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damages: season finale

Hopefully it's not also the series finale … it hasn't yet been renewed for a second season.

There are going to be spoilers here, so leave if you care. Since to the best of my knowledge, no one who reads this blog watches the show, I'm probably safe, but you've been warned.

FX has made quite a name for itself as the home of the anti-hero. Denis Leary on Rescue Me is an excellent example; Michael Chilkis' Vic Mackey is an even better one. Leary's Tommy Gavin is a prick, but he's also a fireman who saves lives, and while they don't flinch from showing Tommy's darker side, Rescue Me is definitely rooting for Gavin. One reason The Shield is a better show is that Vic Mackey isn't just a prick; he's also a murderer. Some episodes … hell, some seasons … they lose track of the essential fact that Vic killed a cop in cold blood on the series pilot, but eventually they get back to it, and so when we find ourselves rooting for Vic, we are well aware of the character of the man we are cheering on, and it's unsettling.

Glenn Close spent a season on The Shield, and she was great. Not only does she have the acting chops to play against Chiklis, she brings a steely reserve that was quite believable in her role. Close has played everyone from a sad mourner in The Big Chill, to a scheming conniver in Dangerous Liaisons, to Cruella DeVil and the crazy lady in Fatal Attraction. And she's convincing in all of those roles. When it was announced that she'd be starring in her own FX series, I was excited. As it turned out, the show was often compared to Saving Grace, which featured another award-actress coming to television in Holly Hunter. Hunter was great, and while I didn't care for the basic story (she is visited on a regular basis by a guardian angel), the biggest problem was that the meat-and-potatoes of the series (it was a cop show) was formulaic, no different from dozens of others. Of course, it was a basic cable hit, and it will be back for another season. Meanwhile, there's Damages, which did not get good ratings, even by the standards of basic cable, and which is now apparently hanging by a thread.

Damages was far from perfect. It often suffered from Lost Syndrome, holding back important information just to keep us in the dark, answering one question while introducing three more. I can understand how some viewers might have given up, assuming there would be no payoff, that the whole thing would be a shaggy dog story. All I can say to anyone who stuck around awhile and then gave up is, you blew it, and you better check out the rest of the season on reruns. Also quit reading this post, because I'm giving away a thing or two.

Way back in the beginning of Damages, Close's character, high-powered attorney Patty Hewes, ordered a dog to be killed because she thought it might give her a hand up on the case she was working. Everyone knows if you want to establish a truly nefarious level of evilness to a character, you introduce a doggie and then have the bad person kill it. But Hewes, as she was written and as Close played her, was always human, flawed, aware of those flaws, doing bad in a good cause, trying to stick it to the rich guy played brilliantly by Ted Danson. It's not exactly that you forgot about the dog, but rather that as the series progressed, you could imagine why she might find it necessary to have a dog killed.

Of course, you're also thinking that Close is the star of the show, and if it returns, she'll be back, and you can't have a show with a lead known primarily as a doggie killer. Even House, the asshole supreme of contemporary television, wouldn't kill a doggie. And so over time, we became more and more accepting of Patty Hewes, not because she was nicer, but because we learned more about her, she seemed more human, and like I say, there would have to be something deeper for the primary character than "she killed a dog."

And so the last episode arrived, and as promised, they actually did tie up most of the plot in a satisfactory manner. There are still things we'd like to know, but the basic labyrinthine plot finally makes sense. Danson's rich Arthur Frobisher got what he deserved, and then he got what he deserved. (I can't praise Danson enough … this was Close's show, but Danson made a perfect opponent, you believed he was as strong as Glenn Fucking Close, and he played rich privilege like he was born to it.)

So they took care of all the things you thought you wanted to know, left a bit for what we hope will be Season Two … and then you looked at the clock and there was still like 20 minutes to go.

And whoa, what a 20 minutes it was. One of the most interesting aspects of the show was the gradual transformation of the idealistic young lawyer Ellen Parsons into someone as cold and calculating as her boss Patty. Rose Byrne didn't offer much more than a pretty face at the beginning of the series, but as her character got darker, Byrne rode it to some fine scenes, and it was then you realized she was doing some fine acting when she was just a pretty face, too. Because the look she has on her face at the end of Season One has far more impact when you compare it to the freshly-scrubbed Ellen from the beginning.

