Another terrific series that did much to designate the last decade as a new golden age for dramatic television will come to an end next week. I’m speaking of “Damages,” the consistently chilling legal thriller starring Glenn Close as ruthless attorney Patty Hewes that began life in 2007 on FX, where it ran for three seasons before moving over to DirecTV for its final two.
I’ll always think of “Damages” in the same company as the many other broadcast and basic cable series that made the first 10 years of this new millennium a remarkable time for advertiser-supported dramatic television. The other standouts during that time included NBC’s “The West Wing” (which actually began in September 1999), ABC’s “Lost,” CBS’ “The Good Wife,” Fox’s “24” and “House,” “Friday Night Lights” (which also migrated from its original home, on NBC, to DirecTV, where it ran for three seasons), FX’s “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy,” AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” TNT’s “The Closer” and Syfy’s “Battlestar Galactica.” Several have continued into the current decade, but many of them are gone, and others have end dates in sight. Regardless, they all blossomed during a time that ought to be remembered as one of the most extraordinary in television history.
A few new gems (FX’s “Justified” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” among them) have come along since then, yet I can’t help but wonder: Will the decade we’re in ultimately produce as much extraordinary drama as the one just passed, a 10-year period whose television output becomes even more humbling when one factors in such pay-cable accomplishments as Showtime’s “Dexter” and HBO’s “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire”?
“Damages” did much to support my hindsight appreciation of TV drama in recent years. Powered by a narrative dynamic that often played with chronological exposition, it was an uncommonly complex and challenging show. There is no underestimating its impact, alone or in tandem with other sophisticated scripted fare. In fact, I cannot recall another development that did more to establish the aughts as a new golden age of television drama than the decision by an actress of Glenn Close’s stature to star in a weekly dramatic series.
Close’s move to series television in 2007 signaled more than a pop-cultural shift in smart entertainment away from the multiplex and onto smaller screens. It was also a key factor in the mid-decade popularity of mature women in leading series roles. Suddenly, Glenn Close, Sally Field (in ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters”), Mary-Louise Parker (in Showtime’s “Weeds”) and Kyra Sedgwick (in “The Closer”) were among the most exciting performers on television, and they were all reaping Golden Globe and/or Emmy Awards for their efforts. They were eventually joined on pay cable by Edie Falco and Laura Linney in the Showtime comedy-dramas “Nurse Jackie” and “The Big C,” respectively, and on broadcast by Juliana Margulies on “The Good Wife” and Kathy Bates on NBC’s “Harry’s Law.” This was a hugely welcome shift away from the teens and twenty-somethings -- and the thirty-somethings acting like teens and twenty-somethings – who had come to dominate television in the ‘90s, when youth-driven The WB and a still young Fox were intoxicating media darlings.
Just as I worry that the high point of this modern golden age of television drama may be behind us, I’m concerned that the glow surrounding the popularity of series built around middle-aged women may also be dimming. Falco and Margulies are still front and center on their respective shows, but Close, Sedgwick, Field and Bates are now off the scene, and Parker and Linney soon will be. Jessica Lange has proven to be the irresistible lure of FX’s “American Horror Story” and Connie Britton has the lead role in the eagerly anticipated new ABC serial “Nashville,” but I see little else on the horizon that suggests leading ladies of a certain age are going to remain in vogue. (As of this writing, the future of USA Network’s Sigourney Weaver vehicle “Political Animals” remains unclear.) All is well for veteran actresses on the supporting front: Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda and Sharon Gless this summer have turned in award-worthy work on “Political Animals,” HBO’s “The Newsroom” and USA’s “Burn Notice,” respectively.
As for “Damages” itself, this fifth and final season has told a riveting tale about a deadly scandal surrounding a WikiLeaks-like Web site while continuing the ongoing story of the confrontational relationship between the fearful Patty Hewes and her moody grown son Michael, revisiting the storyline that dominated season one, during which it appeared that Patty attempted to orchestrate the murder of her protégé, Ellen Parsons (the consistently outstanding Rose Byrne). It hasn’t been much of a showcase for significant guest stars in the way that it had been in seasons past for Ted Danson, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, William Hurt and John Goodman, among others, but it has nevertheless been filled with strong performances by everyone involved. The twists and turns have been fast and furious, and they continue right up through the final minutes of next week’s conclusion.
Close, who has received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress for each of the series’ first four seasons, and who won the award for the first two, will likely be recognized again next year. In fact, based on her work in next week’s finale, I won’t be surprised if she wins again in 2013.