'Damages' Writers: May We Approach The Bench?

So here we are again at the end of another season of "Damages," and I'm writing up a litany of suggestions. At the end of the first season of FX's sprawling puzzle of a legal thriller, I made a modest proposition: make it a limited series. Tie up all the loose ends and go out on top. Of course, this is American television, and that's not how we roll. Shortly after I made my suggestion, among others, and after much wringing of hands, FX announced that it would be renewing the show for not one, but two more seasons.

Then came the accolades and the Emmys (including acting trophies for Glenn Close and Zeljko Ivanek), and FX rolled out a massive ad campaign in an attempt to get the viewership a little closer to the buzz. It failed. Viewership for this season's premiere was down 44 percent from the series premiere. There are two points at which you can try totally radical things with little consequence: when you're on top, and when you're on the bottom. "Damages," in a way, is in both places. And since a third season is definitely in the cards this time, now's the time to tweak the formula.

I don't want to be misunderstood here. "Damages," at its worst, is still better than most scripted television on the air right now. But while I can completely write off "Heroes," I know that "Damages" has been and can be better, and I'm hopeful that its best days could still be ahead. I'm not going to assume I know what the show's producers have planned for tonight's finale—I was burned before, so these suggestions are only based on what I've seen so far:

Find a sexier case.
I do hope that next season revolves around a case more interesting than this season's, which involves a company dumping toxic materials in West Virginia. Also, they're trying to manipulate the energy market to drive up the price of the stock! And the head of the company, Walter Kendrick (John Doman), is kind of a jerk. Bored yet? I certainly was. There was nothing juicy about this case, and the stakes seemed incredibly low.

Tie up loose ends. Seriously.
At the end of last season, my hope was that robber baron Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) would be dead or comatose, something that would keep him out of the way of season two's story arcs. Sure enough, he popped back up in ways that dragged the story down and distracted from more intriguing, more current story lines. Getting into an aggressively serialized show like "Damages" is tough enough without having more and more characters, back stories and threads piled on top of things that are still unresolved. By the end of this season, my hope is that the ghosts of season one will be long gone.

Give real time a try.
The device that made "Damages" so tricky to jump into midstream was its skittering chronology. Flashbacks and flash-forwards combine to lay out the story in a totally unexpected way. It required patience, but more often than not was richly rewarding. The same device was employed this season, but to a much less exciting effect. Season one was all about getting to the bottom of who tried to kill Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) and who killed her fiancé, David (Noah Bean). There was an emotional depth in that story that anchored the show despite its often confusing time-skipping. This season, the central mystery is who is on the receiving end of a few gunshots delivered by Ellen. Up to this point, we've been led to believe that it's her nefarious boss, Patty Hewes (Close), but it's probably not. Whoever it is, this is a relatively flimsy mystery on which to hang the season, and when viewers are less invested in the outcome, all the flashbacks and flash-forwards are irritating, not intriguing.

Use the cast more wisely, or get someone else.
Some of the ads for this new season boasted about The Best Cast on TV. If that's an exaggeration, it's not much of one. In addition to the stellar group from season one, season two added William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and Timothy Olyphant as cast regulars. The problem is that the term "regular" seems to have little meaning on "Damages" anymore. Hurt dropped out of sight for several episodes, and Anastasia Griffith, who was bumped up from last season's recurring role, has barely been seen or heard from. Harden has fared better, but there have been far too few scenes of her doing what we most want to see her do: face off with Close. Olyphant's story arc has been totally listless and is too deeply rooted in last season's affairs to be interesting. But Hurt's absence is most problematic. My hunch is that he makes too much money per episode to allow them to use him more consistently. As great an actor as Hurt is, there are other guys who could do a great job for a smaller paycheck. Having a great cast member doesn't do much good if you can't afford to use him.