Politics & Policy

Dangerous Litigation

Our new gilded age on FX.

If the summer schedules were once a sun-ravaged, derelict playground for television’s has-beens, no-hopers, bums, and re-runs, that’s no longer inevitably the case, at least so far as cable is concerned. In recent weeks, TNT has launched Saving Grace, a show starring Holly Hunter as a self-destructive detective being bugged by an angel, while AMC is offering up Mad Men, a series set in the golden age of advertising, a time of lies, treble martinis, and fumbling attempts at sophistication, a time when cigarettes soothed your throat and no liquor company would ever have dared tell its customers to drink “responsibly.” Meanwhile those prepared to fork out for truly premium cable can look forward to the glorious prospect of Fox Mulder gone wild as David Duchovny hunts the foxes of Showtime’s forthcoming Californication.

That sounds like challenging competition, but if there’s anyone tough enough to see it off, it’s Glenn Close or, rather, Patty Hewes, the litigation lawyer she plays to icy, intimidating and savage perfection in FX’s new Damages. After a stint as the LAPD’s Captain Rawling on The Shield, Close is already a highly decorated FX veteran, but this latest incarnation shows that there’s a casting genius at work at that channel. Ever since boiling her way up into public attention as Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest, one of the most horrifying embodiments of male (yes, male) guilt, resentment, and rage ever to stalk the big screen, Close has established herself as one of this country’s most formidable actresses. In England she would have been appointed dame; in America she just has to make do with vice president (Air Force One), First Lady (Mars Attacks!), chief justice (The West Wing), and Cruella de Vil (twice).

As the creators of Damages have obviously understood, this is an actress who is at her most alarmingly imposing when the character she plays is in control not only of those around her, but of herself. Alex Forrest may have been dangerous, but she was also dangerously unhinged, a wreck of a woman, desperate and, ultimately, weak, beaten off with little more than bathwater and a bullet or two. Compared with Close’s devious and manipulative Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, wacky Alex was, so to speak, a loveable little bunny.

That’s not to say that the wicked Marquise did not have her own vulnerabilities, more specifically, a rancid mix of over-competitiveness and frustrated, only half-acknowledged, desire that eventually triggers her emotional and social destruction. So it is with Patty Hewes: there are chinks in her armor too, in her case a troubled relationship with her adolescent son. Very The Devil Wears Prada, you might think: the strong woman plagued by trouble on the home front, retribution (or so it is hinted) for success at the workplace.

Fortunately, Damages is subtler than that. As we get to know Hewes’s principal adversary, Arthur Frobisher (a terrific Ted Danson, a long, long way from Cheers), we discover that he too can be hurt through his offspring. Frobisher is an Enron-style entrepreneur who has not only been acquitted at his criminal trial, but has also managed to hang on to his billions. Patty Hewes, representing Frobisher’s former employees (who have, as is the way of such things, been left with pink slips and empty retirement accounts) is after that money. The imminence of yet more embarrassing litigation is proving too much for Frobisher’s wife, and she’s threatening to leave, taking their children with her. That would be bad news for Frobisher financially and legally (his loyal spouse has been a courtroom ornament and splendid p.r.), but what really frightens him is the thought of losing his kids. Judging by one Sam Malone interlude in a car (sort of; teetotal Sam would not have snorted the cocaine), Frobisher could get over his wife. His children would be a different matter.

Rapacious businessman? Wronged employees? We’ve been here before. Despite this, Damages shows remarkably few signs of falling into the trite, exhausted routines of the standard tenacious-lawyer-versus-greedy-capitalist morality play. Frobisher is ruthless, and richer than most studio executives and thus, by Hollywood convention, not only guilty, but bad, bad, bad. Nevertheless both the screenplay and Danson’s performance hint that there’s more to this evildoer than the usual by-the-numbers villainy. As for Patty, well, she’s rich too, and something of a monster, a brutal, controlling, ends-justifies-the-means gal, capable (at the very least) of intimidation, deceit, and — shades of Cruella — arranging for the killing of a dog belonging to a potential witness. What is it about Glenn Close and pets?

Quite how all this will resolve itself is, at this stage, a mystery (and, after two episodes, I’m gripped enough to want to find out). Its resolution will, apparently, revolve around the fate of Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a young attorney recently hired by Hewes & Associates. Damages opens with images of her fleeing a smart Manhattan apartment building, covered in little more than blood and a raincoat. Most of what we see in the show turns out, in fact, to be flashback, set in the months leading up to that terrified, terrifying dash through the streets. In a clever twist, however (and Damages is nothing if not clever), the narrative moves on two separate time tracks. While the bulk of the story is, in essence, an extended flashback, that flashback is sporadically punctuated by footage that shows what happens after Ellen’s flight ends up with her in the hands of the police.

At first the cops assume that she is the victim of assault, so sad, so everyday, but then their inspection of her apartment quickly reveals a battered, bludgeoned corpse. Is Ellen a victim, a perp, or both? Viewers are put in the entertaining position of following the police investigation while simultaneously watching the events that preceded it, events that may enable them to decode the riddle ahead of the detectives working on the case.

It’s when it comes to the recruitment of Ellen, and her subsequent involvement with Patty’s scheming, that Damages stumbles, if only slightly. Ellen is bright, she’s driven, she’s of fairly modest origins, and, as this aspect of the tale unfolds, it becomes evident that she’s taking the audience into familiar, somewhat clichéd territory. In deciding to join Hewes, she naturally ignores the warnings of the silver-haired mentor, shrewd, decent and old school, at the white-shoe firm where she had previously interned, a mentor of the type played two decades ago in Wall Street by Hal Holbrook, who was, course, ignored in his turn by bright, driven, humble origins Bud Fox.

As is traditional in these dramas of associate temptation (The Firm, The Devil’s Advocate, take your pick; there are plenty to choose from), Ellen’s new employer does things like buying her fancy clothes, and finding her a spiffy apartment. By contrast, her future in-laws (regular folks, playing by the rules) can only come up with a voucher for two at, good grief, the Olive Garden (and if you think that you detect a touch of condescension from the scriptwriters you’d be right), at which point the sole remaining question, experienced viewers will realize, is just how low will Ellen be willing to go. Judging by the carefully calibrated manner in which Rose Byrne is handling the role, I’d guess quite a long way. Mind you, if the alternative is a life where the Olive Garden is the acme of fine dining, who can blame her?

But, however clichéd this aspect of Damages may be, it doesn’t seriously detract from the enjoyment of watching a first-rate cast helping an ingenious storyline twist and turn its way through feint, subterfuge, conspiracy, and murder. Above all though, see this show for Glenn Close, an actress in her element, and in control, her strong, expressive face, sometimes smiling, sometimes not, but always a mask, necessary camouflage for a predator tracking her prey in the avenues, mansions, and office suites of our new gilded age.

Brava!

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