Damages At 15: The Most Underrated Series Ever? Part 1: Origins
Those of you who have read my column to this point know that I regularly point out series that I consider the most overrated in TV history. Some of you by now are no doubt wondering: are there any series that, by contrast, were underrated by either critics or audiences during their original run? Not those that were cancelled too soon, but rather those that managed a more or less successful run and were still ignored by audiences?
Indeed there are a few of them. I’ve written about this particular series three or four times before, but considering that this year marks the fifteenth anniversary of its debut and the tenth anniversary of its conclusion; I feel it is well worth my time to write on it yet again.
Many of you who read my columns in the past five years also know that I spend what must have seemed to be an exorbitant time and energy expressing my hatred for How to Get Away with Murder, the Shondaland-Viola Davis vehicle. Unlike most of Rhimes’ other work, I didn’t loathe it just for its superficiality, but rather from the overwhelming similarity it held to another series that has recently ended: Damages. The resemblances in structure, character and fundamental storylines were so close that you could not just view HTGAWM as homage or even a rip-off, but rather out and out plagiarism. But all of that ranting only explains why I hated the former series so much and not why I loved the latter series. So in this article, I will go into more detail on Damages: how it came to be, what made it a masterpiece and revolutionary, and why there has never really been another series like it since.
Like so many other series, Damages has its origin story with The Sopranos — in more ways than one. In 2000, Todd Kessler joined the staff of The Sopranos and quickly became the staff wunderkind, collaborating with him on several brilliant scripts in Season 2 including the incredible ’Funhouse’, which ended with the unforgettable death of Big Pussy. After being nominated for an Emmy for that episode, David Chase invited him into his office and told him that he was fired. Kessler went home to his brother Glenn, and wept, only to receive a call about writing a scene. Two days later, he came back into the office and went back to work, only to be officially fired a few weeks later.
A few years later, Kessler wrote the pilot for his own series, and shared show-running duties with his brother Daniel and Aaron Zelman. The plot centered on a terrible boss — brilliant but manipulative, van and imperial — and a young talented employee who finds herself being drawn into her web. Kessler said his work was based in no small part on his experiences on The Sopranos, and if Chase was even a fraction as horrible as Patty Hewes turned out to be, he must have been a true ogre.
In hindsight, it appears that the other half of Damages origins comes from the 1980s masterpiece Wiseguy, a series that truly was ahead of its time. The show followed Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) as he did undercover work for the FBI, infiltrating organized crime syndicates. Most famous for introducing the world to Kevin Spacey for an unforgettable turn as the brilliant and incestuous Mel Profitt, Wiseguy was a work of art. Vinnie spent arcs of eight to eleven episodes becoming immersed in the world of Italian mobsters, white supremacy and in one case, a government coup. The world — including his family — believed he was a criminal and his only allies were his handler (Jonathan Banks in what would be his most memorable role until he joined force with Vince Gilligan) and his go-between through codes, Lifeguard (Jim Byrnes, in a role that won him an Emmy). The series spent extended periods getting to know all of the characters involved, portrayed the criminals with sympathy and showed how draining the process was on everybody involved. At one point in the third season, a burned out Vinnie became so burdened with his guilt that he considered killing himself. (Wahl was a brilliant actor who constantly gave producer Stephen Cannell headaches with his periodic absences. Wahl’s character was finally killed off before the fourth season began. The series tried to move forward with Steven Bauer as lead, but ratings never strong collapsed and the series was cancelled not long after.)
Even though television was becoming more and more serialized by the time Kessler and his writers created Damages, it’s hard not to look at Wiseguy as a fundamental model for the show that followed. The only major difference was the arcs for the show would take up the entire season, but since a season of Damages was only 13 episodes (and in the last two seasons 10), there’s little difference. Patty Hewes was seen a crusader, bringing down the evil corporate billionaires who were destroying America. On those merits, it would have been an interesting series if slightly more conventional. What made Damages extraordinary and revolutionary was that while we spend a lot of time with these corporate criminals (who I’ll start listing in a few moments) we would spend just as much time behind the scenes with Patty and we would learn what the rest of the world didn’t know: at her core, Patty Hewes was as ruthless, cutthroat and determined to utterly destroy her enemies as the people in power were. And just like them, people around her would pay the price, but she managed to escape unscathed. Imagine all that, and now consider that being done by a female character and that character played by Glenn Close, one of the greatest actresses of all time.
The opening of the series has some of the most famous imagery of any pilot I can think of. We here the ding of an elevator, then the doors open. A twentyish woman walks out in a daze, covered with blood. She walks through the lobby of a high rise and on to the street. The police come out to see her, and then she is taken to an interrogation room. The cops are suspicious and when they go in to see her, she says: “Get me a lawyer.” The story flashes back six months. The woman Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne in what would be her star-making role) is having a meeting with her mentor Hollis Nye who is prepared to hire her for a job. Then she tells him she has one more meeting and takes out Patty Hewes’ business card. (We saw it in the opening, but then it was soaked in blood.) Hollis looks at it and says: “I guess you’ll be working for Patty,” When Ellen tells her she hasn’t made up her mind yet, Hollis tells her: “When Patty wants you, she gets you.”
