Sunday, April 7, 2013

Damaged: On Legal Mythology (or, Why Do We Watch This Stuff?)

A promotional poster for Damages (FX)
*** Warning: This post contains spoilers for the pilot episode of Damages. ***

When I first quit law, I avoided watching any movies or TV shows involving lawyers or police procedure (since I mainly practiced criminal law).  It was a painful reminder not only of what I’d left behind but what would never be.  I guess you could call it nostalgia for a past that never was.  Before and during law school, I would watch The Practice and Law & Order, and feel hopeful about the adventure on which I was about to embark.  It was sort of like when I was a preteen, flipping through Sassy magazine and eagerly anticipating all of the wonderful changes that would occur once I finally became a glamorous young woman like the ones depicted in all the tampon and deodorant ads (which were peppered in between articles about teen suicide and my favorite young heartthrobs).  The reality never quite lived up to the hype.  Much like being a lawyer, being a teenager mostly involved horrible skin issues, insecurity, cramps, and a lingering uncertainty regarding any interaction with the opposite sex
(i.e. Does that guy really like me or just my boobs?  Did that attorney hire me because he thinks I have promise or because he thinks I’m dumb enough to have an ill-advised, celebratory tryst with him after winning my first suppression motion?). 

These days, though, I think I’m finally over it.  I don’t really watch legal dramas anymore, but not because I feel threatened by them.  It’s just that I don’t really watch TV shows at all anymore.  It’s all fiction.  And most of what they’re peddling now is billed as entertainment, when most of the footage could easily be copied and pasted into a documentary about illiteracy and violence in contemporary America, and I’d be none the wiser.  A friend of mine once remarked that Americans are so obsessed with making themselves feel morally superior by recycling that we even eat our own garbage, in the form of consuming reality television.  It’s all so sick.

Anyway, I recently discovered a legal drama thanks to a Netflix suggestion.  Because I accidentally hit play on The Lawyer when scrolling through newly-added dramas, they were fairly certain I couldn’t live another day without binge-watching Damages.  It stars Rose Byrne (Helen in Bridesmaids) as Ellen, a first-year associate at the small but powerful firm, Hewes & Associates, headed by Patty Hewes (Glenn "I'm not gonna be ignored, Dan!" Close).  We’ve seen these characters before.  Close depicts Patty Hewes as Don Draper by way of F. Lee Bailey.  Ellen is like every young TV lawyer who's preceded her: modest roots/patrician exterior.  

The pilot episode opens with some establishing shots of New York, finally settling on an elevator door that opens, revealing Ellen standing inside and covered in blood.  She runs through the streets, and eventually lands in a police interrogation room, where she refuses to talk.  The only information they can find on her is an attorney’s business card (not Hewes’).  We then flash back to six months earlier, presumably to find out how Ellen ended up bloodied and catatonic at the police station.

The show doesn’t waste any time attesting to Ellen’s naiveté and optimism, which approach Forrest-Gumpian levels as we watch her decline an offer from Hollis Nye (played by Philip Bosco, who – to me – will always be the cynical, world weary bus driver from Quick Change) of a five-year contract starting at $150K per year.  (I’m guessing she’s not a CUNY grad.)  When she mentions Patty Hewes to Nye and his associates, they all shoot each other uneasy glances and wish her godspeed.  Later, when Nye tracks down Ellen at a night club where he renews his offer and then asks her to sign the back of one of his business cards after the words, “I have been warned [about Patty],” we can’t help but wonder if the woman we’re watching sign her own death warrant might have recently sustained a head injury.  

Throughout the episode, the season’s story arc begins to take shape.  Ellen is engaged to med student David, whose sister Katie may be the key witness in a case that’s a hybrid of the Bernie Madoff and Enron scandals.  Ellen suspects her connection to Katie was the real reason Patty hired her.  We also begin to see Patty’s dark and underhanded side, demonstrated by an unjust and unceremonious dismissal of her right-hand man (played by Tate Donovan), not to mention an ordered hit on a dog.  And of course, there’s the matter of all that blood from the beginning of the episode, which is revealed to have come from Ellen’s fiancé, who appears to have fallen victim to the business end of what was intended to be a cheeky engagement gift.

Like I said, we've seen these characters before.  I’m not sure how long this show will hold my attention, but the first episode intrigued me for a number of reasons, most of which involve the continued reinforcement of legal mythology, which is routinely shaped by writers who have no jurisprudence qualifications of which to speak.  Here are a few recycled clichés observed in the first episode alone:

1.  Law school graduates achieve financial success upon graduation.  After Ellen accepts Patty’s job offer, she comes home with a large number of shopping bags full of designer clothing.  Presumably up to this point, she has not been working since passing the Bar, so I am not entirely sure how she could afford them, considering she surely has some student loans coming due (it’s been established that Ellen comes from a working-class family, so even with scholarships, if she wasn’t working she would have had to take out loans for living expenses – not cheap considering they live in Manhattan).

2.  New graduates know the law inside and out.  During her first visit to Patty Hewes’ office, Ellen is advised by a senior associate about what she will be grilled on in her interview: constitutional law, torts, etc.  Which all sounds very legal, except that first-year associates are not generally asked about these topics in interviews because they don’t know anything yet.  I recall going through OCI, and even the big firms didn't  grill us on con law or torts.  And our career services advisors warned us as much, because none of us knew how to practice law yet.  Therefore, the only things that mattered in interviews were grades, honors, activities, writing ability, areas of interest, and why the interviewee wanted to work at [X] Firm.   

3.  Everyone speaks fluent John Grisham.  On several occasions, the term “high stakes litigation” was used, even by Patty herself.  Couldn’t actual attorneys think up a more original term than that?  It seemed the writers lacked imagination and just used boilerplate phrases they’d heard a million times before.  Also, “gimme a number,” “it’s good PR,” and “children died!” were shamelessly thrown about.

4.  Breaking ethical rules is of no legal consequence.  Patty pulls a dirty trick to get an opposing counsel to settle.  It’s the sort of thing that would end up in an appeals court, and at the very least a public censure from the Bar for Patty, but when it happens on TV, we all just enjoy her cunning.

 It’s all so much fiction.  There’s nothing wrong with that, except when you’re asked to accept a set of presuppositions that have no bearing in reality whatsoever.  Suppose you’re into cars, and I ask you to watch my show about a sexy millionaire auto mechanic with perfectly manicured fingernails, who performs routine maintenance functions like pouring sugar into gas tanks and replacing “blinker fluid” every 5,000 miles.  It probably wouldn’t be long before you reached for the clicker to check out Dancing with the Stars.  It’s the same with legal dramas.  Once you’ve actually practiced law, you simply shrug at these shows and file them under things-that-could-never-happen-in-real-life.  

Has anyone else watched Damages?  Does it get better?


  1. Don't watch many of these shows for same reasons. Litigation is always dramatic, never the boring stuff like sitting around for a cattle call or "hearing-motions fridays", etc. Most of these shows are written by writers, not lawyers.

    1. Oh yeah, I loved those hearing days, when I got to sit around after putting my name on a list. Doing criminal law, my favorite day was "bad check" day, when I got to watch defendant after defendant plead no contest and accept a $35 fine in exchange for making good on the check within [X] days. Fascinating stuff. You never see that kind of thing on TV; I wonder why?

  2. One thing these shows don't depict is the financial aspect of a firm. Nobody every skips a bill, clients don't have to be lobbied to pay up, leases are on autopilot, etc. When it does come to those issues, it's all "we have extra money laying around." Also, magical clients (heiress to a candy fortune) with magical war chests happen.

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  4. This parody of lawyer shows is spot-on: