NPR logo What Makes 'Damages' Work: Structuring Suspense

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What Makes 'Damages' Work: Structuring Suspense

Glenn Close returns tonight for a third season on FX's Damages. Andrew McPherson/FX hide caption

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Andrew McPherson/FX

When you look at the way Damages is constructed, the genius is striking.

The signature of the show, which returns tonight on FX for its third season, is that it creates high stakes by playing with time. There's always a case — an A-plot, let's call it — that involves the clients and adversaries of attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). But there are flash-forwards throughout the season that reassure the viewer that even if you don't care a whit about that story, you have to keep watching. Because that story has enormously high stakes for the characters who are at the heart of the story: primarily Patty, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), and Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan).

Tonight's premiere is no exception.

A little preview, but no real spoilers, after the jump.

In other words, Damages follows the famous Hitchcock rule about how, to create suspense (rather than surprise), if there's a bomb under a chair, you show it from the beginning instead of abruptly detonating it at the end. In Damages, the flash-forwards are the bomb. Every season is a mystery where they start to tell you, right from the start, how it ends, and you continue to get more of the eventual ending in every episode, as the main timeline races to catch up.

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In the first season, it took 13 episodes to find out exactly how Ellen came to be covered with blood, and anyone whose interest in the insider-trading tale had faded was nonetheless hooked by then. Because insider trading wasn't just insider trading: it had something to do with Ellen winding up covered in blood. Similarly, this season's high-stakes flash forward begins with a car accident, and it ramps up quickly (very quickly) from there in convincing the viewer that the A-plot, which is about the Tobins, a family headed by a Bernie Madoff doppelganger, matters.

Naturally (given past events), Ellen has taken a new job, far away from Patty, but just as naturally, they will meet again, as they are destined to do. And that's not all. By the end of the first episode, you will already know what is undoubtedly the single most important event that will happen this season, in terms of the Patty/Ellen/Tom story.

That plot brings several very interesting actors (Campbell Scott, Lily Tomlin, and Martin Short, to name three) to the third season, which sees Patty relishing her role as the trustee in charge of finding almost $10 billion that the Tobin patriarch has stolen from his clients. His wife (Tomlin) is a concerned matriarch — or maybe not. His son Joe (Scott) is guilt-ridden and conflicted — or maybe not. The family lawyer (Short), who's also an old friend, is trying to keep Joe from going under along with his father — or maybe not. Part of the reason Damages does so well by its season-long guest stars (like Ted Danson in the first season or William Hurt in the second) is that the mystery never revolves simply around finding out what they did or didn't do; the mystery revolves around figuring out who they are and what motivates them.

There's perhaps never been a more effective piece of foreshadowing in all of television than the ominous scene early in the first season where attorney Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco) has Ellen sign a business card that says, with regard to working for Patty, "I was warned." That kind of up-front, tension-cranking maneuver — always done with luscious, noir-like relish, is repeated in the first two episodes of this season, which layer a very strong A-plot over an irresistible raising of the stakes for Patty, Tom and Ellen.