Sunday, June 27, 2010

Watching in the Moment: Damages Season Two

Yesterday and today, Michelle and I watched all of Damages season two on DVD (except for the first two episodes, which we watched last weekend at her parents'). This is one of Michelle's shows and we watched the first season in a weekend on DVD last year at her urging. I enjoyed the first season. I didn't think the writing ever cohered, more focused on keeping you guessing and surprising you than logical storytelling or consistent characters, but it was interesting. I'll always take interesting and flawed over boring and perfectly executed. I like ambition and Damages has it. Or, had it in the first season. The second season wasn't bad, but it was definitely missing something with me... not bored, but not exactly caring either by the end of the final episode of the season. (I should warn anyone that I will spoil anything I feel like. Because what's the point of discussing it if I tiptoe around the payoff?)

Part of the problem stems from one of the show's signature features: throughout the season, it shows you glimpses of what happens in the future. For this season, it was six months from the start of the season. Little snippets, often with repeating bits that leave out essential parts to give these glimpses some drama. In this season, we saw Ellen (Rose Byrne) shooting someone (apparently). We eventually gained more information about other characters and, when it was all revealed, nothing was quite what it appeared given context and scenes not being edited to be suggestive. It's a risky gambit that structuring a show this way will pay off since you need these fragments of scenes to all add up into a coherent conclusion that would make sense if we hadn't seen the flashforwards. In this season, they don't. They make sense, but they don't cohere into a good scene. The resulting scene is just awful as they try to piece the fragments together from short little bite-size pieces into something larger and it's just Byrne delivering one suggestive line dramatically after another, things never coming together.

The show is about a law firm run by Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and, unlike the first season, the central case for this season doesn't dominate as much. Last season, it was an Enron-esque case with Ted Danson as the bad guy. This season, it's a corporate polluter, so things are bigger. And, yet, much less dramatic and interesting as the season meanders its way through the various subplots and little pieces of intrigue until there are so many twists and turns that you just don't care anymore.

After the first series of swerves, you just don't believe anything anymore, because you know that nothing is true until the end of the season. Anything can be changed, undone, made to be a work by some character on another. That doesn't mean it's bad or not entertaining, it just means that it's hard to get too wrapped up in any of it. You only get small little moments to latch onto. A character being arrested by the FBI just after his wife goes into labour, or Glenn Close being amazing, or William Hurt playing a monster that you know is a monster even when everything says he isn't, or Timothy Olyphant charming you even after you see that he's a bad guy, except not really. It amounts to a bunch of moments that never add up, that don't flow from one to the next, that can only be appreciated in the moment with no thought to the past or the future.

It's Vince Russo writing. "Nothing is true; everything is permitted." Make it up on the fly and keep 'em guessing.

I had planned to write a longer post, but there isn't much to the show beyond that. Some great acting by some, some mediocre acting by others, a lot of irrelevent subplots that lead nowhere, and a series of swerves that lose their power each time. It's a mystery show that doesn't play fair, so the mystery aspect is lost and you're left wondering what remains except watching in the moment... maybe I'll come back to this.

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