Patty Hewes is currently ‘joined in battle’ as she says in the Pilot with Arthur Frobisher, an industrial billionaire accused of selling off his company before a stock shortage. Patty expresses interest in Ellen, but does not reveal the true reason — her finance’s sister (Anastasia Griffith) catered for Frobisher just days before a legal action. This is only the start of a long series of deceptions and cons, and while we don’t know all the details, we know the consequences of part of it: the episode ends in the future with the police entering her apartment and finding the bloody body of her fiancé (Noah Bean).
Even in the midst of Peak TV, Damages spent all of its first season (and more or less the length of the series) subverting the expectations of what we thought television was capable. Ostensibly it was a legal drama, but the series never set foot in a courtroom: we spent much of our time in depositions, which all prior courtroom dramas had more or less avoided. Seasons would open with a regular character killed (or in some seasons, appearing to have been killed) but unlike HTGWAM, while the identity of the killer was important, what the writers cared far more about was the how and why, because that was never what you expected. The series dealt more with flashbacks and flashforwards than any show up to that point. (Lost didn’t reveal its first flashforward until the third season finale, by which point Damages was in production.) And not only would the series go out of its way to have villainous figures who were Patty’s equal, the writers went out of their way to make sure Patty was not in the same room with them until near the end of the season. One of the biggest draws of Season 1 was that Frobisher was played by Ted Danson, who had not acted with Close in twenty years. The two would not share a scene until the season was two-thirds over. (We can also credit Damages with taking Danson’s career, which post-Cheers had most focused on subpar comedies and turning it into a far more interesting direction for him. He received three Emmy nominations for his work on Damages alone.)
But of course the most radical thing about Damages was that the central characters at the struggle were both women. Even by this point in the revolution, the White Male Antihero was starting to become a tired trope, so you would have thought that there would be a built in audience for a series with two brilliant female leads getting their hands as dirty as Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey. Instead, the opposite happened: Damages received immense critical acclaim and seven Emmy nominations for its first season –including the network’s first ever nomination in the Best Drama category. But less than a million viewers watched in its first season. FX had immense confidence in the series: they gave it a two season renewal by the time the first season ended. But where as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC’s other properties which has a similar critical explosion when they debuted in the 2007–2008 season would slowly but surely grow their audiences over time, Damages audience never increased and actually shrunk.
In my opinion Damages was the equal of both series during its first three seasons and the Emmy voters clearly agreed — the series received sixteen of its seventeen Emmy nominations in that time and won four. Glenn Close, like Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad, would win back to back Emmys in 2008 and 2009. While her competition was nearly as fierce as it was for Cranston, it was impressive. In both 2008 and 2009, she faced off against Sally Field for Brothers and Sisters, Kyra Sedgwick for The Closer and Holly Hunter for Saving Grace. In 2009 Elisabeth Moss joined their ranks for her incredible work as Peggy on Mad Men. Close knew how lucky she was and each time she won said how humble she felt to be in this competition.
And the series did immensely well in the acting categories: Rose Byrne would receive two Supporting Actress nominations for her work. Zeljko Ivanek, who memorably played Ray Fiske, Frobisher’s troubled attorney managed an upset when he defeated Danson for Supporting Actor in 2008. (Ivanek is one the shortlist for greatest television character actors of all time, and his Emmy was one of the best decisions the Academy made in all of the 2000s.) Several character actors dominated the Supporting Actor category for the next two years: the late William Hurt in Season 2 and Martin Short, in a truly incredible dramatic turn in 2010. (I’m actually going to go into more detail in the next part of the article.)
So why did Damages never achieve the critical worship that Mad Men has even though it was the series equal at times? (Stephen King, who did a lot of television reviews for Entertainment Weekly during this period, actually thought the former series was superior; Mad Men never made his top ten list, Damages made it three times out of four, usually in the number two spot.) Similarly why did its audience never build and build the same way Breaking Bad’s did, even though it was technically and creatively as clever as that show was. (Indeed, the first three seasons both shows were on the air, they got the exact same number of Emmy nominations and basically the same number of wins: Breaking Bad earned five, three for Cranston, one for Aaron Paul, and one for cinematography; Damages got four; the three for Close and Ivanek and one for casting.) And why did AMC have so much faith in Breaking Bad season after season even though ratings were lower even than Mad Men at the time whereas FX would throw up its hands in 2010 and drop Damages? (It would be saved at the last minute, but not in the best way.) I don’t have a realistic answer to these questions, but the best I can come up with is that in its own way Damages was far more demanded and expensive than so many other properties on FX. And even though it achieved what groundbreaking series like The Shield and Nip/Tuck never did and got nominated for Best Drama, they dropped the series for other more fan-friendly properties. (Although if you’ve seen American Horror Story or Sons of Anarchy, fan-friendly really takes on a different kind of tone.)
To give full credit Damages will turn this article into a novel. So I’ll end this part of it here. In my conclusion, I’ll explain what made so much of the rest of the series work so well, how it changed history in its later season, and what exactly the series writers’ message may have been.