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Damages: The Complete Third Season
My dad is pretty set in his ways. Changes in opinion come slow (or never). But I was pleasantly surprised by a recent admission that proved the old man was more than willing to change his tune should the evidence prove too strong. "You know, I've never been a fan of Martin Short or Lily Tomlin," he confided. "But they are really good in Damages."
Look at my dad! Growing, learning and changing his views, open to new experiences! And you know what? He's right: They are really good in the third season of Damages, which returns for 13 episodes filled with legal intrigue and enough double, triple and quadruple crosses to make your head spin. As usual with reviews for this show, the less said about the story the better. The series hinges on its twists and turns, which come in forms both subtle and gargantuan.
The huge legal case that propels us into the mayhem this installment hinges on the shady dealings of Louis Tobin (Len Cariou). The wealthy financier has just been placed under house arrest for orchestrating one of history's biggest Ponzi schemes ever (the creators taking a cue from Bernie Madof; I won't share the other case that influenced this season). That doesn't sit so well with his family, although son Joe (Campbell Scott) vows to make right and cooperate with authorities. But the strict financial allowance and additional scrutiny placed on the family has increased his stress level--along with that of mom Marilyn (Tomlin), who desperately wants her son to make good with dad. Meanwhile, Joe's sister Carol (Ana Reeder) has blinders on, showing devotion to the family as her already emotionally fragile state starts to crack even more.
Thankfully, they have Uncle Lenny--a.k.a. lifelong family friend/attorney Leonard Winstone (Short)--on their side. And they're gonna need him--the case has attracted the attention of litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), who wants to stand up to Corporate America and get the investor victims their money back. She's convinced there's a big stash hidden somewhere--and that the family knows exactly where it is. Along with right-hand man Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan)--who has just been promoted to partner at the firm--she smells blood in the form of potential witness Danielle Marchetti (Twin Peaks alum Mädchen Amick, as stunning as ever), who may hold the key to the mystery.
Meanwhile, former Hewes & Associates employee Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) has moved on to the district attorney's office to prosecute small-time scum. She doesn't really talk to Patty anymore (you know, what with that "I think she tried to kill me" suspicion), preferring her simpler life working for young DA Curtis Gates (Ben Shenkman)--who plays by different rules than Patty. Plus, Ellen has some newfound family issues to deal with. So what could possibly bring her and Patty back together? (And if you believe that, I have an investing opportunity I'd like to interest you in...)
That's just the framework--along the way, faces both new and old come and go as the case heats up. And in typical Damages fashion, the show plays with us as it intercuts three different timeframes: the bulk of the story is set in the "current day", while the past is slowly revealed (most of it hinging on a revealing Thanksgiving night at the Tobin home). We also get glimpses into the near future, which hold some pretty shocking developments (including a bombshell that's dropped on us at the end of the first episode) that put everything else we see into question.
It's piecing together those fragments that make watching the show so much fun, even when we've caught on to the series' trademark tricks--which is the biggest challenge the show faces, especially now. This season, I was constantly thinking ahead, developing plenty of alternative truths to what we were presented with. It's easier now to see what the show wants us to assume, and thus easier to dismiss a lot--fans are almost immune to the slow reveals, misdirection and overall chaos the creators throw our way. It's a lot harder for the show to trick or shock us; we fell for those tactics hardcore the first season, but wised up a little the last installment. Now? Game on, Damages. Game on! We're hardened and wiser now, so the viewing experience is different--still fun, yet different.
That viewer caution also causes us to be a little more critical with some of the flaws in the story, where characters make the most ridiculous decisions in the face of obvious danger. I'll try not to spoil anything, but at one point a character lets another one into their home, a decision that punches common sense in the stomach ("Hey person who hates me! Wanna come in to my home where I'm all alone?"). Another gripe rears its head later and had me wondering aloud: If you tell people to do something, why not explain yourself just to make sure they really get it? Why speak in code with the people on your side? But the biggest head-scratcher has to be someone's carelessness with an envelope (really?). As for that car accident? A tad too convenient, writers!
A few other annoyances creep into Season 3: I was most miffed with the portrayals of detectives Huntley (Tom Noonan, in his third season) and Trammell (Glenn Fleshler) in the flash-forward sequences. They take their scenes into ill-fitting dark comedy, combining cockiness, ineptness and assholery to poor effect--they take us out of the story and into some other, silly show. We also get the return of two characters in storylines that feel forced: Arthur Frobisher (Ted Dansen) is now a guru rocking a bromance with actor Terry Brooke (Craig Bierko), leading to some sometimes funny but mostly mismanaged material that doesn't gel with the rest of the storyline; while Patty's sulking son Michael (Zachary Booth) comes back into the picture with his annoying girlfriend (a reaction that's perhaps intended, so I can't really blame the writers...I just don't like him) in a storyline that distracts us from the good stuff. Ellen's sister also returns to piss us off, too--highlighting the fact that it's really hard to like most of the people in this show (sadly, no more Anastasia Griffith...boo!)
