoundly and irrevocably transformed her. Rose Byrne does a marvelous job playing what at first glance looks like two entirely different characters, and it's fascinating to think that she so seamlessly weaves the two together throughout the course of the season, despite these moments being shot far out of sequence and not even being entirely sure how these puzzle pieces connected together during filming.

Ted Danson is another standout as billionaire executive Arthur Frobisher. One intriguing choice Damages makes is that Frobisher himself isn't a worthy adversary for Hewes. His corporation may have been modeled after Enron, but Frobisher is hardly a Ken Lay. This isn't the usual corporate stereotype: a balding, bespectacled man in his 60s who condescendingly sips a glass of $1,200 Scotch in some palatial office and barks out orders. No, he's a reasonably down to earth guy -- fit, trim, eager to sit down for a family barbeque, shoot hoops with his teenaged son, or grab a sandwich from a cart on the street corner. Nothing about the man, at least to those who don't religiously tune into Court TV or Fox News, would point to a couple billion dollars at the bottom of his balance sheet. That said, Frobisher is fiercely protective of his fortune and his name. While it's never in doubt that Frobisher is guilty of bilking his employees -- or that he's at the very least hiding something -- he's arrogant enough that he's convinced he'll be vindicated in court, no matter what his handlers say or suggest. Far from the calculating criminal mastermind these sorts of series are usually littered with, Frobisher is an impulsive screw-up. He stubbornly sticks to whatever game plan seems like a good idea at the time, backed by a big enough bankroll to pay someone to mop up whatever mistakes he makes along the way. The most intriguing villains are almost always the ones who sincerely don't think they're in the wrong, and Frobisher's been lying to himself about his innocence so long that he even seems to buy the party line himself.

There are a couple of other key roles worth noting as well. Even if Frobisher himself isn't much of a capable opponent, his attorney Ray Fiske (Zeljko Ivanek) is as close to a match for Patty Hayes as they come. There's a particularly intriguing relationship between Frobisher and Fiske -- an uneasy friendship borne out of the fact that there's not much of anyone else to whom either of them can relate. One of Hewes' greatest assets is Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan), her instantly likeable second-in-command. Shayes is bright, talented, and doggedly loyal, but he doesn't have what it takes to step out from Hewes' shadow. The fact that he's a quietly reluctant second fiddle makes him more compelling than someone who unquestionably follows orders with a smile.

I was thoroughly impressed by Damages. As frequently as the series teases and misleads viewers along the way, all of it seems logical and earned, not just a case of the writers lazily pulling the rug out from under the audience just to keep them off-guard. The season resolves all of the central conflicts before it's over and done with, and although it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, exactly, there's a hell of a lead-in for season two and some tantalizing questions left dangling in front of viewers. It's such an addictive show that I devoured the entire first season in a day, and there are very, very few series that have compelled me to do that. Tightly woven, wonderfully acted, and sharply written, Damages is a series that's well worth discovering on Blu-ray for those who missed its first season on FX. Highly Recommended.

Video: Don't be scared off by the opening moments of Damages' first episode; the cinematography has an intensely stylized look to it in the present day, helping to distinguish those scenes from the flashbacks that make up the overwhelming majority of the season. These stylized sequences heavily exaggerate colors and contrast, are riddled with video noise, and sap away much of the fine detail expected from a series natively shot on HD video. Once that "Six months earlier" card fades from view, though, Damages looks fantastic, and it's that more naturalistic look that makes up the bulk of these thirteen episodes. The 1.78:1 image is almost always crisp and well-defined, bolstered by robust black levels and rich detail. Though quite a bit of video noise is visible throughout -- particularly in the stylized flash-forwards and its more dimly-lit sequences -- the AVC encode benefits from a lofty enough bitrate that it never once struggles with the grainy photography. Although the quality of this Blu-ray set may not be as dazzling as some of the best-looking titles on the format, Damages is shot with a keen visual eye that's instantly striking in high definition, and it's far better looking than what HD channels on cable have to offer.

Audio: Damages' set of lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks is much more lively than I ever would've expected, especially for a series so intensely driven by its dialogue. Stereo separation across the front channels and the constant chatter of the surrounds are used extensively to flesh out the ambiance of Hewes' bustling office and the constant clamor of life in New York City. There's quite a heft to the lower frequencies as well, thanks mostly to the pulsing, thunderous bass of the dance beats throughout several of the season's episodes. Given the sort of the series this is, it's essential that Damages' dialogue consistently be reproduced cleanly and clearly throughout, and its presentation on Blu-ray is flawless. While the mix obviously isn't as aggressive as some overcaffeinated summer blockbuster, Damages does sound wonderful overall, trumping the subdued audio I'm used to hearing from television series in 5.1.

A pair of audio commentaries aside, there are no alternate soundtracks, although subtitles have been provided in English (traditional and SDH) and French.

Extras: Damages keeps its menu design consistent across all three of its discs, and this is a bit of an adjustment from most of the other season sets I've plowed through over the years. Instead of just listing the content specific to each disc, the episode selection screens throughout the set cover all 13 episodes, prompting the viewer to insert another disc when necessary. All of Damages' featurettes are provided on disc three, but they're listed on both of the other discs as well, again with a prompt to change discs. The booklet enclosed with the packaging lists which episodes are on each disc, but it would've been nice if it touched on the extras as well. Also, the deleted scenes and commentaries are buried under the episode selection screens, and viewers who rely on the 'Play Entire Season' option and the special features menu will miss them entirely.

