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Pilot Inspektor: FX's "Damages"

Other than Pushing Daisies (already a favorite pilot/drama of mine for next season), the single best pilot script (among, yes, the 120+ scripts I read for work) was for FX's new legal thriller series Damages.

Ask anyone in the television business who read the script and they'll tell you the same thing. Written by the writing team of Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, the script for Damages was a taut, gripping, be-careful-or-you'll-fall-over-the-knife's-edge sort of affair, a rare feat for a legal drama that also has the distinction of not having a single scene set inside a courthouse. (Legal drama-adverse readers, take note, the writers claim that this will carry over into Season One and promise nary a single courtroom cross-examine.) So I was breathless with anticipation when I finally got to see the completed pilot for Damages a few weeks ago.

What exactly is Damages? I can only describe it as John Grisham's The Firm meets Murder One, an intricate stunner of a mystery spread out over the first season that sets righteous crusader/litigator Patty Hewes (the transcendant Glenn Close) against corporate fat cat Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), a billionaire who screwed his employees out of their pensions. Patty and Frobisher will each stop at nothing to win this case and literally millions of dollars hangs in the balance of this lawsuit.

Enter Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a promising young lawyer with heaps of ambition making the rounds at all of the top New York City law firms. She's offered a job by Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco) but when she mentions that she's also meeting with Patty Hewes, the offer is rescinded; as soon as Patty meets Ellen she'll fall in love with her. Of course, working for the icy Patty has its price. The woman makes The Devil Wears Prada's Miranda Priestly seem absolutely radiant by comparison and Hollis later has Ellen sign his business card... over which he writes the rather disturbing words "I was warned." Not exactly a promising start for young Ellen's career choice.

Of course, all of this happens in the past. In fact, Damages' pilot begins in present day when we see Ellen, dressed in lingerie under a trenchcoat, stumble out of a luxe apartment building's elevator, covered in blood, and stagger out onto the Manhattan streets. It's a jarring image, recalling somewhat the image of Ronette Pulaski doing something similiar in the beginning of the pilot for Twin Peaks. (Tonally, it also recalled the opening of the BBC's mini-series State of Play.) Ellen is taken into custody but she's non-responsive. She's finally identified by Hollis after the police discover his business card in Ellen's pocket.

Just what happened to Ellen and whose blood is all over her comprises the series' first season mystery arc. But first we're treated to a series of flashbacks that establish just how Ellen entered Patty Hewes' world. Ellen interviews for a position with Patty's right-hand man Tom (Tate Donovan), who vets her before scheduling a meeting with Patty, which happens to be the very same day as her sister's wedding. Tom forces her to choose between her career and her family and Ellen chooses the latter, only to have Patty herself show up at her sis' wedding and offer her the job. After all, it's a rare day that someone turns Patty down. And before you know it, Ellen signed a deal with the devil... though in a story as intricatedly plotted and skillfully executed as Damages, there are a number of well-dressed devils, all of which make an appearance in the pilot episode.

The casting in Damages is flawless. As Frobisher's vicious lawyer Ray Fiske, Zeljko Ivanek (Lost) is fantastic; luring his victims in with false Southern charm and a cheshire cat's smile. It's fantastic to see Ted Danson in a role that truly challenges him as an actor; his Frobisher is all arrogance and crude will, walking through life with the naivete of the super-rich and the self-entitled. Rose Byrne is perfectly cast as Ellen Parsons, brimming with naive enthusiasm and palpable ambition who finds herself caught between the domestic pleasures of life with her adorable boyfriend David (Noah Bean) and his sister Katie (Anastasia Grffith) and the visceral pleasures of working for the tyrannical egomanaic known as Patty Hewes.

As Hewes, Close has perhaps found the role of her career; while I used a Devil Wears Prada reference earlier, Patty is nothing like the Anna Wintour-clone from that story. Instead, she's a multi-layered career woman and mother, conniving and brutal, Machiavellian in her plotting. Patty plays to win, not just her legal cases, but in life and she's made a career of stamping out the opposition. In Ellen, she claims to see much of herself and wants to mentor her young associate and mold her into something fierce. Close transforms Patty from what could have been a caricacture in the hands of a lesser actress and imbues her with a courage of conviction; the viewer walks away believing that Patty really does sleep the sleep of the righteous at night, so much does she believe in what she's fighting for.

One of Damages' many strengths are its savage plot twists so I won't reveal more than I feel is necessary, but I will say that both Patty and Frobisher are cunning adversaries, willing to do whatever is necessary to win this thing for themselves and both have everything on the line: their lives, their reputations, their very core of being is at stake here. Look for both to bend--and ultimately break--the line between right and wrong, between black and white, between reason and madness. And keep your eyes open for a major reversal at the end of the pilot episode, which makes the viewer question everything that has come before.

Ultimately, Damages underscores FX's commitment to genre-breaking dramas and hard-hitting series that break the rules of network television. This is no exception, elevating the legal drama to a gripping, Dickensian story with a serpentine plot and characters that truly are snakes in every sense of the word. Damages is first rate television that cannot, and should not, be missed.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); America's Got Talent (NBC; 8-10 pm); Gilmore Girls (CW); On the Lot (FOX)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Veronica Mars (CW); House (FOX)

10 pm: 48 Hours Mystery (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

9 pm: MI-5 on BBC America.

Missed MI-5 (aka Spooks) the first time it aired (if you can call it that?) in the US on A&E? BBC America is giving you a second chance to catch this taut espionage series from the beginning. On tonight's episode ("Traitor's Gate"), a new agent ends up compromising a mission and the agency when he falls for a member of an anarchist group while undercover and ends up supporting the very people he was assigned to take down.

9 pm: Veronica Mars.

I'm still so bloody angry at the CW I can taste it. But before Veronica Mars disappears off the airwaves completely, catch the few summer repeats while they last. On tonight's repeat episode ("Charlie Don't Surf"), it's two Logans for the price of one as Logan enlists Veronica's help when he realizes that his inheritance is suddenly running low... a mystery which leads them smack into Charlie Stone, played by Gilmore Girls' resident Logan, Matt Czuchry!

Comments

I can't to see this. I read the pilot script and agree that it was one of the best out there. And with such an amazing cast you really can't lose. I know Glenn Close will be brilliant and I'm excited to see Ted Danson in this role too.
Anonymous said…
I can't wait to see it! Loved the script.
Unknown said…
I wasn't going to watch this, but your glowing review has changed my mind. Do networks have any idea how good this kind of publicity can be? (We know the record companies don't get it.)
Anonymous said…
I love Glen Close as an actress and can not wait to see the show. I can't find anything ONline that will tell me the day and time the show is going to be aired.
Anonymous said…
Tuesday, July 24, 10PM on FX
Anonymous said…
Pilot was good. Have to admit I only watched it to see my daughter who was an extra, but now I can't wait to see the next episode.

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