Some other characters never reach their potential, including a go-getting Patty protégé (Tara Summers) and two characters played by veterans of the Fox hit series 24: the tragically under-used Reiko Aylesworth and Sarah Wynter, who both have too much charisma to be so neglected. And plenty of the newbies don't register much, including all of Ellen's co-workers in the D.A.'s office. Save for Gates, the rest of the men are just taking up space. And Gates is a little too "weenie" for my tastes, Shenkman one of the few casting misfires (along with an actor who plays someone's wayward father, and then there's...oh no...Wallace Shawn?!) A few more surprise guest stars are also in store (hey Keith Carradine!).
Also crucial to understanding one key arcthis season is the fact that at the time these shows were written, its future was in doubt. FX ultimately didn't renew the show, although it stayed alive (extended to Season 5) on DIRECTV--a move that severely limited its audience. Because of this uncertainty in 2010, the end of Season 3 plays like it could be a series finale--especially because it supposedly wraps up perhaps the biggest underlying mystery that it has carried from Episode 1. Unfortunately, this important storyline inserts itself so suddenly and quietly into the last few episodes, I don't feel satisfied--it almost feels secondary in importance. The show is a little too cavalier with it, denying us the Greek tragedy fire-and-brimstone resolution I was hoping for (but given the show's track record, who knows what it will reveal in the future?).
Overall, there just doesn't seem to be the same momentum propelling us through these episodes, the same sense of immediacy and urgency each and every scene. This is a more sedate season, and I was particularly surprised that they went with a similar casting choice for the main case's protagonist--Scott is extremely similar in demeanor to Season 2's William Hurt, lending a slight sense of sameness to the story. There's also less surprise this time around; it's easier to peg these people quicker, and the changes that happen don't feel major.
If it sounds like I'm down on this season of Damages, I'm not...really I'm not. I sometimes get super-critical with shows I love so much, and despite the irritations this series remains a highly addictive watch that is fun from start to finish. That has a lot to do with Tomlin and Short, who are the stars of this installment. Tomlin's role is smaller by comparison, but she commands every second of her screen time--and is magnetic in the few scenes she gets with Close, a truly dynamic duo. An early scene where Marilyn is brought into Patty's office for a deposition is delicious, Tomlin telling us so much about her character with just a few looks, lines and glances (the line "Make sure it's skim" is perhaps my favorite of the season...genius!).
Short is given more screen time, and seems a little easier to peg at first--a sniveling legal rat who would do anything to save his client's skin, and a pretty unhappy man to boot. In the bonus features, the co-creators praise Short's ability to keep his character at a low boil during some pretty heated conflict (think William H. Macy in Fargo), and they're right: an early scene in an airport perfectly illustrates the actor's gift, his tortured but restrained expression speaking volumes. What's so wonderful about both of these characters (and performances) is how they prove to be far more complex and nuanced than they initially come across--dare I say that these two are the most likeable characters of the bunch? They're certainly the most interesting, and in a series that prides itself on blending "good" and "evil" into one confusing mass, Marilyn and Lenny epitomize what the show does so well--making you root for some less-than-admirable people who redefine what those opposing adjectives mean.
And that brings me to Patty and Close, who once again anchors all of this sordid business with her typical assurance and anger (like Short, she conveys shielded rage beautifully). It's impossible to take your eyes off the actress, who is equally captivating whether she's shouting from the depths of her stomach or giving a silent, icy glance across the table. Both actions turn my stomach, and the character remains one of the most intimidating presences television has ever produced. Yeah, I'll proudly admit it: I'm scared of Patty Hewes (who gets my second favorite line of the season: "Are you sure you guys don't want a muffin?"). Season 3, in many ways, is softer and gentler--a cadence that takes some getting used to, and one that I appreciated more upon reflection after it was all over.
There is a recurring family theme running through many storylines here, with Ellen and Tom getting plenty of screen time outside the office walls. In addition to seeing more of Patty's damaged relationship with her son (her ex also make s a brief appearance), we also learn a little more about her past as the writers attempt to (gasp!) humanize her this season, although another surprise awaits near the end (probably one you won't expect). Don't worry--Patty doesn't go soft on us or anything, but some of her motivations become more clear. As for the dream sequences? Initially I thought they were a little much, but it came together nicely.
