Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Damages" hurts my brain -- but in a good way

I present that there is no more maddening show on TV than FX's twisty legal drama "Damages." In today's serial-mad TV landscape, I've grown accustomed to complex shows with lots of plot twists, characters who aren't what they seem and long, complicated storylines that seemingly last forever.
But "Damages," which starts its third season Monday at 10 p.m. on FX, makes me particularly nuts. Every season is so layered with flashbacks, flash-forwards and so-called "present day" scenes that it makes the head throb. Unlike "Lost," which has a reason for its time jumps, "Damages" just feels like it's messing with you.
But that's OK. I don't mind being messed with if I get to spend another season in the company of the gloriously amoral, uncompromising and fabulous Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), one of the meatiest female characters on TV. Over the past few seasons, Close's Patty has become an intriguing mix of crusading attorney and lonely career woman. She's not afraid to get nasty and sink to incredible lows to get her job done. But she's not too callous to feel wounded when she's betrayed. Close's Patty feels incredible human -- which is good, as much of the show that surrounds her is ridiculous.
As in previous seasons, the storyline this season is broken into two parts: a "now" and a "later." In the "now," we see Patty and her sidekick Tom Shayes (the underrated Tate Donovan, who might finally get his shot at Emmy nod based on the two episodes I've seen) representing a group of people swindled in a financial fraud perpetrated by the Bernie Madoff-like Louis Tobin (Len Cariou). Patty is trying to figure out if Tobin's family was in on the scam, and if they still have any money lying around. Her arch nemesis is Tobin's shark-y attorney, Leonard Winstone (a surprisingly convincing Martin Short). Meanwhile, Patty's former protegee, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) has left Patty's firm and is pursuing her legal career elsewhere.
As often happens on "Damages" we soon learn that things will go quickly awry for Patty and company, as we see a series of flash forwards to "six months later." As they do every season, these flashes show us a series of catastrophes. In this case, the future involves a car crash, a body in a dumpster and at least one secret relationship.
As we leap back and forth in time, the poor viewer tries futilely to figure out just what the hell is going on. The show, as always, gives maddeningly few clues. More than once, I grimaced while watching the preview episodes. Yet, they were still vastly entertaining, mainly because of the actors.
Every season, the show surrounds Close and co. with a great supporting cast of famous faces. This season we have not only Cariou and Short, but also Lily Tomlin, who plays Tobin's shady wife, and Campbell Scott, as Tobin's conscience-ridden (but still creepy) son. So far, Scott is the standout as Joe Tobin, a man for whom the trope "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" was seemingly invented. Scott is always excellent, but here he presents an intriguing mix of vulnerability, rage and confusion (not unlike Ted Danson in season one). He's great to watch, as is Short. Dramatic performances by comedians can sometimes feel like stunts, but Short's performance is intelligent and perfectly calibrated. His Winstone is charming, bracing and not worth trusting even a little bit.
Byrne remains the show's weak link, but her performance gets more confident each season. She's still a little overmatched in her scenes with Close, but that's probably for the best. The whole point of Patty is that she's unstoppable, even in the face of great odds.
What's at the heart of this season's many mysteries? Who knows? And, as long as the journey is full of fun, interesting characters, who cares?

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