Legal dramas have become a staple of modern television, but their proliferation has also served as their undoing. Viewers have become so intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the genre, that it seems to have lost its ability to surprise and entertain. Even "Law and Order," the most successful legal drama since “Matlock” and “Perry Mason,” has become a predictable bore, hobbling along on its last leg. The writers of legal dramas across the board have been struggling to tell the same stories over and over again.
Enter "Damages," the latest morality tale to become a series on the FX network. To be honest, three episodes had accumulated in my TiVo queue before I could stomach sampling yet another legal drama, but to my surprise, "Damages" accomplished the impossible, approaching the genre from a different angle, using different ammunition, and blindsiding me with its precise scripting and tense narrative. In the course of one season, the show transcended the legal drama genre and established itself as an entirely new species.
Tough-as-nails civil litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is ruthless, calculating, and unrelenting. Her latest case involves a class action lawsuit being leveled against a smarmy CEO named Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) who relieved his employees of the funds in their 401k accounts. Tried and acquitted in criminal court, Frobisher now has to face a tougher opponent than the justice system -- Hewes, gunning for blood by any means necessary. She's also set her sights on a talented associate named Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a girl she believes can tip the balance in her favor in the Frobisher case. The resulting thirteen episode story is a captivating exploration of greed, deceit, and corruption that's as shocking as it is compelling.
For my money, FX does shock better than any cable network, but this time out they don't rely on the stark violence of "The Shield," the surreal depravity of "Nip/Tuck," or the unsettling comedy of "Rescue Me." Instead, they let authentic human nature provide the gut punches that their audience is looking for. "Damages" is definitely the straight arrow of the FX family, but at the same time, it's so dark and unpredictable that it actually becomes more disturbing than other dramas that seem to work overtime to surprise their viewers. Better still, the show's creators clearly believe that establishing a likable heroine (in Rose Byrne) is the best way to add power to the story’s twists and turns.
The cast is simply fantastic. Glenn Close (coming off her stint on "The Shield") simply owns every scene. Even when she's not on screen, her presence is felt in the way characters react to the mere mention of her name. Byrne is excellent as a young lawyer following her newfound mentor to hell and back. Even Ten Danson has a full-on career resurgence, imbuing Frobisher with a unique brand of villainy that's genuinely chilling. When you factor in a host of A-list character actors that add gravitas to even the most minor scenes, it's tough to find a weak link in the chain.
If the series has any flaw, it's that in spite of the steadily revealed plot developments, the show seems a tad crammed into its thirteen episodes. The creators wisely keep their vision focused on the main storyline, but there's still a lot of ground to cover. I could feel the series accelerating in its last three episodes in an attempt to wrap everything up in time for the finale. It may not sound like a big deal, but one or two more episodes would've let the writers flesh out the characters more and take their time with the series’ final act.
Even so, I'm extremely excited that "Damages" has been renewed for another two seasons. FX continues to knock it out of the park, and "Damages" is arguably one of their best. Sharp acting, an amazing cast, and a series of jaw dropping episodes will keep you hooked from beginning to end. Don't shrug this one off as another tired legal drama -- it's so much more.
'Damages: Season 1' features all thirteen regular episodes from the first season spread across three discs. These include "Pilot," "Jesus, Mary and Joe Cocker," "My Paralyzing Fear of Death," "Tastes Like a Ho Ho," "Regular Earl Anthony," "She Spat at Me," "We Are Not Animals," "Blame the Victim," "Do You Regret What We Did," "Sort of Like A Family," "I Hate These People," "There's No We Anymore," and "Because I Know Patty."
'Damages: Season 1' arrives on Blu-ray with a crisp and faithful 1080p/AVC encoded transfer that renders its source with ease. The palette is naturalistic, but colors are bold and stable, regardless of the exterior or interior lighting. Detail is exceptional and the picture has a strong, lifelike appearance that doesn't betray textures, fine edges, and on screen text. As it stands, it's clear how impressive the transfer is every time a small-print legal document is examined by one of the characters. Better still, black levels are inky, skintones are dead on, and the contrast level is comfortable. 'Damages' also doesn't suffer from the incessant artifacting that often plagues television releases. Digital noise still pops up from time to time, but it's a direct result of the director's intention.
The only real problem with 'Damages' is that its flashbacks have been intentionally over-processed in post-production. During these scenes, digital noise assaults the image, while naturalistic colors are tossed out the window. The flashbacks are meant to evoke emotion rather than realism, and end up looking quite awful in high definition. To be clear, every scene beyond these stylized moments looks exceptional so this is another transfer whose merits largely come down to personal taste.
All in all, the Blu-ray edition of 'Damages: Season 1' looks significantly better than the standard DVD and its high definition broadcast. Fans of the show will find very little to complain about.
'Damages: Season 1' features an unexpectedly strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that puts the audio packages on other high-def TV releases to shame. The series' soundfield is far more involving than one might expect from a conversation driven drama -- pulsing music, several tense scenes, and quite a few explosive action beats showcase everything the track has to offer. Even in the quietest moments, discreet ambiance and impressive rear channel support create a thoroughly convincing soundscape. To top it all off, dialogue is clear, the track is perfectly prioritized, and the dynamics are powerful. Low-end tones have a wide latitude, and the high-end frequencies are clean and stable.
If anything, it doesn't have quite as many standout moments as a more violent series like "The Sopranos." 'Damages' delivers every episode with an audible tenacity that lives up to the quality of its material.
'Damages: Season 1' arrives on Blu-ray with the same collection of supplements as the standard DVD edition. Aside from the deleted scenes, all of the features are presented in high definition and can be found on disc 3. The content isn't sprawling, but it's incredibly effective, relying on a concise and carefully plotted exploration of the show. This supplemental package actually covers the production of 'Damages' more thoroughly than other television releases I've reviewed with more commentaries and featurettes.
I avoided "Damages" for three weeks before discovering it was a glimmer of hope in a dark world of legal dramas. It's tense, unpredictable, and different -- everything I need to recommend a dramatic series. The Blu-ray edition of 'Damages: Season 1' is just as impressive, with a strong, faithful video transfer, an excellent TrueHD audio package, and a meticulous collection of supplements. Fans of the series can't go wrong and newcomers will definitely be impressed.