As for why she has that look … and really, if for some reason you watch the show and haven't seen the finale and you're still reading, quit! Ellen Parsons is almost like Patty Hewes … but there's a lot of room inside that word "almost." For one thing, as is probably obvious, Ellen would not have ordered a doggie murder. More appropriately, she wouldn't order the murder of a human. And that, amazingly, is the biggest thing that makes her different from Patty Hewes. Because in those last 20 minutes, we find out who it was who tried to have Ellen killed. It wasn't Big Bad Arthur Frobisher … it was Patty Hewes. And Ellen Parsons knows it.

Let me repeat: Damages finished its first season by establishing that the hard-as-nails central character, the powerful advocate for the underprivileged, lawyer Patty Hewes, didn't just play footsy with regulations when it suited her needs. She was also ready to have someone killed if she felt that person was in her way.

This really places Damages in an entirely new place, it seems to me. Patty Hewes is no longer the anti-hero with heart of gold. Nope, she's just evil. And she's the main character in a television series.

This is unbroken ground, at least in my memory. It puts the namby-pamby Saving Grace to shame, but that doesn't even get it, because they aren't playing in the same league. She puts Tommy Gavin to shame, with his maudlin Irish emotionalism. Hell, she puts Vic Mackey to shame, and who would have thought that possible? Mackey killed someone who was in his way, and he's going to pay the price, but at least it was treated like a serious action, one he regretted, and it was much like everything Vic does … to clean up the bad, sometimes you've got to make a little mess of your own. Patty Hewes went after Ellen Parsons like Ellen was a fly buzzing too loud. And while we now understand why Patty disappeared when Ellen was attacked, and we now understand why she was so racked with guilt, we also know that she cowboyed up, turned on that icy face, put on the dark sunglasses, and went on working the system. Hewes has emotional outbursts, Mackey gets violent over the toilet bowl that is the world in which he travels. But when the crisis has passed, Mackey is still full of testosterone, he's getting worse at being able to turn it on and off. But Patty? She's a real pro … she (or rather, Close) is just as believable when she's crying with guilt as she is when she decides she'll milk Ellen again until there's nothing left. Vic Mackey is fucked up. But Patty Hewes is Bad (meaning-bad-not-bad-meaning-good).

And can I remind you one last time that this disturbing character is the star of the show?

Not hard to imagine why the ratings are low.

Grade for season finale: A

Grade for Season One: A-


it's this week

Jon Pareles offered an on-target explanation of one of the odder things about Bruce Springsteen concerts, reviewing a recent NYC show:

The Madison Square Garden crowd joyfully sang along with Bruce Springsteen, not for the first or last time, on Wednesday night, as he reached the chorus of "Lonesome Day": "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right, yeah." That's what the sound of the E Street Band always says, surging past every bit of disillusionment, loss, bewilderment and bitterness in the verses that the fans also know. The sheer vitality of Mr. Springsteen, 58, belting an entire set of showstoppers straight from the gut and working the stage with his longtime band, provides all the hope the lyrics struggle to find. He's as serious as any public figure alive, but he leaves audiences euphoric -- a paradox that only grows more profound as he endures.


there's a moral here somewhere

But who knows what it is.

Question: what do you do with the manager of a sports team that only loses once in 55 appearances under his command?

Answer: if his name is Greg Ryan, and the only loss came in the semi-finals of the World Cup, and he had made an extremely questionable lineup decision for that match, and it blew up in his face, then it is now clear what you do. Ryan's contract is about to run out, and it was announced today that he will not return to his post as coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team.

Question: what do you do with someone who said the following about that one loss and the extremely questionable decision? "It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that." Bonus supplementary information: remember, the coach who made that decision has lost his job, suggesting the powers that be agree that he made the wrong decision. So again, what do you do with the person who made a point even the people at the top think was true?

Answer: if her name is Hope Solo, you throw her under the bus.

Meanwhile, here's something I wrote a month ago, on the eve of that semi-final match: "This is a remarkable move by Coach Ryan, one that leaves him pretty much out on the proverbial limb. We'll know tomorrow whether Ryan is Connie Mack with Howard Ehmke, or Dusty Baker with Salomon Torres."

I might as well tell the stories of those people I mentioned, for those who don't know them (I've been obsessing lately about making what I think are commonly-known references that turn out to be obscure). In the first game of the 1929 World Series, Connie Mack named Howard Ehmke to be the starting pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. Ehmke had only made 8 starts all season long, had never pitched in the post-season, and had won only 7 games that year (this was the lowest total ever for a Game One starter ... that record lasted 77 years). Mack thought Ehmke's style would work well against the opposing Chicago Cubs. He was right ... Ehmke pitched a complete game and the Athletics won.

