Damages: a tale of two women

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damagesI just finished watching the first season of Damages on DVD. Before I launch into a review of how it presented women, I want to detail a couple of visceral reactions I had to the show, so you can judge for yourself if they colored my view:

  1. The premise is basically Devil’s Advocate crossed with a touch of season 1 of Alias. And they say “Trust no one” (from “X-files”) a lot. That’s okay.
  2. They repeatedly lifted entire scenes from Devil’s Advocate, like every five minutes, or so it felt. That’s not okay. Dear TV Writers Who Call Intellectual Property Theft An “Homage”: you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  3. That really got on my nerves. I concluded the show was derivative and overly stylistic, and highly predictable. I didn’t like it.

But – yes, there is a but – I have similar opinions about a lot of shows. At least there’s a lot of positive to say about Damages when it comes to the women.

First, that it features two of ‘em. Yikes! Run for the hills, it’s a hoard! Yes, according to the film and TV community, two female leads is at least one and half too many for most viewers. And they really are leads. The show isn’t nominally about them but spending most of its screen time on the guys. In fact, the name of Glenn Close’s character, Patty Hewes, gets spoken about eleventy billion times per episode and everyone thinks about her all the time. Everyone wants to work for Patty. Everyone is scared of Patty. Everyone wonders what Patty is up to. Everyone needs to know where Patty is. I see this on a lot of shows and am never sure if it’s just lamentable writing (it’s like fan fiction where all the characters are obsessed with that fabulous Mary Sue during all their waking moments) or a ham-fisted TV convention for WE WEREN’T SURE YOU KNEW WHO THE LEAD WAS ‘KTHANX. But since it is so common for male lead characters, so I’m willing to take it as a step toward equality for female leads.

Another positive is that it’s not a show about two women, it’s a show about two people who happen to be women. Patty and Ellen (Rose Byrne) have a sort of mentorship, except that Patty is using Ellen and Ellen’s story arc is to figure that out. This is typically a male dynamic, as seen in a number of TV spy dramas over the years (and Devil’s Advocate). Alias broke the mold by making the apprentice female. Damages takes the next step and makes the mentor a woman, too, a la The Devil Wears Prada. Patty’s gender comes without explanation, which is a beautiful thing. No one’s ever questioned how a woman could be one of the most feared and revered lawyers in New York. She just is.

Patty’s deceit and manipulation could easily have looked like a female stereotype, but almost no character in the show can be trusted. Everyone’s got an agenda, and this includes the men. Against this backdrop, Patty is just an individual who’s mastered the culture of her profession.

Ellen’s naivety is a bit overplayed for my taste – note how her voice goes from whiny and girlish in the flashbacks to deeper and more authoritative in the up-to-date scenes – but I must admit it would be hard for even a piece of moss watching the show to miss the point: the naivety gets stripped away by the end of the season. Not only does she realize Patty has played her, she hatches a plan to play Patty right back. This is why I think I’ll watch season 2 and give the show another chance. I’m interested to see if they carry this off.

The one glaring negative for me is that in a show where almost every single character has an agenda, the only two women of color have pretty much nothing going on. They are Felicia, one of Patty’s associates, and one of the cops investigating the crime from which the whole season is a flashback. They’re exactly what they appear to be, and they don’t do much. And I predicted as much from about the third episode. This is frustrating because even an unnamed character listed as “Blonde Woman” in IMDB gets to hit on a guy and then later try to shoot him, all in about three minutes of screen time.

But all in all, I put this show in the win column for those of us who see no reason why characters should always default to male unless their vaginas are required for story advancement or titillation.

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