Can I Trust You? – An Impression of Damages

Lawyers. Lawyers and doctors are a staple of television. Anyone who’s done some channel surfing can probably name a few shows about one or the other or both. But I have a question for you channel surfers: do you know why there are so many? I don’t. But I have an idea. Which is good because I’m one of the writers working on Fear or Favour. It’s a web series that follows two lawyers and their kin. That probably sounds familiar. But that’s just the bones. The meat is what makes it better.

Let’s move on from that metaphor into the meaning behind the title of this blog article. As someone who is not now and never has been a lawyer, writing for Fear or Favour required some research. One of the most important things I had to learn was what makes someone want to watch a show about lawyers. After watching pilot episodes of a few lawyer based TV-shows I had some ideas. But I’m going to talk about all the lawyer-based shows I’ve seen. Right now I’m talking about Damages.

What’s Damages about? Trust. Ambition. And one big question: Is it more important to get what you want than who you have to cross off your list to get it?

But I’m jumping ahead. Damages is a drama that follows Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a young lawyer seeking her first job, who gets the opportunity to work with Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), a big name in the New York attorney scene. Ellen is warned about Patty Hewes, but like any horror movie character she walks right into that basement and is instantly ensnared. The title of the show is in reference to the area of law Patty Hewes specializes in: litigations. The first thing I learned about writing a show featuring lawyers is that they specialize and there are a few options. Criminal law (see Fear or Favour’s Zainub) and family law (see Fear or Favour’s primary protagonist aka Scott) are the specializations I had prior knowledge of. The first makes an appearance on Damages in a delightfully surprising way.

Damages’ opening is catching. Ellen Parsons is introduced to the audience exiting an elevator wearing a green coat and blood. Season one splits episodes between two times: the six months prior to finding a blood-splattered Ellen and the events after/during Ellen’s arrest. When I watched the pilot I was wowed not only by the smart characters, the quick-paced scenes, and finally being able to put a face to the name Glenn Close, but also that there were two time lines. I thought there was no way they could keep it up for a full season. I lost that bet. What made it work was utilizing the conventions of foreshadowing, but in reverse. Every flash-forward scene was directly followed by a scene that showed how something came to be or how relationships started or changed. The image of the discarded wedding ring is immediately followed by Ellen’s boyfriend proposing to her. Cause and effect were never far from each other. As audiences often enjoy being amateur detectives when shows present us with clues, this really works. Damages knows an audience wants to connect the dots, so Damages gives the audience dots. The structure earned a round of applause.

What I really want to talk about is what makes lawyer-centric shows work and Damages has it. The first is broken relationships and strained family ties. It’s what makes shows of all genres work. The audience wants to see parallels to their own struggles with co-workers, friends, family, and etcetera. Patty Hewes mentions ambition a few times in season one, and she specifically advises her protégé Ellen that ambition and family don’t mix. One destroys the other. SPOILERS Patty’s son plants bombs to give his mom a friendly (sarcasm) scare and Ellen’s fiancé is murdered (after giving her the ultimatum to choose him or the job). Fear or Favour features some strained relationships too. Scott isn’t the world’s best dad, but he has two boys. If he’d been a little more involved with his boys by prying his eyes away from work for a second he might not have been so surprised by the sad incident that took place in his own home. Zainub sleeps in her office. She’d rather live in her work than face home. Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons both learn the consequences of putting their ambition ahead of people. A good drama has good consequences—that’s entertainment. Fear or Favour has some complicated consequences for Scott and his boys within the first episode. It can only grow from there.

Something Fear or Favour and Damages has in common structurally, which is different from most lawyer-based shows, is that there is one main case featured. The Hewes firm is implied to have other cases going on off-camera, but the big case against Arthur Frobisher dominates the lives of the show’s protagonists. Thus it’s the case dominates the most screen time. It’s more common to have a new case every episode or ever couple episodes, but not Damages. Not Fear or Favour. Because what our web series has in common with the Damages’ main case is that it’s multi-faceted. It’s about more than written laws. The people and the moral grey area that comes with using the law is all these characters can think about. It’s the reason why there are so many law dramas. Lawyers act in the best interest of the client. They’re not superheroes. They’re you and me in suits with all that moral grey area that we can’t help but be fascinated by.

The final thing that struck me about Damages is the theme of trust. While the title refers to litigation, it’s also about the damage the characters inflict upon each other. There’s a lot of manipulation and lying. People keep secrets. I think Ray Fisk (Zeljko Ivanek) says it best in episode 11: “I like the relationship between attorney and client. There’s intimacy there. Trust. Someone puts themself in your hands.” Choosing to trust or not trust effects every character on the show at one point or another. Sadly trust usually leads to dismal consequences (including the murder of a character played by Twilight actor Peter Facinelli). While it’s disappointing to see lies so encouraged, it does put into sharp perspective the importance of having a theme. A mission statement. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that theme.

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