Patty is forever tied to Ellen, and although the two spend less face-to-face time this season, there's no shortage of memorable moments: including a cordial exchange where you can feel the disdain from both sides ("Of course...family. Your top priority...") and a vicious standoff in Patty's home late in the season (ouch!). Oddly, Ellen doesn't feel quite like the leading character (or at least the leading good character) anymore; because the underlying murder/attempted murder mystery from the first season is given short shrift, in some ways the character seems satisfied or resigned--which lessons the vicarious bloodlust the viewers usually feel with her. But perhaps that's the kind of curveball--character growth--that is the real surprise the writers have for us; it's certainly one of the more unexpected turns. Byrne navigates the material superbly, and viewers will still probably trust her the most--although that gets chipped away in a few spots as we begin to doubt some of her motivations.
But isn't that the name of the game with Damages? Isn't that what we love so much about it? Screw common sense! We want scandal, double-crossing and backstabbing! We want to be confused and misled! In that regard, Season 3 does us proud. Damages remains an addictive rush of adrenaline--there still aren't many shows on television that can compete with this thrill ride.
As with previous season, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid--and shifts looks for the three different timelines. The majority of the "present" day scenes are sharp (overall, the series maintains an autumn-like look in its color scheme) with especially nice detail in close-ups (like skin texture), while the flashback scenes are softer and warmer and the "future" sequences harsher and bleaker, with a brighter, more washed-out look lacking color.
The 5.1 track (also available in Spanish) is well done, although there really aren't many effects that come into play. This is mostly dependent on dialogue, which is always rendered well. Subtitles available in Spanish.
Leading the way are two audio commentaries (Episode 7 and the season finale) featuring co-creators/executive producers Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman. They are joined in the former by actor Martin Short, and in the latter by Rose Byrne and Tate Donovan. The Short commentary is the better of the two, and becomes mostly a study of the acting craft, focusing on the process--including how and why actors make the decisions they do (much of the track has nothing to do with the actual episode). It's surprisingly informative and serious (with Martin Short? Who knew?!), and gives us some nice insight: "When an actor is in a safe zone, he can move mountains, and that was the zone I was in all season." Glenn Kessler is the one who chats with him the most, noting that they loved playing with the audience's expectations of actors like Short and Tomlin. The other track is okay, but surprisingly empty considering everything the group could have addressed. It's a lot of fun banter (Byrne notes that Short made her laugh a lot, necessitating multiple takes), but I would have preferred more analysis.
Brief episode introductions (ranging in length from to 1:23 to 2:55) are also viewable separately across the three discs. They feature the three co-creators/executive producers and primary cast members giving their insight on the important points of each installment. I'm not sure why they call them "introductions"; I certainly wouldn't watch them first as they unnecessarily spoil the direction each episode takes. But they provide quick food for thought, and are worth a watch--although it would have been nice if they were all included on one disc and ran together as one feature.
Deleted scenes also arrive on each disc, although they aren't attached to their episodes. There are 19 in total, most of them unnecessary connect-the-dots moments. But two in particular I thought should have been included: a very brief moment with an emotional Patty (cut from an early episode, it would have worked best in the finale) and a great Lily Tomlin scene involving a restaurant (and a quip at a New York politician). You also get a quick two-part deleted scene (I won't share the title) that prompted some questions. It would have been interesting to hear audio commentary from the co-creators about why some of these scenes were cut.
Directing Damages (5:46) has the creators and cast talking about the advantage of having writers/producers direct episodes: Todd Kessler is a vet, but Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman step into the chair for the first time ever this season, with actor Donovan also joining in the fun. My favorite extra is Sometimes You Just Get Damaged (7:02), a blooper reel (for Damages?! Nice!) that provides a refreshing break from character for all of those dramatic performances (Tomlin's Chinese food mishap, a nervous horse, a windy day on the dock and Close's "getting laid" comments are a few of the highlights).
Damages Season 3: A Look Back (2:35) is similar to the episode introductions, the cast and creators offering their overall thoughts on the season. Trailers round out the package.
The good, the bad and the angry...all one and the same in Damages, which returns for another round of murder, mystery and scandal as it blends past, present and future in colliding storylines that challenge us to piece together the puzzle. Viewers are familiar with the show's methods by now (misdirection, slow reveals, editing and time tricks), making it a lot harder to surprise us like the good ol' days. This season feels a little "quieter" and "softer" (more family storylines this year), and it doesn't quite have the same momentum that drove the last two rounds. But it's still a deliciously evil rush of adrenaline that is entertaining every single second. The incomparable Glenn Close remains queen, but the real surprises this year are the complex (and against-type) performances of guest stars Lily Tomlin and Martin Short. Forgive logic and common sense and just enjoy the ride. Highly Recommended.