In between all the dreck that fills the TV dial these days, some have argued that we're in the middle of a new golden age of television. During the last decade, there have been some undeniable home runs - starting with HBO and then other cable networks who radically reworked and expanded the serial drama, taking it in whole new directions. After the success of shows such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire, a host of other, smaller cable stations began programming their own shows using high production values, big name actors, and polished scripts. Damages is one of the more recent examples, a slickly produced and meticulously constructed tale of greed, corruption and power from FX. The scriptwriters use a host of story telling devices - flashbacks/forwards, misdirection, etc. - to crank up the tension and keep everything racing along at break-neck speed. The critics overwhelmingly ate it up, almost unanimously declaring Damages to be a first-rate example of this new style of film-quality television programming.
But is it any good? With an 8.7 viewer rating on IMDB and a chorus of glowing critical reviews, one would have to conclude that Damages is another serial drama home run. There is much to support this contention too. FX, a cable station who had their breakout hit with The Shield and more recently, Rescue Me, has come to specialize in shows that hinge on morally-ambiguous characters and Damages continues in this tradition. The show also sports a decidedly “high quality” programing veneer, a (mostly) killer cast and the apparent budget of a feature film. I was completely taken with all the twists and turns in 1st season and was looking forward to seeing if they could sustain the show's obvious momentum for a second.... and I think they have.
I'm going to split my thoughts on Damages 2 into two parts, the first on why this is a terrific program and the second on why it isn't. Hopefully, these positions aren't as contradictory as they first sound because I'm trying to identify how a show like this one can be both highly successful and yet somehow lacking.
First, the upsides..... Damages is first and foremost a series about power, what people are willing to do to get it and how far they'll go to keep it. Its collection of narcissistic, deeply-flawed and morally-reprehensible characters are presented as anti-protagonists whose motivations are primarily self-interest, money and control. They justify their actions by deflection, avoiding the ethical quagmire at the root of their choices because it's simply “how the game is played”. The bad good-guys fight the good bad-guys on equal footing, fire with fire, mano-a-womano. The big-name (and refreshingly adult) cast revels in this sleazy world of tainted characters, hidden agendas and murderous plots.... with the odd moment of regret thrown in to make them seem at least partly human. Damages is a reflection on urban decay, but not the derelict building kind. The high-flying power brokers, clients, partners and employees of Hewes and Associates, the corporate legal firm at the centre of Damages are engaged in out-and-out warfare and will do anything to win. The decay it speaks to is the decline in civility, fairness, honesty, responsibility and corporate ethics that have come to define our era. The complex plot structure and constant manipulation of the viewer's perception of events thrusts us into a world that few of us have any experience with. It hardly matters that this morally-inverted fantasy land couldn't possibly be this sordid. Damages is I, Claudius retooled for a 21st century I, Cheney world. It works because it allows the audience a glimpse into the halls of power and reinforces what we all think must exist in that world.
….and now the downsides. The rise of sophisticated TV programming (at least, as a viable alternative to film viewing) has seemingly coincided with the dumbing-down of the modern cinema audience. With some exceptions (particularly a few of the better HBO programs), most of this new programming retains the underlying simplicity of the traditional television series format. While a cinematic veneer may have been introduced, most of the shows contain only minor variations on tried and true television conventions and formulas. A film fan with even a modest level of viewing experience can spot what's coming a mile away... which, after all, might be the point. The surprises are canned, the twists telegraphed and the results passively absorbed. Damages seems complicated and glossy, in part because it is. The plot is regularly pushed in odd, jarring and disjointed directions with the reasons held from the viewer until the writers want us to know and tip their hand. It's trickery, slight-of-hand writing that manipulates and stick-handles the plot for reasons relating more to TV's inherent episodic structure than advancing the story. The result is oddly unsatisfying because we're complicit in the illusion. We go along with the trivial and manufactured twists and turns because we willingly buy into the conceit and understand the formula. The same may be true about film convention, but at least cinema, at its best, can still challenge and surprise us in ways that TV rarely reaches for. In the end, I wonder whether the serial television drama just suits our time and place... short, clearly defined and easy to digest escapism in an increasingly noisy world the operates in bursts of information. It's a slippery slope that I find myself gravitating to because it's so damned easy. The problem with a steady diet of this kind of viewing is its contribution to the downward trajectory of challenging works. A point of diminishing intellectual return invariably coincides with consuming more and more well-packaged and well-executed TV programs, not unlike the nearly perfect Crunchie chocolate bar. As good as they may be, you have to sit down and eat a proper dinner every now and then.....
...or dive into the first season of Fringe, which I picked up on Blu-Ray yesterday.