Cruella de Lawyer

A strange mix of art and trash, with the best cast on TV, ‘Damages’ leaves good-for-you legal shows in the dust

Cruella de Lawyer

A woman runs down the streets of New York wearing nothing but underwear and a bloody coat. An aging billionaire is shot dead in the middle of a field, only it turns out he’s not dead after all. A high-powered lawyer (is there any other kind?) puts out hits on other lawyers and occasionally has dogs murdered. Of course we’re talking about a high-class cable drama.Damages, returning for a second season Jan. 18 on Showcase, is the story of an amoral super-lawyer named Patty Hewes (Glenn Close); it offers plenty of lurid sex, violence, and what Allen Coulter, the director of the pilot, calls “suspense driven by paranoia.” It also has one of the best casts on television and has won acting Emmys for Close and supporting actor Zelijko Ivanek as a lawyer with a bad southern accent; this season will add William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. And yet it’s not really a hit—at least not yet. Though the U.S. network FX has picked it up for two more 13-episode seasons, John Landgraf, the president of FX, has said that “the ratings are pretty middling.” What has this world come to when a trashy, addictive, superbly acted legal soap opera can’t get a mass audience?

We’re used to Emmy-winning cable dramas having progressive, respectable messages, like Mad Men’s condemnation of ’60s sexism or The Wire’s outcry against social injustice. But Damages, from creators Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman (Debra Messing’s husband), offers some disreputable but melodramatically satisfying messages: career women are scary, liberal causes are just a front for murderous ambition, and almost no one is good or trustworthy. The central conflict of the show is between Patty, Hollywood’s perfect embodiment of the evil career-obsessed woman, and young lawyer Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones), whose fiancé’s sister is a potential witness in Patty’s big class action suit against disgraced billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). Ellen starts out believing that she can balance lawyering with old-fashioned values like love and trust; by the end of the first season, she’s a shattered, cynical wreck on her way to becoming as cold and calculating as Patty.

In some ways it’s a scarier version of The Devil Wears Prada with Close instead of Meryl Streep—and as far as Hollywood is concerned, the two of them are probably interchangeable. Today’s shows often shy away from over-the-top plot twists and villainy; Patty—who explains her failure as a mother by saying, “Kids are like clients, they want all of you, all the time”—is like a modern-day Joan Collins in Dynasty. Finally, after all the complex and tormented anti-heroes, we have melodrama without excuses.

Everything about Damages—its structure, its writing, and its casting—is designed to play up the sense that anything goes, no matter how implausible or melodramatic, as long as it gives us a jolt. The show relies on a complicated system of time jumps, often confusing the issue of when a particular scene takes place; Coulter says that in the pilot it was difficult “keeping track of what was present tense and what was past tense.” But for the most part, Damages doesn’t use this time manipulation to make the characters more complex; it uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to tease us with horrifying images. Season one started with Ellen being accused of murdering her fiancé, and then jumped back in time to tell the story of how she got to that point; season two also begins by jumping forward, to show Ellen brandishing a gun at a potential victim.

So whenever things get slow in an episode of Damages, we’re sure to see either a time jump that promises something juicy (Patty’s at a grave looking distraught—but whose grave is it?) or an act of gruesome violence, like Ellen stabbing an assailant with a kitchen knife, or Patty walking into her office to find that a fellow lawyer has blown his brains out. It’s the kind of lurid content you would have found in early basic-cable dramas like Silk Stalkings, but with better production values and fewer names like “Mitzi Kapture” in the cast. Instead of the moral platitudes that dominate most cable dramas, this show tells us to relax, sit back and enjoy seeing awful people fighting for no other cause except winning. It’s like As The World Turns shot in high definition.

And yet even as it offers all this entertaining depravity, Damages has managed to maintain a certain respectability, even an artistic façade, that keeps it from descending into trashy banality. It does this not so much through the lessons the characters learn—Ellen says she’s learned to “trust no one,” but that’s not exactly new—as by playing with our expectations and preconceptions of what a legal drama should be. “If you were to say, ‘Would you like to do a show about lawyers?’ ” Coulter says, “my first reaction would be no, because it’s such a tired subject.” But even as Damages incorporates many of the clichés of melodrama, it explodes the clichés of the lawyer show.

For one thing, it rarely ventures inside a courtroom; it’s about pretrial settlements and negotiations, not jury trials. For another thing, it plays fast and loose with the typical idea of what constitutes a good cause, or a good person, in a lawyer show. Patty spends the first season fighting for a cause that we’d normally consider good and moral, taking the side of a bunch of workers who were cheated by their boss. But she’s so horrible, so willing to destroy anyone, that we know before the pilot is over that she’s no better than the big businesspeople she’s fighting. And it’s hard to hate Frobisher, the evil tycoon (conceived after the Enron scandal, but now even more relevant in the age of Bernie Madoff), because he comes off as nicer and less vicious than Patty, especially as played by the lovable Danson. “You see him being kind of a manipulative shit, and yet you like him,” Coulter says. “You have a complex response because of his prior work, which everybody is aware of.”

This nasty attitude toward the law and those who practise it is a nice antidote to shows like Law & Order and even miniseries like John Adams, where we spent the whole first episode learning how wonderful it is to use the law for a good purpose. In between all the insane plot twists and double-crosses, Damages slaps down those other shows and tells us, as Dickens did in Bleak House, that the law has nothing to do with justice; it’s more of a personal game for the powerful people involved. It’s a grim, cynical message, but at least it’s different.

This is part of a new style of cable show that has been energizing television in the last few years: a strange mix of art and trash, TV for the post-HBO era. HBO became the cable channel for people who wanted TV to be art instead of trash. Its shows have mostly been ostentatiously ambitious projects where the writers avoid typical TV storytelling tricks (including commercial breaks) and ask huge questions about society and the meaning of life. As HBO has started to sag under the weight of its own ambitions—with expensive but little-watched shows like In Treatment failing to replace The Sopranos in the public’s affections—FX is trying to provide an alternative, something that’s less edgy than HBO (they can’t use the f-word, for one thing, though they can use the s-word as much as they want) but that has what Coulter calls “a sensibility that is a little bleaker, and perhaps more jaundiced and cynical than one would find represented on a standard network.”

One of the reasons why FX has made a three-season commitment to the show, despite the so-so ratings, may be that it’s the perfect test case for its basic-cable brand, especially after the departure of its flagship show, the downbeat cop drama The Shield. If Damages, with its great cast and accessibly soapy shenanigans, can become a hit, then there’s a future for this kind of hybrid of art and trash, of soap opera and prestige drama. If not, then we might be stuck with either broadcast dramas or slow, good-for-you dramas like Mad Men.

So why hasn’t Damages taken off yet? In interviews, Landgraf has suggested that it’s because the show came along at a time when audiences prefer not to have to follow a mystery for 13 episodes. “This kind of very textured, very dense, serialized show doesn’t suit the current competitive environment,” he said. The second season will try to get around that problem by offering more storylines; with at least two big cases for Patty as well as the story of Ellen working with the FBI to destroy her, the first-time viewer might have more things to focus on. But the creators will still be filling the show with as much blood, cheating and mayhem as before; Zeljko Ivanek’s dead southern lawyer character is even coming back to haunt Patty, though unlike Katherine Heigl on Grey’s Anatomy, Patty won’t be sleeping with him. Or will she? With Damages, you can never count out any plot twist, however wild. It’s implausible melodrama with a respectable brand: the best of both TV worlds. M

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