DAMAGES: Wednesday 9PM on DirecTV Audience Network
WHERE WE WERE: Recoiling from Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), the most untrustworthy attorney in New York. Patty is a spider, constantly setting traps for everyone around her. She has a particularly unhealthy relationship with Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), who started out as Patty’s junior associate. In Season 1, Patty found it convenient to plot Ellen’s murder, and although Ellen survived, she knows Patty was behind it. Since then, they’ve been locked in a sort of genteel sado-masochistic relationship, with Ellen alternately seeking counsel and mentorship from Patty, and attempting to destroy her, while Patty constantly manipulates Ellen into doing her will. At the end of last season, Ellen agreed to testify against Patty in the child custody case Patty’s equally disagreeable son Michael (Zachary Booth) has brought to take back his daughter, whom Patty has been dysfunctionally raising as her own.
WHERE WE ARE: Not much time has passed since the events of Season 4. Ellen is due to testify in the custody case, but we can all rest assured that won’t go smoothly. Indeed, the Julian Assange-like Channing McClaren (Ryan Philippe) approaches Patty for representation when he plan to expose the secrets of a Wall Street’s insider trading goes awry and the identity and personal life of whistleblower Naomi Walling (Jenna Elfman) are exposed. Instead, Patty tells him to go to Ellen, who’s started her own practice, and even though Ellen knows that everything Patty does is only for the good of Patty, she puts herself in a position where Patty can disqualify her from testifying because while Ellen is representing McClaren, Patty is representing Naomi’s daughter in a wrongful death suit–because Naomi has seemingly committed suicide due to the scandal (although we know that actually she was murdered), making for a conflict of interest. Also lurking about: McClaren’s henchman Rutger Simon (John Hannah), who with a name like Rutger clearly has something to hide.
In the increasingly fragmented world of home viewing, distribution platforms are trying to earn branding and customer loyalty with original, exclusive programming. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon either are or are about to get into this business, and DirecTV entered the field a few years ago, first by sharing the final seasons of Friday Night Lights with NBC, and then by taking over Damages when it was canceled by FX after 3 seasons. Although the level of the show’s success is unclear (DirecTV rarely issues any ratings information, and the show is available only in the satellite service’s 20 million households), no doubt the theory was that Damages was a high-class, Emmy-conversation show with a big-name cast, and thus a good choice. (In addition, DirecTV has the US rights to the original British series Hit & Miss, which also premiered tonight.)
In fact, though, Damages has always been an exceedingly odd series with limited viewership, which is why FX didn’t stick with it. It’s a show about lawyers that only occasionally takes place in a courtroom, and is far more about general scheming than lawsuits. Patty Hewes is one of the most unsympathetic characters ever to serve as the center of a TV show, not because of her actions (relatively mild, by the standards of Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad‘s Walter White) but because she rarely seems to show a human emotion, her grimly impassive visage (not helped by Glenn Close’s somewhat inexpressive face these days) only giving way to a rare sardonic smile when she’s stabbed someone in the back. Ellen, on the other hand, is such an incessant fool that she’s practically a cartoon character, Wile E. Coyote believing that this Acme package will somehow contain the goods that will stop Patty’s Road Runner, only to plummet yet again off the nearest cliff.
Whether because of the lower DirecTV budget or an artistic choice, the show has become even more eccentric in recent seasons, so underpopulated and stark in affect that it’s practically post-apocalyptic. In the Season 5 (and final) premiere, written by series creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman, and directed by Matthew Penn, we get an almost Greatest Hits litany of the show’s conceits. There are the supersaturated “3 Months Later” flashforwards, this time featuring Patty being arrested and the apparent (repeat: apparent) sight of Ellen dead in an alley, the disturbing nightmares that are supposed to make Patty semi-human, and of course the scene where Ellen does exactly what Patty wanted her to do and still looks stunned when it turns out she’s been caught in Patty’s web (Ellen would be the worst chess player in the entire world).
Lots of things happen in Damages, but it’s a cold, lifeless show–which would be fine if that were in the service of saying something, anything, either about law, its characters, or life in general. But Damages isn’t. It’s like a funhouse with all the fun squeezed out, a dour exercise in moral ugliness masquerading as a lesson in moral ambiguity. Nobody is going to mourn this show when the season ends.