In 1993, the Giants and the Braves staged an epic battle in what some of us still call the Last Pennant Race (the next season, the wild-card was introduced). Both teams had won 103 games coming down to the last day of the season. The Giants' last game was against the hated Dodgers, and first-year manager Dusty Baker chose rookie Salomon Torres as his starting pitcher. Torres was 21 years old and had pitched a grand total of 7 games in his major-league career. Torres didn't get out of the 4th inning, the Giants lost 12-1, the Braves won their game, and the season ended for San Francisco.

Speaking of bus, thrown under ... Dusty Baker went on to a long career as a manager, and in fact he has just returned to managing with the Reds. Funny thing is, he has developed a reputation over the years as preferring veterans to young players. Hmmmm. Meanwhile, it took Torres years to get over the trauma. He struggled in the majors for a few years, retired and became a coach back home in the Dominican Republic, decided on a comeback, and five years after he'd retired, Salomon returned to the majors, where he pitches to this day. He still remembers, though ... in 2006, he said in an interview,"I don't think I was treated fairly by some of my teammates.... And I still don't think I'm being treated fairly by the fans." He's not the only one who still remembers, as you'll learn if you visit his page at baseball-reference.com. That site stays in business in part by having users "sponsor" pages ... you pay an annual fee, lots of money for super stars, a teeny amount for scrubs, and then you get to post a few words about the subject, usually something like "thanks for signing an autograph for me when I was a tyke." The blurb on Salomon's page ... and remember, someone had to pay money for the opportunity to sponsor the page ... the blurb reads "Thanks for '93, I still blame you."


cuau and becks

I don't usually write about soccer, because 1) most of you don't care, and 2) those who do care already know. But my comments on the women's national team got several comments, and it appeared I was bringing up some items people weren't aware of, so I'll post another soccer comment here.

I don't watch much American soccer. As I've noted before, without a rooting interest in one of the teams (a situation which will be rectified next season), MLS becomes just another league, and it ranks below many of the others I have regular access to … Spain, Italy, Germany, England, Argentina, Mexico, the Champions League. So I'm not currently an MLS expert. But most Americans, sports fans or not, are aware that David Beckham came to the States this year. There was much pomp and circumstance, then Becks got hurt (actually, he was hurt when he came here), he didn't play for awhile, and it's safe to say his first year here has been disappointing. I'm disappointed, too, as I think Beckham is good for American soccer.

Oddly, his team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, which had been crap all season long, started playing like champions after Beckham was injured. Given no chance to make the playoffs, they came into today's final regular-season match against Chicago unbeaten in their last seven games. A win against Chicago and they were in the playoffs, a draw or a loss and Chicago would move forward.

As the match began, Becks was on the bench. His injury has healed enough for him to play, but not for an entire 90 minutes. Meanwhile, another story belonged to his teammate, Cobi Jones, who is retiring at the end of the season. There was a time when Cobi was the face of U.S. soccer, and if he was always a bit unlikeable when he played for the other team, he was a fine member of the national squad, and so he deserves a couple of props. Of course, since he spent his entire MLS career playing for Los Angeles, a couple of props is all he'll get from me.

Cobi's career wouldn't end, though, if his team could win the match and make the playoffs. Sadly, they weren't playing well, and it was only a combination of fine play by keeper Joe Cannon and some poor shooting by Chicago Fire players that kept the score 0-0 at the half.

The second half was more of the same. Chicago had the run of play but didn't take advantage of their chances, the Gals, in Joe Cannon's postgame words, played like a pub team, and even Beckham's appearance midway through the second half didn't make much of a difference.

There was a player on the field, though, who was everything people expected Becks to be. He wasn't really the anti-Beckham as some suggested … a better description would be a Mexican Cobi Jones, because he was absolutely irritating as hell if he wasn't playing for your team. I'm speaking of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who has been an entertaining pain in the ass for American fans (as in U.S. … Temo played many years in Mexico for a team called America, so they loved him) for years. Carlos Ruiz could learn a few things from Cuau … you could believe that when the match was over, Blanco would become a carefree, fun-loving fellow, while Ruiz would probably go mug his grandmother and then fall on the pavement as if she'd shot him. The point is this: while Beckham became the highest-paid player in the league, with the resulting spotlight being shined on him and him alone, Blanco came over from Mexico, became the second-highest-paid player in the league, and actually got his team to win (LA won while Beckham was hurt). I guarantee you, Mexican fans knew what was going on. ESPN even got a clue, running a big story on Blanco in their magazine. But for most Americans, Beckham was the one soccer name they knew.

