In a Perfect World: Damages Would Be the Patron Show of Lost TV Actors
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 7, 2010
I was pretty late coming around to it, but aside from Breaking Bad, I don’t think there’s another show on TV right now that I enjoy watching as much as Damages. The main reason I was so hesitant to give it a chance early on is that I figured it was just another stodgy lawyer show–like any number of interchangeable TNT primetime dramas, but with better actors and a couple Emmy nods. Turns out it’s basically more like a serialized film noir–one set in the law profession, but almost only tangentially so at times–and a surprisingly suspenseful, weirdly sinister one as well. Even Glenn Close, who I figured would be irritatingly overbearing in her big TV crossover, is shockingly understated in her performance; not the ham-handed Acting I would have guessed but just solid, thoughtful acting. A good way to test for me about how much I enjoy a show is whether or not I watch the Coming Up Next Week credits–I know I shouldn’t do it, that it’ll just ruin some of the upcoming surprises, but if I’m engrossed enough in a show, I’ll watch it anyway, just because I need more. And I always need more Damages.
But the best thing about the show has to be the cast. I don’t mean the regular cast, though that’s pretty good too. Rather, I mean the crop of new faces that pops up every season, playing bit characters and key story cogs alike, to join Patty Hewes and company on their latest tawdry, corrupt, murderous adventure. Except the reason why its so great is that the new faces are really very rarely new–the great majority of the time, they’re played by actors we’re all very farmiliar with, and ever-so-pleasantly surprised to see in this new context. In this season alone, we’ve been treated to supporting performances from film stalwarts past and present (well, mostly past), like Campbell Scott, Lily Tomlin, Craig Bierko and Martin Short. (The latter is especially unsettling in a rare dramatic role as the shady lawyer of the Madoff-esque businessman and his family that the entire season revolves around, and the scene where he asks a prostitute to put his head on her lap is a shoo-in for Top Ten TV Moments of the Season). They all give pretty good performances, but their real draw is that it’s just fun to see these guys in such an unexpected capacity.
But the real thrill of Damages‘s cameo-stacked lineup is when they trot out the TV vets–especially those whose signature characters were killed off, or had their shows canceled. This season has been simply fantastic for spotting those. Holy shit, is that Michelle from 24 playing Campbell Scott’s ex-wife? Wow, Uncle Junior is still around–does he ever get sick of playing gangsters? And what the hell is Special Agent Lundy from Dexter doing in a nothing role as a shady real estate agent? (Sorry, I guess using the word “shady” to describe all these Damages characters is more than a little bit redundant). I didn’t even realize until writing this article that the Danielle Marchetti character was played by Madchen Amick–best known for playing Shelley on Twin Peaks a long-ass time ago. This is all nothing new, of course–last season featured The Wire alums Clarke Peters (Lester) and John Doman (Rawls) in key roles, while one-time O.C. patriarchs Tate Donovan (Marissa’s dad) and Michael Nourri (Summer’s dad) have been key fixtures on the show from the beginning.
I love it. Partly it’s because most of these guys are good actors, and they give good performances on Damages, but really, it’s just so great to get to see all of them again. When you lose a TV character–or worse, an entire TV show cast–from your life, it can be kind of like a very casual friend, the kind you only really see in a big group, moving across the country–their departure isn’t devastating, and their absence isn’t always even conspicuous, but when you think about it, it’s just kind of a bummer not to have them in your life anymore. Getting to see them again on a show like Damages is like that friend coming back into town for a weekend, reminding you of why you should have missed them–and whatever memories you have associated with them–all along. The makers of Damages, as well as the actors themselves, no doubt want viewers to view them just as actors playing a part, but for me, these people will always be the characters I first knew them as, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
So what I hope is that Damages takes this trend to its logical extreme, farming out all its casting openings to TV ex-patriots. One of the vampire/demon/leprechaun characters on True Blood gets the stake? Give ’em a role as an ethically-stretched stock broker. Southland doesn’t get renewed for a third season? Plenty of cop characters to go around here. Singer gets voted off of American Idol? I dunno, put ’em in the back as a paralegal or some such. There’s no retirement plan for TV veterans that I’m aware of–why not hold Damages as a back-up plan? Not that just anyone who’s ever been on a Law and Order episode can use it, but if you’ve proven your worth as a quality TV That Guy/Girl, you should at least be able to automatically get on the show’s waiting list. It’d be nice to have a quality primetime TV drama that looks after its medium’s own, and though Damages is a very good show, it’s not so great that the occasional distraction in the form of a semi-out-of-place cameo isn’t also appreciated. It’s the perfect halfway home for primetime pros while they try to get back on their feet.
Maybe they’re saving the best cameo for the final twist ending this season. Who are we guessing turns out to be the guy who kills Tom? Boone from LOST? Sal from Mad Men? Smash from Friday Night Lights? I can’t wait to find out.