The opening scene of Vertigo is one of the most spectacular in film: across a series of San Francisco rooftops, the city and bay glittering in the background, a cop and a detective chase a criminal—until the detective slips and the cop falls to his death. Hanging from a ledge that seems certain to rip away, Jimmy Stewart eyes the twisted body below him, and the movie’s narrative is set. Will Stewart’s acrophobic sleuth conquer his vertigo as he trails a possessed woman who’ll also take a plunge? We watch to find out, even though the film’s dominant image—and theme—has already been revealed.
I thought of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork, as I watched the latest episode of Damages, the FX series starring Glenn Close that returned for its third season this Monday. Nominally a legal drama, the show’s serpentine plotting and titrated flashes of violence make it a first-rate thriller, and Close plays her quasi-villain to the hilt. As Patty Hewes, an attorney more ruthless and brilliant than any before seen on TV, she projects ambiguity at every moment. It’s impossible to know what her role in the plot is, a tension only heightened by Damages’ “flash forwards,” which depict each season’s brutal denouement from the outset. This season’s premiere showed Tate Donovan’s character, Patty’s right-hand man, in a body bag, while six months earlier he’d become a named partner at her firm. The image of his death is returned to again and again, as the temporal gap starts to close.
This back-and-forth dynamic is nothing new—it’s the classic whodunit structure, and the show’s creators have credited the Greek tragedies as an inspiration—but as Vertigo did back in 1958, Damages makes the conceit an integral part of its effect. As compelling as Close is (she towers over her incipient awards rival Julianna Margulies, whose attorney character on CBS’s The Good Wife would be chewed up by Patty in court), the show’s obsessive, almost fetishistic circling is what keeps me watching. It heightens the suspense, yes, but it also viscerally expresses the main characters’ central emotion: a constant, uncertain dread. As a narrative tactic, the flash forward enacts a perfect mimesis for the viewer.
It’s an impressively artful technique at a time when TV still hews to conventional (read: boring) three-act plots, with conclusions that are all too predictable. Shows that neatly wrap up at the end of every episode have a better shot at maintaining ratings both seasonally and year to year, since missing an episode doesn’t matter. In its first year, viewership for Damages fell from roughly 3.7 million to around 1.4, where it perilously remains. A new ABC series this fall, FlashForward, in which an earthquake-like event gives everyone in the world a glimpse of their lives six months hence, experienced a similar decline and may now be canceled. (The show is based on a 1999 science-fiction novel of the same name, a genre that has the future-present duality at its core.) Even Lost, a one-time juggernaut that also features flash forwards, kicks off its sixth and final season next week.
But plenty of shows have complicated plots that reward consistent viewing, especially premium fare like HBO’s Big Love (which, in its fourth season, continues to mesmerize). And many have earned the honorific “literary,” or “novelistic,” like the incomparable The Wire. It’s also true that Damages is not quite in their league, given its tendency for outright melodrama and writing that could be sharper across the board. This season’s Madoff-inspired story arc already seems tired, despite the presence of Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as the family’s respective matriarch and lawyer. (And what else can possibly be said about Patty’s relationship with Ellen, her protégé-turned-nemesis? Rose O’Byrne is still wooden in the perpetually fuzzy role—the show might be better off without her.)
But by employing the flash forward, Damages is innovating in a way these other shows haven’t, in a medium that’s traditionally an also-ran in trends of any kind. Eleven years after Vertigo was released, Robert Coover published his remarkable story collection Pricksongs & Descants, including the celebrated piece “The Babysitter.” In it, a period of about two hours is dissected into various characters’ perspectives and moments that go in and out of linear sequence. (The 1995 film adaptation starring Alicia Silverstone notably flattened out this bumpy chronological terrain.) By the end, the story—ostensibly about a young woman who’s raped while the couple she’s babysitting for are at a dinner party—is beside the point, smothered in a pile-up of implausible, outlandish details. Coover’s point is to show the narrative sleight of hand at work—a literary tradition we may take for granted now but which Damages brought to TV.