FX's 'Damages' : Lawyers Who Are Worth Their Billable Hour

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Damages," making a sensational premiere tonight on the FX network, thoroughly justifies adding yet another high-powered law firm to the prime-time population. The firm is not only high-powered but it's also "high-stakes," we keep being told -- and so is the show.

"Damages" is also emphatically, and almost torturously, high-tension, and the pilot script is one of the most artfully crafted since the debut back in the 20th century of "The Sopranos."

Nearly everything is done right, most conspicuously in the casting of Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, one of the richest, most successful lawyers ever and absolute monarch of the swank firm that bears her name.

Hewes, though, isn't the first character we meet as the show begins. Director Allen Coulter pulls us into the story and the city (New York) by introducing us to Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, a young and beautiful lawyer who makes her appearance from behind elevator doors that open like the curtain on a theatrical stage.

Parsons looks battered, bewildered and disheveled. She walks numbly out of a posh apartment building and then into the street. Most of what happens during the rest of the hour will have taken place "Six Months Earlier," and the next time we see Parsons, she is almost unrecognizable in a prim pinstripe sitting at a giant conference table in lavish law offices. She's as good as hired -- but then the members of the firm learn that she's also scheduled for an interview with Hewes.

Any young lawyer who can get a job with Hewes & Associates takes it -- but later, at a bar, an older associate of another firm asks her to sign her name to a blank card. She does and hands it back to him. Above her signature he writes, "I was warned."

As Hewes, Close makes her entrance in the back seat of a car, where she quickly lives up to her reputation as a fire-breathing dragon with a knack for ruthlessness, batting around figures -- $25 million here, $150 million there -- with members of her firm. They're talking about the settlement of a landmark class-action suit to be brought by former employees of billionaire Arthur Frobisher, played with scintillating menace by Ted Danson. Early in his career -- in a TV movie that also starred Close -- Danson portrayed a child molester; Arthur Frobisher is in the same league, but less pitiable.

Close and Danson are eventually set up as the major adversaries in what promises to be a whale of a fight, one with innumerable complications, shadings, shocks and surprises. Paths cross and corners are abruptly turned. So much inventiveness has gone into the way the story unfolds that no amount of "spoiler alerts" would really suffice. Better just to say that "Damages" proves from the outset to be a solid, meaningful thriller, with several of the characters qualifying as the most poisonous members of one snake pit or another.

Complications emerge from unexpected crannies, and the case against Frobisher grows in significance. The coldly charming monster saw one of his companies fold under him, but though he managed to get out with hundreds of millions in profits, some 5,000 employees were bankrupted. He wants them to take a little money and go away; Hewes wants them to sue for as astronomical an amount as possible.

The cast of good guys, bad guys and those intriguingly in between -- first-rate all the way -- includes Zeljko Ivanek as one of Frobisher's lawyers and chief henchman and Tate Donovan as a Hewes loyalist with the distinguished-sounding name of Tom Shayes. Who could but trust such a man as this? Actually, part of the fascination of "Damages" is in never knowing whom to trust -- not even Hewes, who can twist a knife before her victim knows it's in his back.

Close, who's made some kooky career choices in recent years, brings tremendous stature and class to this meaty role -- one moment full of insinuating charisma and the next, with a change of camera angle, looking dagger-faced and lethal, and certainly not someone to be taken at her word.

Byrne as Ellen Parsons, meanwhile, is our point of entry into both the story and the jungle of big-time litigators. She projects not just innocence but intelligence.

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