Television loves the inherent drama of trials but chafes against the complexities of the law, which is why the intriguing “Damages” — an FX drama starring Glenn Close — both warrants a second look and merits a note of caution. Dealing with high-stakes litigation, the opening statement establishes Close as a legendary plaintiffs’ attorney and Rose Byrne as the ambitious young lawyer drawn into her web. Yet despite smart dialogue and foreshadowing of conflict, there are doubts as to whether this is just another fictionalized legal show where the behavior is so unethical everybody should be disbarred by episode three.
Close already made her mark on FX via an extended guest stint on “The Shield,” and she’s found another showy vehicle as Patty Hewes, though the awe-struck, hushed tones with which others discuss the character actually do her a bit of a disservice. Indeed, after Ellen (Byrne) is warned about Hewes while interviewing with a rival firm, you half expect her to arrive blasting smoke out her nostrils.
Then again, that’s not far off. Through her subordinate Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan), Hewes insists that Ellen be available to meet at any point on Saturday — inconveniently, the day her sister is getting married. When Ellen balks, Hewes shows up at the reception to size up her aspiring protege. Cue brimstone.
Hewes is in the midst of a potential nine-figure civil case involving corner-cutting corporate malfeasance, pitting herself against mogul Arthur Frobisher (an excellent Ted Danson) and his smarmy lawyer (Zeljko Ivanek), who will stop at — nothing? We’re not sure yet — to emerge victorious. Meanwhile, the just-engaged Ellen wrestles with balancing a relationship versus the demands Hewes puts on her.
Created by Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, “Damages” continues this summer of “The Sopranos” progeny, with the Kesslers and Coulter having worked on that series, as did “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. Here, the producers have assembled a solid cast and deftly employ flashbacks to ratchet up suspense as to where this chain of events might lead.
Still, the template feels a little too familiar — much like “Wall Street,” with Close approximating the seductive, win-at-all-costs Gordon Gekko role and the initially bland Byrne as the promising young gun whose ascent might come at the price of her soul. Even through two episodes, moreover, it’s fuzzy how long the show’s mystery will persist, as it flashes back from six months ahead to Ellen’s entry into Hewes’ all-encompassing orbit.
Not that there’s anything wrong with teasing out plot threads or an age-old story of temptation if it’s well-told, and there’s a certain joy in the relish with which Close sinks her teeth into the part. Still, “Damages” will need to maintain a toehold in reality that will quickly disappear if the legal pyrotechnics spiral into murder and mayhem — one of those corner-cutting tricks writers and executives tend to employ when they don’t trust a show enough to mount a slam-dunk case for its appeal.