Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is still an expensively clad, unrelenting near-sociopath, and her former protege, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), still thinks she can imitate Patty's moves and not end up exactly like her. As always, there's a time puzzle that is introduced in the first episode of the season: We see events in the present day and a few months down the road, and eventually we'll see how those various occurrences weave together to form one narrative.
Some things do change on the show. Each season is anchored by a different ripped-from-the-headlines story, and -- this is big -- Ellen wears her hair down for much of the new season. Byrne's more confident performance is of a piece with Ellen's ever-so-slightly sassier hairstyle.
But the one enduring thing I like most about 'Damages' is that it's basically summer camp for character actors.
Of course, there's still plenty of personal and professional business between Ellen and Patty, and though the actresses play the women's passive-aggressive jousting well, what I look forward to each season are the performances of the actors orbiting around those two. I've only seen the first couple of episodes of the show's fourth season, and though some of its tics can irritate at times, the "thespians' working holiday" aspect of the show has never failed to please me.
This year, the plum roles go to John Goodman, who plays the head of a private security firm with big contracts in Afghanistan, and to guest-actor all-star Dylan Baker, who plays High Star Security's amoral, wonderfully disheveled fixer. These actors, particularly Baker, chomp down on these roles with undisguised enjoyment, and who can blame them? Actors always say the bad-guy roles are the most fun, and there's enough ambiguity written into each role to make these men more than mere mustache-twirling villains.
Actually, though he's only in a couple of scenes in the first two episodes, actor Tom Noonan quietly steals the show out from under the assembled big guns. Noonan played New York detective Victor Huntley in a previous season of 'Damages,' and I won't give away how he returns to Patty's orbit, but it's wonderful to see how Huntley unsettles Patty by refusing to play her mind games. He's not intimidated by her, and the way Noonan masterfully underplays his scenes should be required viewing in acting classes everywhere.
Every season, 'Damages' subtly tries to make the case that it's more than a mere murder mystery or lawyer show; the idea is that it's Saying Something about modern culture or a current controversy. But whatever 'Damages' is setting out to say about private contractors and the ends and means of fighting modern wars, it's not particularly compelling or original, and during the past decade, it's been said more cogently and forcefully in any number of op-ed columns, books and articles.
'Damages' may want to think it's more than an expensive bit of escapist fare with film noir overtones, but I don't require it to be anything more than that. At times, it's maddeningly slow-moving and those oblique time puzzles can be an unwelcome distraction, but this high-class melodrama is what it is, and each season, there are plenty of shiny things to distract me from the show's relatively minor flaws and pretensions.
The writer/producers of 'Damages,' some of whom used to work on 'The Sopranos,' have even given Patty a shrink this season, just to drive home the point that she's every bit the unchanging narcissist that Tony Soprano was in his time. And the point there, I'm guessing, is not that we'll see Patty make some psychological breakthrough (the very thought is laughable at this stage). The point, unsurprisingly, is to watch Close spar with Fisher Stevens, who deftly plays her mildly frustrated shrink.
'Damages' isn't on the level of 'The Sopranos,' but, like Ellen Parsons, it knows what it's about these days. And if you want to see some prime, grade-A Acting, well, you could do a lot worse.
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