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The “golden age” of television (generally cited as starting in the early 2000s) has ironically been shaped by shows that are dark. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire: the great dramas of our age are defined by antiheroes and moral decay. Oft forgotten in the talk of artful television is one of FX’s earliest productions, The Shield. Premiering back in 2002, The Shield chronicles the operations of the LAPD, specifically their corrupt Strike Team. Led by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the Strike Team employs sinister methods in their war on crime, breaking laws and bones to make arrests. Their corruption extends beyond merely an “ends justify the means” style of crime fighting. They also profit off crime, extorting protection money from more easily cowed criminals.
In contrast to the broad infrastructural analysis of The Wire, The Shield keeps its focus fairly tight, examining the personal struggles of the Strike Team and their less corrupt colleagues. It’s a bleak and often violent show, on par with the many great dramas that have come to overshadow it.
Villain protagonists are the concept du jour in contemporary television, and Damages takes that idea further than most shows, following the misdeeds of a law firm that routinely employs blackmail, theft, and even murder to get what they want. Rose Byrne plays Ellen Parsons, an attorney fresh out of school who takes a job working for Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). Hewes is completely amoral, stopping at nothing to win cases, and viewing Ellen as her protege, she hopes to teach the young lawyer to swim with the sharks. Ellen’s struggle is as much against her own shedding of ethics as it is against rival attorneys.
Damages eschews the case-of-the-week formula typical of legal dramas, instead building season-long arcs that emphasize character development and byzantine plots. With a body count rivaling Game of Thrones, it’s not a show for those who get easily attached to characters. Given its strong cast and audacious morality, however, there are few legal dramas of its caliber.