The most savage legal series on TV, Damages launched on FX in 2007 with Glenn Close running the show as Patty Hewes, the alpha wolf of New York’s high-priced attorneys. Hewes walked away from that very eventful season with a huge win in her class action lawsuit against arrogant millionaire CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and a failed murder attempt against her newest hire, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), and Close walked away with an Emmy for Best Actress (one of the show’s three awards). Damages: The Complete Second Season (Sony) picks up in the wake of those events, with Ellen now working as an informant for the FBI’s efforts to put Patty away and Patty looking for the right case to follow up the win that made her the superstar of New York litigators. This season features what is arguably the most impressive cast on television, including William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Timothy Olyphant, Ted Danson, Mario Van Peebles, Darryl Hammond, and Clarke Peters and John Doman of The Wire. Hurt is old friend and professional colleague Daniel Purcell, who comes to Patty with hints of a corporate conspiracy and then becomes a client when he’s the prime suspect in the murder of his wife, Gay Harden is the corporate litigator who takes on Patty and Olyphant is a member of Ellen’s support group with his own secrets.
Close plays Patty with a cold cunning and unapologetic ego—she plays to win and she doesn’t seem to care who gets chewed up in the process—while Hurt keeps us guessing at Purcell’s motives and allegiances when he double-crosses Patty on the stand at a time he’s supposed to be a friendly witness against the corporation that seems to have corrupted him as well. Everyone is playing an angle here and you can’t trust anyone, not even the FBI or the EPA, which keeps the audience off balance through the thirteen-episode story. And as in the first season, they almost never step into a courtroom. Forget courtroom theatrics and dramatic summation speeches to the jury, this all about behind the scenes machinations and hardball tactics of legal gamesmanship.
Networks were never able to make this structure work past a single season, but the shorter seasons and smaller audiences of cable, where viewers tune in specifically as an alternative to networks, makes it a natural here. I’m not a fan of the structure of flashforwards and flashbacks, all carefully carved down to tease, deceive and misdirect until the season finally catches up the flashes and spells out a very different story, but it does the job. And if things wrap up a little too neatly in terms of Patty and Ellen’s story, the collateral damage of last season’s unfinished business, and the stray threads of other characters following their own agendas, scuffs up the tidy plotting and provides some narrative surprises and some unexpected closure. The season serves as a wrap for the issues of the first season as well, if need be, though no fear: the third season begins at the end of January 2010. Close’s second Emmy win may have helped that decision.
13 episodes on three discs in a box set with two thinpak cases, with commentary on four episodes (including the season debut and the final two shows of the season) with the creators and stars. Glenn Close joins writers/creators Todd A. Kessler and Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zellman in the final episode and they engage one another in an illuminating conversation on the collaborative relationship between writers, producers and actors in the development of characters and the evolution of stories in a series. Ted Danson, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant and Tate Donovan join the creators on other commentary tracks, and the set also features the brief but concise “Season Two: Post Mortem” on the approach to the second season and the use of flashbacks and flashforwards in the narrative structure, short “Character Profiles” on seven key players this season and deleted scenes among the supplements.
Weeds: Season Five (Lionsgate) – Nobody makes epically poor parenting decisions as sexy and as watchable as Mary-Louise Parker does as widowed mother and suburban pot dealer Nancy Botwin on this Showtime original series. She begins the season carrying the child of possessive Tijuana drug kingpin Esteban Reyes (Demián Bichir), but that glow (apart from being the natural radiance of Parker) may be due as much to her relief that she’s no longer targeted for assassination by Reyes as to her pregnancy. Meanwhile, left to their own devices, eldest son Silas (Hunter Parrish) partners up with the eternally irresponsible and perpetually stoned Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon) to open a medicinal marijuana store (which brings its own set of headaches) and youngest son Shane (Alexander Gould) becomes the school dealer. And of course Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), the manipulative and self-absorbed suburban ice-queen whose own daughter disowns, is back from her adventures across the border. The show is getting tired and repetitious I fear, but its bent social satire is still weirdly funny and entertaining in its own tweaky way. Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an appearance as Nancy’s middle-class sister and watch for Alanis Morissette as her obstetrician. 13 episodes on three discs in a fold-out digipak (using 100% recycled paper and DVD trays), plus commentary on select episodes by creator Jenji Kohan and others and brief featurettes. No dates have been set but the official website promises more Weeds in 2010.
Law & Order: The Seventh Year (Universal) – “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.” The 1996-1997 season of the crime-drama that won’t die opens with in the wake of an eventful sixth season climax: Lennie (Jerry Orbach) is back on the wagon and going to his meetings and McCoy (Sam Waterston), still reeling over the death of Claire Kincaid, clashes with the new ADA, Jamie Ross (Cary Lowell), who comes in guns blazing to a murder trial. Lauren Graham guest stars in a three-part story that takes them to Los Angeles, where Jamie’s ex-husband (Keith Szarabajka) shows up as opposing counsel and turns out to be a real sleazebag who threatens Jamie’s custody of their child to get leverage in the case. The cast may change but the brilliant dramatic structure and the always fascinating procedural and investigative turns keeps the show consistent from season to season. Benjamin Bratt, S. Epatha Merkerson and Steven Hill fill out the regular cast this season. 23 episodes on five discs in a box set of three thinpak cases.
thirtysomething: The Complete Second Season (Shout! Factory) – By season two of the paradigm-shifting series, the independent advertising agency created by Michael (Ken Olin) and Elliot (Tim Busfield) is floundering and their lives aren’t doing much better. Michael and Hope (Mel Harris) are trying for a second child, Elliot is trying to win Nancy (Patricia Wettig) back and Gary (Peter Horton) is trying to rekindle things with Melissa (Melanie Mayron). New to the ensemble this season are David Clennon as Miles Drentell, the smug, manipulative, incredibly successful ad mogul who makes the lives of Michael and Elliot even more miserable, and Patricia Kalember as Gary’s new girlfriend Susannah, a tetchy character who no one in his circle of friends and lovers really warms to. Created by director/writer/producer team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, it was drawn in part from their own lives. Yes, it’s yuppies dealing with the same problems their parents faced, but the series confronted the genuine frustrations that real people faced in lives that were never as easy as they looked or as happy as they were supposed to be. It was a success because audiences recognized themselves in it. 17 episodes on five discs in a box set of three thinpak cases, with commentary on four episodes by the writers and directors and four featurettes. “Mad Ad Man: Miles Drentell” and “Inside the Outsider: Susannah Hart” are portraits of the newest additions to the cast but “The Metamorphosis of Miles” is the gem here: actor David Clennon talks us through two takes on the character with the original dailies from his debut appearance as illustration, offering a particularly illuminating peak into the process of creating a character.
Also new this week (or within the last couple of weeks) are Dallas: The Complete Twelfth Season (Warner), Robin Hood: Season Three (BBC) and The Simpsons: 20 Years – The Complete Twentieth Season (Fox), which features “The Twentieth Anniversary Special Sneak Peak by Morgan Spurlock.”