FX's New Damages Breaks Open the Legal Thriller Genre

Ask anyone in the television business who read the script for FX's new legal thriller series Damages and they'll tell you the same thing. Written by the 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.

I was breathless with anticipation when I finally got to see the first episode for Damages back in May.

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 transcendent 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 millions of dollars hang in the balance.

Enter Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a promising young lawyer with heaps of ambition making the rounds to 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offered a job by Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco) but when she mentions that she's also meeting with Patty Hewes, the offer is rescinded; as soon as Patty meets Ellen she'll fall in love with her.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. 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 trench coat, 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 similar in the beginning of the pilot for Twin Peaks. Ellen is taken into custody but she's not 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. Before you know it, Ellen signed a deal with the devil...

The casting in Damages is flawless. As Frobisher's vicious lawyer, Ray Fiske, played by 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. 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 Griffith) and the visceral pleasures of working for the tyrannical egomaniac, Patty Hewes.

As Hewes, Close has perhaps found the role of her career. Patty Hewes is a multi-layered career woman and mother who is conniving and brutal. Patty plays to win, not just her legal cases, but in life, and she's made a career of stamping out the opposition. Close transforms Patty from what could have been a caricature in the hands of a lesser actress and imbues her with the 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.

AmongDamages' many strengths are its savage plot twists. 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. Look for both to bend, and ultimately break, the line between right and wrong, 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. 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.

Damages airs tonight at 10 pm on FX.

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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.