Is “Damages” my TV dream come true?


If you’ve picked up a newspaper, a magazine, a remote control or your own eyelids in the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen or heard something about Damages, FX’s new legal thriller starring Glenn Close. (And if you read this blog regularly, you know that I’ve been salivating about it like a gay puppy with a Glenn-shaped chew toy.)

But my mouth is a little dry today, now that I’ve seen the first two episodes. (Don’t worry; there are no spoilers in this post.)

The first episode is nearly flawless. It’s cinematic, rich, satisfying. The performances are impeccable and the writing even better. And the suspense? You forget to breathe or blink. What happened? Who’s lying? Who’s right and who’s wrong? You’re glad you don’t quite know, because the unraveling of the mystery is so delicious.

There are really two mysteries in Damages: One of plot, and one of character. The series begins in the present, then travels back six months to show us how we got to the grainy fear of the opening scenes. That’s engrossing enough, but then there’s the mystery of Close’s character, high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes. We know that Hewes is very good at what she does — she tells us so herself — but we don’t know what drives her. The temperature of her gaze and the timbre of her voice flash from ice to fire and back again, and her wicked, pitying laughter is both frightening and seductive. The first time we hear her speak, she is derisive, weary and, above all, controlled. Everything, down to the finest of lines on her own face, is exactly where she wants it to be. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Close in the role; only she has that ironclad command of her own features that is by turns so diabolical and so invigorating.

The obvious answer to “Whose side is Patty on?” is “her own” — but that’s meaningful only if you can figure out who Patty is. In the first episode, Patty’s moral center is a black hole — not in the sense of absence, but in the sense of an obliteration of the usual reference points: The only way to know what’s inside is to dive in. That’s what Patty’s new junior associate, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) does, and I immediately found myself both cheering and fearing for her. Ellen’s big, trusting eyes and intellect-fueled optimism would seem to set her up for a fall, but she’s calculating in her own way. In several scenes in the first episode, Ellen and Patty seems to swap roles ever so slightly, then slip back to their assumed positions. Mentor and mentee are both opposed and united, conspiratorially tugging at each other just enough to maintain their balance.

But in the second episode, what was taut runs slack. Too much is explained, and there are too few suspenseful silences. And Patty seems to lose her footing the tiniest bit — or maybe the problem is that she finds it. Like every other Sopranos fan (one of the executive producers of Damages, by the way, was a writer for The Sopranos), I find moral relativism much more intriguing and compelling than a game of black hats and white hats. In the second episode of Damages, the lines are far too clear. I hope they get fuzzy again in episode three. Warm, fuzzy, questionable ethics: That’s what I want. And more pantsuits and fewer skirts on Ms. Close.

Praise for Damages is already piling up, though, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not worth watching — it absolutely is. I’m just worried that my giddy OMG-this-is-my-dream-show bubble is going to burst. Maybe it doesn’t matter: Unless the show gets really bad, I’m sure I’ll stay tuned, because it’s still Glenn Close. She’s simply mesmerizing. (No to mention smart and hilarious — the article in yesterday’s New York Times shows that to very fine effect.) As long as she’s on, I’m in.

Damages premieres tomorrow, July 24, at 10/9c on FX.

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