3 heads are better than 1 creating 'Damages'
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) — They created "Damages" as a coming-of-age story like no other.
Here, when this legal drama-thriller started back in 2007, was the smart but naive young lawyer, Ellen Parsons, landing a dream job as the protegee of legendary high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes.
But it was quickly obvious these two women weren't going to work happily ever after.
No, things have been tough for Ellen who, steadily sadder but wiser from her toxic ties with Patty, is hellbent on destroying this ruthless, scheming former boss — if Patty doesn't destroy her first.
Now, in the series' fifth and final season, they will square off against each other both in the courtroom and out in a showdown from which at least one of them may not come out alive.
This, after all, is the series whose theme song warns, "When I am through with you, there won't be anything left." Starring Glenn Close as Patty and Rose Byrne as Ellen, "Damages" returns Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT on DirecTV.
"We're bringing full circle what happened since the first season," says Glenn Kessler, who, along with his brother Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman, are the series' creators and executive producers. "It's been terrifically fun to go back and reinvest in all the horrors and manipulation and deceit, and really blow it up as both women go at each other, full force."
If it's fun for the creators, it certainly promises to be fun, as well as arresting, for the audience.
Once again, this "Damages" season is framed by a legal case pulled from the headlines. In the past, Enron-level stock manipulation and a Bernie Madoff-grade Ponzi scheme have fueled the action. Now inspiration is provided by WikiLeaks as a website called McClarenTruth.org gets its Julian Assange-esque founder in hot water. Channing McClaren (played by Ryan Phillippe) needs a lawyer fast when one of his leaks exposes the identity of a major whistleblower with tragic results.
"But unlike the past, there isn't a clear-cut antagonist this season," says Todd Kessler, joining his partners (collectively self-identified as "KZK") for a recent interview, just a week after production wrapped. "This time, there's a lot of gray, because we didn't want the audience to side with either Ellen or Patty. We want to keep them guessing."
At different points through the series' run, Ellen has worked for Patty at Hewes and Associates, been employed by another New York law firm and jumped the fence for a job in the District Attorney's office (not to mention her stint as an FBI informant hoping to nail Patty for having tried to kill her).
"Patty's done certain things," Ellen tells a friend in the season premiere. "The woman belongs in prison."
Now Ellen is starting her own practice and holding out for just the right case to make a splash.
"You hate me?" seethes Patty in another scene, daring Ellen to take her on in the McClarenTruth suit. "You want to end this once and for all? Now's your (bleeping) chance!"
As before, the show titillates the audience with glimpses of the future that hint at where the battle may lead. In the premiere, a particularly startling and troubling sight three months hence should keep viewers coming back in weeks ahead to see how the story's twists will get them to that shocking resolution.
"We try to raise the intensity level of the storytelling with the two different time frames — to show what happens at the end of the season early on, and work our way toward that," Todd Kessler says.
To cook up such a genre-busting show (with its blend of melodrama, courtroom conflict, whodunit and probing of urgent social issues) would seemingly demand a laserlike focus — which "Damages" appears to have, proving three heads can be better than one.
Glenn Kessler (who wrote for the CBS crime drama "Robbery Homicide Division"), Todd Kessler (a writer for "Providence" and "The Sopranos") and Zelman (whose credits include the screenplay for the film "Fool's Gold") joined forces to create a saga of an irresistible if unhinged boss, and a young hire under her spell even as she's resisting.
But how does the KZK triumvirate craft that concept into finished episodes?
"The whole process is rough-and-tumble — and then two votes beats one," explains Zelman. "But, more often than not, it doesn't come down to that. We share a baseline of common sensibility, a common desire to push the boundaries, so, in that sense, we're all very united. On any given story point or character decision we may disagree, but we have a conversation and then the clock runs out, and we make a choice."
Through the five seasons of "Damages," its storytelling has often been tailored to the strengths of the blue chip actors (such as Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin and Timothy Olyphant) who populated each story arc. But, oddly enough, they often joined the series without benefit of seeing anything on paper.
Explains Glenn Kessler, "It was just a conversation that led to casting William Hurt, John Goodman, Martin Short: 'Here's what we're thinking about, and here's where it could go. And we'll cater this role to you if you're gonna play it.'"
Besides Ryan Phillippe, this season's troupe includes John Hannah (in a role far removed from the gladiator magnate he played in the TV series "Spartacus"), Jenna Elfman (whose stirring performance will make viewers forget "Dharma and Greg") and Judd Hirsch (best known from "Taxi").
But the trio hasten to note that it is the on-screen dynamic duo who, from the start, guaranteed the unpredictable nature of the series, helping steward it through its breathless evolution.
Says Todd Kessler, "Glenn and Rose have been such leaders for us on the set in working with those actors and explaining: Trust the process, it will get you there."
Apparently so. And the process that makes "Damages" unique is unorthodox, risky, even crazily ambitious.
Also the easiest for KZK.
"The thing that excites you most is the easiest thing to work on," Zelman observes. "If that means it's technically more difficult to pull off, so be it."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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