And so it was perhaps poetic justice that it was Blanco's team that finally broke the scoring ice at the end of the match, giving the Fire a 1-0 victory and ending the Galaxy season. Boo hoo … the team from L.A. lost. And Blanco's brand of fire will burn for another week, at least, pissing off a lot of opposing fans in the process. Who knows what move he'll pull off next … the Blanco Hop (for that one, he'd put the ball between both feet and hop through the air through two defenders, holding onto the ball with his feet until he was past them)? Here's one for folks who know a little about Mexican soccer … back when they were all young, I thought Braulio Luna was the next big star of El Tri. More than one person told me Blanco was the man, but I refused to believe them … for one thing, he was always doing shit against the U.S., for another, he played for the archrivals of my favorite Mexican club.

Oh, by the way … that Chicago goal that sent Los Angeles out of the playoffs? It was scored by a fellow named John Thorrington. Once, long ago, Thorrington had momentarily been the great hope of American soccer, primarily because his contract was owned by the famous Manchester United. But Thorrington never really fulfilled that promise, partly because he never managed to actually get into a game for Man U. You see, he was blocked by a better player who pretty much owned Thorrington's position at that time at Man U … guy named Beckham.


mad men, season one finale

Well, that was certainly a terrific first season. I took some good-natured abuse the other day when I admitted I had a lot of series I watched, most people forgetting that at any one time, only about half of them are in a current season. Which still leaves a lot of shows, I realize. But Mad Men has quickly moved close to the pantheon. There are shows I just watch out of laziness, shows I like a lot and look forward to each week, and there are a couple of shows that for whatever reason are more important to me than the others (Battlestar Galactica and The Shield, in case anyone wondered). And then there's The Wire, which quite simply is in the proverbial league of its own (as I've said before, even the best, most consistent shows will occasionally cough up a mediocre episode, but The Wire has never even had a mediocre SCENE). Mad Men is already in the "more important" category, and since the other three shows just mentioned are currently in off-season mode, that means Mad Men has been the best show on my television for a few months now.

This is the part where I explain why I think this is so, but I'm going to cop out a bit, as will be clear in a moment. But to get the basics out of the way … Mad Men isn't perfect, but it comes pretty close, and it manages this while offering up a complexity that, even in this Golden Age of Television, is noteworthy. I mention this because it's easiest to come close to perfection if you don't aim very high. In its early seasons, 24 didn't do much more than deliver edge-of-your-seat thrills, but given that narrow focus, it did indeed deliver. Mad Men has a lot more going on than that, which means there are lots more areas where it can go wrong. It recreates the U.S. in 1960, and that's good enough, but it's not all surface recreations. Yes, they do a great job of reproducing the artifacts of the period, but they also do a great job of reproducing the attitudes of the period. And does so at times with a wink, but for the most part without the knowing irony that usually accompanies this kind of look back. In particular, Mad Men is fascinating in its examination of gender. The men are of their time, meaning they've got the world by the balls, but the pressure of keeping those balls in hand is enough to drive a man to drink (and these guys drink … a lot). Their stunted lack of emotional expressiveness doesn't really do them much good. What it does do is hurt the people around them, and by "people" I mean "women." At first glance, Mad Men seems to be too willing to adopt the male attitudes of the time. But over the course of the season, as we get to know the women better, we see the damage the times are doing to the women. If one projects the characters into the future, you can imagine a lot of clueless, befuddled men wondering what the hell happened, but you can also see a lot of feminists blooming in the sun. No one is very happy on Mad Men, and in the short term, women have it much worse than men. But you can see the seeds of a women's revolution in Mad Men … if this series lasts a few seasons more, they'll have to give up on the pun of the title and change it to Mad Women. And these women are in the figurative attic in Season One, but they aren't likely to stay there forever, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Before I get to my cop out, I have to give a shout out to the acting, noting three in particular. OK, I admit it, Christina Hendricks does a good job in her role, but as a fan of hers, I'm most captivated by the way she squeezes that amazingly ripe body into those period costumes. So shoot me. Jon Hamm is Emmy-worthy here, which means he'll never get nominated, I'm sure. It's January Jones who is probably the most interesting. Sometimes she's so torpid, it's like she's not acting at all, and at other times, she seems just a bit off, so I could see someone arguing that she's doing a poor job. But I think she is just as remarkably subtle in her way as is Hamm. She's playing a character that is confused, like an ostrich who just peaked out from the dirt. She lacks confidence in anything other than her looks, is vaguely unhappy without knowing why, she's smart but thinks she should hide it, a grown woman who has never really been allowed to move past childhood. Of COURSE she's a bit off. Jones is playing the part just right. And she offered up the image of the season, on a show full of great images, when she took the BB gun to the pigeons while her cig hung out of the side of her mouth.

