NEW YORK – No TV drama sows intrigue while tossing viewers wicked curves like “Damages.”
When this crafty legal thriller premiered four years ago, it installed Glenn Close as high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes, who then hired Ellen Parsons (played by Rose Byrne) as her hotshot but callow protegee.
Before that initial season was over, the pair were not only pitted against fierce opposition, but at the same time, against each other. (Didn’t Patty try to have Ellen whacked?)
In the two seasons after that, the series never let up (while bringing Close two Emmys and a Golden Globe), even as viewers denied “Damages” more than a cult following. So its network, FX, pulled the plug.
Then, in the sort of dizzying reversal that’s standard practice for “Damages,” it sprang back to life with the news, a year ago, that it would move to the DirecTV satellite service, where it’s now guaranteed not one but two more seasons. It returns to the air Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT on DirecTV’s Audience Network, as wicked and addictive as ever (not to mention commercial-free).
“I think the show is even darker than before, if it could possibly have gotten any darker,” says Byrne. But as she speaks, her main concern isn’t darkness but the blazing sun above. Ivory-skinned and wearing a black pantsuit, she is seated alongside Close in the protective shade of a portable canopy, killing time between camera setups at Manhattan’s Battery Park. On this hot June day, they are there to shoot a scene for this season’s finale.
“We’re dealing with really serious stuff and bad people this season,” Byrne points out. “It’s pretty heavy material.”
In the season premiere, Ellen discovers that a former high school beau and decorated soldier has suffered a traumatic ordeal while working for High Star, a private security firm hired by the U.S. government to carry out special missions in Afghanistan. Ellen wants to wage a high-profile case against High Star on her friend’s behalf – and to boost her own career. She seeks help from Patty, who, uncharacteristically, warns her to leave this hornet’s nest alone.
It’s a story line that brings the unheeding Ellen back into Patty’s law-office lair after having struck out on her own last season.
“I was so relieved that Rosie was back at Hewes & Associates,” says Close. “It was so much more fun than last year, when I hardly saw her. I love it when we’re working together. Rosie and I have such a history together.”
The characters they play also have a history – one of collaboration, conflict and mind games played as blood sport.
“From the girl I was playing in the first season until now, I think Ellen has become more and more like Patty,” says Byrne. “She’s much tougher and wiser from all the hard knocks,” which, early on, included the brutal murder of her fiance.
“There’s a steeliness about her now.”
This year could bring Ellen even closer to Patty’s special blend of charm and ruthlessness.
Along the way, John Goodman guest stars as the founder and profiteering boss of High Star. Dylan Baker is a shadowy operative involved in the conspiracy that lies at the heart of the lawsuit. And Chris Messina plays Ellen’s traumatized friend – the man caught in between.
“My story is what the season revolves around – what I saw, what my mission was, who I told, who knew and didn’t know,” says Messina. “Ellen and Patty are trying to get me to speak up as a witness. John Goodman’s character is trying to get me to shut up. I kept thinking, ‘Well, next episode I could die.”’
Messina (“Vicky Christina Barcelona,” ”Ira and Abby“) is here to shoot a scene on the waterfront with Byrne. Spoiler alert: Their characters will have a brush with romance.
“I’m back from Afghanistan, and it’s nice that I get to take a walk on a beautiful day and kiss a beautiful girl,” Messina says. “This season, my character has been through hell!”
But his scene will have to wait. Hours pass as the company tries to complete the scene where Patty and Ellen meet for their final encounter of the season – a bitter faceoff at the railing overlooking New York Harbor.
Prolonging the shoot is a laundry list of noisy disruptions: helicopter racket overhead; emergency sirens; blasts of the horn from each Statue of Liberty-bound tour boat.
“W-w-w-welcome aboard!” a cheery voice erupts from a boat docked nearby. Another take is spoiled.
“It’s like a war zone,” moans Glenn Kessler, the episode’s director, after calling out, “Cut!”
He and his brother, Todd A. Kessler, plus Daniel Zelman are the co-creators of “Damages,” the trio that keeps the plot in delicious flux.
And it is this threesome that jointly settle on the real-life issue that frames each season’s narrative. The first year’s case was inspired by an Enron brand of stock manipulation. The second season, a corporation inflicting environmental damage drove the tale. And last season was built on a Bernie Madoff-scale Ponzi scheme.
Kessler says picking the bedrock topic begins when something in the news sparks among them a shared response of disbelief: “Can you BELIEVE blah-blah-blah?!”
“It helps to start from a place of fury at a scandal or misdeed,” he says, “and there’s a lot of terrible things going on to pick from. But we have to decide which one we can dispense into an actual story, and mete out over 10 episodes. And the story, at its heart, is Patty and Ellen.”
“That’s what I think is so unique about our show,” says Byrne. “It’s about two women. It’s not about their men, or about nail polish or hair – well, it’s a bit about hair.”
“It’s always about hair,” declares Close with a smile.
“It’s sometimes mentoring, sometimes competing,” says Byrne. “An interesting, complicated relationship between two women.”
Which begs the question: What is the relationship between these two stellar actresses?
“Oh, we hate each other,” Byrne jokes, pokerfaced.
“We’re always at each other’s throat,” Close agrees, “clawing at each other’s eyes.”
Then they share a brave laugh in the unforgiving heat.