Monday, March 29, 2010

Damages and Why I Love It

(I wrote the bulk of this post before tonight's STELLAR episode. For an excellent write-up of tonight's episode, visit the Televisionary Blog.)

One of my pet peeves is the assumption that television adds no value to life. While I can agree that a lot of people probably sit in front of the tube instead of engaging in their lives, it's not really my place to judge that. And I happen to love television. Not all of it. I have gotten to the point in my life where I can really only watch a little bit. There are weeks when I barely feel I can squeeze in the time to watch LOST.

Like books, there are quite a few good TV shows out there and each person has to choose what they want to watch. Some people may choose to watch a fun show and I don't really begrudge them that choice. There's something delicious about sitting down to a show that doesn't tax your emotions or thinking. My personal favorite for that is The Vampire Diaries.

But there are quite a few good shows that will give you the opportunity to think if you want to. Really, it's up to you how much you want to engage or simply be passive when watching TV.

Which brings me to Damages. I loved the first season of this show, but struggled to stay with it the second season. This season, however, has been absolutely outstanding and has given me pause to think many times.

On the surface, this is a show about the cutthroat nature of people, lawyer Patty Hewes who goes after the big corporations and greedy giants who have cheated investors and employees out of their rightful money in one way or another. Patty is ruthless, it seems there's nothing she won't do to win her cases, often at the unbelievable expense of others. It's also about Ellen, a young lawyer who works for Patty in the first season and soon finds herself losing bits of herself in the high cost game of law and power.

These two women are the heart of the show (if the show has a heart), Patty and her continual lust for control and power and Ellen's constant crisis of identity and conscience.

The storytelling is extremely clever as well, starting with the beginning and end of the story and filling in the pieces in between as the season progresses. This is such a fun way to test our assumptions and skills of prediction. Like a puzzle, the viewer works to figure out how the story comes together.

It's not a flashy show, there's no soaring music to guide your emotions. It's essential to pay attention to the dialogue to follow what's going on. It's impossible to always tell who you can trust, who is working on the side of good...are any of them? As the characters battle their own demons, their selfishness,lust, and greed their observations on life are worth considering.

I really appreciated last week's episode and I'm writing this right before the show comes on for tonight. What I loved about last week's episode is that it encapsulates the entire series as Frobrisher (the first season's villain) came to terms with his feelings about Patty. Apparently, Frobrisher is on some sort of quest for redemption, he's written a memoir, he's working to develop alternative energy, but manipulative as ever, he plays his cards just right to get the man he wants to star in the commercials in exchange for the rights to option his story for film. Only, they want to portray Patty as the villain. Frobrisher resists at first. Something about this path to redemption and his conspiring with Patty last season has warmed him towards her. He insists the filmmakers set up a meeting with Patty, so they can see she's not really so ruthless as she seems. He wants them to see there are many dimensions to Patty, that she was simply doing what she had to do.

However, at the meeting, when they ask Patty about the Arthur Frobisher she knows, Patty says, "The Arthur Frobisher I know is a despicable bully. He stole from his employees, then he manipulated the system to escape prison with a slap on the wrist... Do what you want; I don't much like movies."

Frobisher is filled with indignation and rage. All his plans to have a layered Patty Hewes go out the window and he wholeheartedly agrees she ought to be portrayed as the villain.

Ah yes, life. This is the very thing I love about Damages, just when we want to feel sympathy for Patty as we watch her with family falling apart, she does something that feels nearly unthinkable to our own sense of morality. We can never be sure what her true motives are or what scheming is going on in her mind. She certainly doesn't have moral ground to stand on, yet she is clear in her own judgement and sense of right and wrong with others. She is a compelling and complex character, who certainly does a lot of good, but uses questionable means to accomplish her goals. And Frobisher's reaction to her assessment of him shows he hasn't really carved out a path to redemption, he is still reactionary in his thinking, and unable to truly live in the gray places he spoke of earlier in the show.

It reminds me of life--the way we see people depends so much on how they react to us. We certainly struggle to place them in any context apart from the way we feel we've been treated by them. It's hard for us to objectively look at the narrative of our lives and frame our perceptions of people outside of our direct experiences with them. We constantly want to feel they are good as well. Frobisher wishes to believe Patty was doing what she did because it was the right thing to do at the time, and not for any other reason. If he views Patty's actions as having been part of what leads him to redemption, he is at peace with them. But on the other side of the journey, when she still has no respect for him, he is forced to realize there might have been more at work than the story of his own life. He is unendingly self-centered.

The characters on Damages aren't necessarily all that likable. But they are so real they almost breathe, they are complex, and believable. And watching their stories unfold reminds me of the truth of life.

If you've never watched Damages, you must start from the beginning with Season One. It does have language and some violence. It's definitely dark, but it's worth it.

Also, on a fun sidenote, Damages has my favorite theme song for a television show currently on the air. I found out from the ever fantastic Televisionary that the whole song was available for download on iTunes. It's a pretty rockin song. You can see the theme song below:


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