OK, to the cop out. Maureen Ryan did a great interview with series creator Matthew Weiner, and in explaining what he was trying to accomplish, Weiner managed to also explain what makes his series so good. So I'll just steal some of his comments:

[T]here are a lot of private moments on the show. They cost more to shoot, it's 30 seconds of silence, it could be five or six shots, it costs the same as five pages. But those private moments inform [everything else]….

The truth is, I think the biggest difference between this and a lot of what's on TV now is – and I will tell you right now, it hasn't always been this way – TV is an escape for people in a different way. It's an escape that reconfirms [that your life is OK]. I am not reconfirming that you are OK. I am reconfirming that you are having a hard time.

So part of that requires, more than anything, when you're telling people a story that they don't know -- they find it frustrating if they're not paying attention. What I'm trying to do when I draw them in is say, put your checkbook down, turn off the phone, watch it on TiVo when you know the kids won't be around. And really let yourself go into this world but take it seriously….

I don't fight for your attention. I do in the sense that if you don't pay attention, you'll have no idea what's going on and be bored.

You can [speed up] all of these shows up tremendously up by overlapping the dialogue. And what that means is, when someone's talking, the other person starts talking over them, and it gets the story out faster.

What you get in this show is, people talk, you're on [the speaker] in the shot, and – it's actually very old fashioned. You may see [the second person] listening, when the other person is talking. And then they will take a moment, the way you do, [then respond]….

[T]he idea of staying on the people when they're talking to each other, and making them listen to each other and keeping the agenda for each of them, especially if you know what they don't – that is where, unlike a certain style of TV, I am not fighting for your attention. I am not trying to grab you three seconds into it and saying, "Don't change the channel no matter what!"

I am trying to say, "Watch this, and you will be rewarded. Watch this. Pay attention." It costs us a lot of money to shoot stuff. When I spend three seconds showing you a prop, that is for your delight. I am not telling you that the Relaxacizor is going to be used to murder someone. I am telling you, "Look at this strange underwear that she's going to put on!'"

Grade for season finale: A

Grade for Season One: A


friday random ten, 1997 edition

1. Marcia Ball, "Let Me Play With Your Poodle." White lady, contemporary of Bonnie Raitt, covers Lightnin' Hopkins, doesn't sound a bit like Bonnie Raitt so there's no reason I brought it up except that my guess is many of you have never heard of Marcia Ball and I gotta compare her to somebody. (She's got some Jerry Lee Lewis in her, check out the video link to hear this tune done live.) Song kicks ass, great set opener.

2. Sleater-Kinney, "Words + Guitar." Their anthem. "Take take the noise in my head, take take the noise in my head, c'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on." By this point, Janet had joined the band, and they were complete. The video is cool, if gnarly-sounding, because the song was still new, and so not the singalong it became later. Also, once the song is over, don't keep watching the video … nothing happens.

3. Hanson, "MMMBop." Ok, I'm asking to get slapped around, but this is a totally great song. There, I said it.

4. Usher, "You Make Me Wanna." It's the Battle of the Teenagers!

5. Missy Elliott, "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)." The greatest female hip-hop artist of them all, at the beginning of her career … she'd been working, writing, producing, guesting, but this was her debut solo album. Great use of sampling.

6. Steve Earle, "Telephone Road." I have a deep love for this song that is inexplicable. I could listen to it all day, and have no idea why that is true.

7. Bob Dylan, "Love Sick." He croaks like he's half-dead, and it sounds like his voice is being transmitted through a psychic medium. "I'm sick of love but I'm in the thick of it. This kind of love, I'm so sick of it."

8. Notorious B.I.G., "Fuck You Tonight." Believe it or not, this is a slow jam.

9. Buena Vista Social Club, "El Cuarto de Tula." I had misgivings about this project/movie … the way Ry Cooder seemed to be just a bit too important, the subtle "ain't America grand" feel. But when the musicians played, all that faded away. This track has the most killer laud solo in the history of humankind, and I know, who cares about laud solos, but Barbarito Torres pulls chorus after chorus out of his ass, and it's just as mindboggling the twentieth time you hear it as it is the first time. The solo in the video isn't much compared to the classic on the album, but Barbarito gets pretty damn crazy, as you'll see.

10. Puff Daddy and the Family, "I'll Be Missing You." There's no way this should work. Sappy tribute to the dead Biggie, released in time to make a lot of money, with the basic lick borrowed from the Police. But it's one touching mother of a song, nonetheless.

[edited to add Spotify playlist]