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Damages Assessment

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Close, left, with Byrne. Larry Riley / FX

Reviewing Saving Grace yesterday, I wrote that I liked Holly Hunter’s performance better than the show. Tonight FX unveils its own big-actress showcase with Glenn Close in the legal thriller Damages, and as they said in the 7-Up commercials, it’s the same thing, only different: this time, I liked the performance better than the character being performed.

I don’t mean “like” in the personal sense, because you’re not much meant to like Patty Hewes, the sharky, high-stakes Manhattan litigator that Close plays, or at least, you’re not meant to be that comfortable with her. At turns charming and terrifying, Hewes is dedicated, though whether dedicated to justice or simply victory is not entirely clear, and this series turns on the question off how far she will go to win one case in particular. The case is an Enron-style pump-and-dump prosecution on behalf of former employees against CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). In the first episode, Hewes takes on a young lawyer, Ellen (Rose Byrne), with a personal connection to the case, though everyone warns her that Patty has a reputation for using and discarding employees. As the story unfolds, we see that that may be more terrifyingly true than Ellen suspects. Or maybe not.

It may be a compliment to both FX and Close that I was a little disappointed with the first two episodes, even though, purely as a thriller, they’re thoroughly entertaining and well-written. What I’m missing, and I hope the series provides eventually, is the kind of deep attention to character that we see in other FX antihero dramas like The Shield and Rescue Me. The show is too intensely focused on the twists of the story, John Grisham-style, to really put meat on any of its characters. We see much more of Patty’s manners than of her psyche and motivation; she scares us, but doesn’t yet intrigue us the way Vic Mackey–crook, dedicated cop, flawed father–did after the fantastic pilot of The Shield.

Damages is, in a way, less ambitious than Saving Grace: it doesn’t want to swing for any metaphysical fences, it just wants to tell a good exciting story, and within these more limited parameters it does a better job within the first two episodes. And Close does a fantastic job with the Patty, turning from jocular to fierce on a dime and suggesting more depth to the character than the script has given her yet.

At one point, for instance, Patty advises Ellen not to have kids: “Ruins your ambition.” The scene could easily cast her as a stereotypical ice bitch, who’s shed her humanity and unsexed herself, a la Lady Macbeth, to achieve her goals. But Close suggests that Patty–who is, in fact, a mother–has a more complicated view of the subject than it seems at first, reading the line with just the right shadings of ambivalence and weariness. I don’t know if Damages will eventually develop Patty to the point where she’s as interesting as the trial she’s pursuing. But for now, Close has made her case.