Two of Damages' thirteen episodes are accompanied by audio commentaries with the creators and cast, beginning, naturally, with the pilot. Glenn Close is joined by director Allen Coulter and creators, writers, and executive producers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman for "Get Me a Lawyer". The series' creators are the driving force in this discussion, giving a strong sense of what it was like to assemble the pilot, from paring down certain shots to accommodate the budget, struggling with a particularly brutal winter in New York, and how Damages' first blood-spattered moments and its clever, abrupt transitions help set the tone for the series as a whole. Fans of Glenn Close's may be somewhat disappointed that the actress speaks up fairly infrequently, but I really enjoyed this commentary, and it's worth setting aside an hour to give a listen.

The series' three co-creators return for "I Hate These People", and both this episode and its audio commentary are anchored around Zeljko Ivanek. The actor notes where the Southern drawl he gave Ray Fiske first originated, and Ivanek discusses how he dealt with working alongside different directors on virtually every episode of the season. The three co-creators also make it a point to note that Ivanek was determined to audition as two different attorneys, so driven to be a part of Damages that he didn't hedge his bets by settling to audition for just one role. It's noted that he and Rose Byrne never really have any scenes where they play off of one another, despite both of them being so central to the series. Zelman and the two Kesslers also briefly speak about Damages' title sequence and discuss how fluid the storytelling could be, down to mulling over whether or not one supporting character should be murdered. This is another particularly strong audio commentary, and I'm almost disappointed that there aren't more of them on this set.

There are also deleted scenes for eight of the season's episodes, running right around seven minutes in total. That short length obviously means that most of these clips amount to just a few lines of dialogue, if that, which isn't altogether unexpected from a tightly plotted series like this. Among them are a chat with a former Secret Service agent working security at the firm, a rare stab at humor as Tom and his wife struggle with how to best handle a potentially volatile situation with Ellen, and a look at incriminating evidence being removed from one key crime scene. These brief bits of color were clearly just trimmed out for time, by and large spelling out something that would later be clearly established as it was.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joe Cocker", "And My Paralyzing Fear of Death", "She Spat at Me", "We Are Not Animals", "There's No 'We' Anymore", and "Because I Know Patty" each have one deleted scene a piece, while "Do You Regret What We Did?" and "I Hate These People" both have two. These rough-hewn deleted scenes are the only of the set's extras that are upscaled rather than natively provided in high definition. The commentaries make mention of additional deleted scenes, such as Tom playing an impromptu round of golf near a busy street, and although they mention that these scenes should be featured with the rest of the extra material, they don't appear anywhere on this set.

Damages also includes a few featurettes on its third and final disc, all of which are presented entirely in high definition. "Willful Acts: The Making of Damages" (23 min.) veers away from the traditional, stale making-of formula, instead concentrating almost entirely on the characters as well as the cast's approach to the material. There are several observations lobbed out by the creators that I overlooked my first time through Damages, such as how Patty revels in improvising when she stumbles across a roadblock; I'd assumed that every step she took was deliberate and meticulously planned. The dynamic between Ellen and Patty is another central topic, along with the demise of Frobisher's empire offering a behind-the-scenes look at this sort of increasingly common corporate scandal.

"Willful Acts" is so much more substantial than the puff pieces that usually litter these sorts of DVD and Blu-ray sets, and it's complemented well by "Trust No One" (13 min). This second featurette places its emphasis more squarely on the character-driven season arc and its execution. It's much more comprehensive than its lean runtime would suggest, touching on Damages' deft juggling of separate timelines, ensuring that its characters are frequently followed outside of the office, the room left for improvisation outside of the key moments the series' creators had envisioned, and the use of the legal world as a backdrop instead of just a crutch for the storytelling.

"Understanding Class Action" uses a 3D, computer rendered interface to familiarize viewers with some of the legalities of class action lawsuits. These includes a glossary of terms like 'numerosity' and 'Tort law', explanations of such basics as the different types of class action suits and the process of being certified as a class, and a look at several landmark cases, including ordeals with the manufacturers of Agent Orange and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The definitions and explanations come courtesy of an extensive selection of professors, attorneys, and legal experts, and they can be viewed individually or with each of the three groups of footage played at once. There's just shy of twenty minutes of material in all.

One nice addition is a 'Play Entire Season' option similar to the one on Disney's Lost set. It keeps track of which episodes you've viewed and picks up where you left off, even bypassing menu screens to skip directly to the next episode after changing discs.

The three disc set is packaged in a sturdy transparent case about one and a half times the width of a typical Blu-ray release. One minor gripe is that the center hinge kept popping out for me, although the discs do remain snugly secured. I'll also admit to not the biggest fan of having the booklet sitting on top of one of the Blu-ray discs, although that seems to be more and more common these days on both next-gen formats.

Conclusion: Damages shrugs off every last one of the usual expectations from a legal thriller. Tightly plotted, ceaselessly surprising, and outstandingly well acted, Damages is a series well worth discovering on Blu-ray for those who missed it during its first run on FX, and its uniquely woven structure would almost certainly make for a rewarding second viewing even for established fans. Its technical presentation on Blu-ray is in keeping with the consistent strength of Sony's output as of late, and the series is bolstered by a considerably above-average assortment of extras. Highly Recommended.

The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the series looks in high definition.
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