Like a superhero cleverly disguised as a satellite service provider, DirecTV swooped in a year ago and rescued “Damages,” the addictive legal drama dumped by FX in spring 2010 after three seasons of riveting storylines and low ratings. Viewers accustomed to having beloved shows yanked at a moment’s notice rejoiced at the reprieve.
No matter how many Emmys they rack up, scripted serialized dramas are expensive and appeal to only a handful of viewers. (The kind who catch up on a month’s worth of episodes at a time and speed through the commercials, making them understandably unpopular with advertisers.) “Damages” is no exception — it belongs to a dying breed of challenging, high-quality television serials.
FX President John Landgraf summarized the situation bluntly at a Hollywood Radio and Television Society forum in February, according to the Hollywood Reporter. To green-light a show like “Damages” these days, he said, “You’d be crazy.”
His comment underscores the only downside to watching the excellent fourth season of “Damages,” which concludes on Wednesday night — the sinking feeling that we’ll never get a show like this again.
Season 4 finds “Damages” as wonderfully dark as ever. Its twisty legal battles are still in the foreground; this time the complex layers of a wrongful death case against a private military contracting company owned by shady CEO Howard Erickson (John Goodman, as delightfully evil as you always suspected he could be). As always, the underlying arc of the series is the relationship between ruthless attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her steely protege, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne).
With its use of flashback and flash-forward elements, “Damages” is a little like a highbrow version of “Lost,” its mysteries unfolding in an always cold-looking Manhattan instead of a jungle. Each season starts with a horrifying opener and then jumps backward in time, each episode meticulously inching a step closer to the gruesome scene first witnessed until all our questions are answered . . . sort of.
Ellen, now at a new law firm and making what seems like her umpteenth fresh start since the show’s 2007 debut, stumbles across the potential wrongful death case when something seems not quite right about Erickson’s military contracting company. Intent on discovering why three men were mysteriously killed in a mission in Afghanistan, Ellen connects with an old friend from high school, Chris Sanchez (Chris Messina, unnervingly believable as an emotionally tortured, guilt-ridden soldier), who was involved with Erickson’s company. Sanchez knows a lot things he shouldn’t — and Ellen’s life starts to spiral out of control as she investigates.
This, of course, leads Ellen back to the law offices of Hewes and Associates, where she finds her mentor Patty as malevolent as ever, despite being the sole guardian of her 3-year-old granddaughter. As her Emmy wins suggest, Close is a master at portraying the cutthroat lawyer, whose cold stare intimidates everyone from mortal enemies to loved ones. Her relationship with Ellen — whom Patty manipulated into joining the law firm back in the series premiere — has become more fascinating over the years, more so because the battle for power between the two women is often unspoken. Their relationship intensifies as the stakes get higher in the courtroom: They know they’re stronger together than apart, but each refuses to give the other any ground or show weakness.
Although DirecTV extended the series’s life by two seasons, and hasn’t officially said that Season 5 will be its last, it seems unlikely that the show will continue. (No word yet on a start date for Season 5, but production is scheduled to begin next month.) As it recedes into the sunset, so too does the likelihood of other sophisticated but poorly rated dramas getting a similar reprieve.
Late last year, DirecTV exec Chris Long told trade paper Variety that the network is unlikely to resurrect more series like “Damages.” “In the future,” Long said, “I think we’re going to move away from that model.”
Fourth season finale (one hour) airs Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 10 p.m. on DirecTV’s Audience Network.
The fourth season re-airs weekly on DirecTV’s Audience Network beginning Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 10 p.m., with episode encores Friday at 9 p.m.