Talking Damages with Jenny Diski

When I mentioned at Facebook this spring that that I was gearing up to start into Damages, writer and LRB critic Jenny Diski urged me to stockpile food beforehand. It was good advice. The Maud household barely stirred from the couch for two consecutive weekends.

Normally we’d be well into Season Two by now, but the DVDs aren’t out yet, and I’m left mulling over what I’ve seen of the show and wanting to talk about it. Diski indulges me below.

Facebook is good for a few things, most notably alerting me to your fondness for Damages. Why is this show so addictive?

It’s almost pantomime. Or classic drama. Not about being original, but about the inevitable. There’s a real understanding of how drama works, not so much by surprise and shock, as by setting up the unstoppable and making the audience know what it coming, unstoppably. It does what the other good TV shows do and uses cliché and stereotype thoughtfully. Not so much turning it on its head, as turning it inside and out, examining it through a lens. The Wire is like this. It takes an obvious notion, almost too obvious of the similarity of the cops and the dealers’ worlds and plays them in parallel. Very schematic. It only just works. So does the resurrection of Cruella de Vil as lady lawyer in tight skirts and high heels manipulating the world. It sort of intensifies what you expect. Hitchcock did that, too. It also examines the great problem of ends and means — a particularly American problem, perhaps, currently. Like The Shield it plays on being mesmerised by the good guy being the bad guy and dragging us along with him/her.

Oh, The Wire! While in the midst of Season Four, I seriously thought I’d be happy to spend the rest of my life doing nothing but sitting in my apartment, living through those characters. At times I actually felt kind of angry that this wasn’t an option. And when the show ended, I experienced the same kind of bewildered disappointment that you do as a child when you reach the end of the book you love and are forced to realize that there really, truly, will never be any more pages, no matter how hard you wish for them.

As for Damages, racing through the first season with you on my mind, I couldn’t help thinking of that scathing London Review of Books piece you wrote ages ago about Laura Flanders’ Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species. As you said then, “We can’t get it into our heads that, barring some anatomy, women are very like men. Being able to write their name in the snow when they pee doesn’t entitle men to rule the world, but shaving under their arms doesn’t stop women being self-serving…”

I’m pretty sure Patty Hewes would sign her name to this statement. Or am I reaching?

A case of when she was bad she was very, very good? Patty Hewes is Lady Macbeth in teetering heels. Except that she holds it together as no Elizabethan bad woman was allowed to. Really bad women are wonderful when done well — a bit of a feminist conflict, no?

Mythic mother monsters are in our genes, clearly Glenn Close is rejoicing in playing one of them, a wicked stepmother, Clytemnestra, Medea, the Snow Queen. Wily, clever, foxy and very very dangerous. Patty Hewes is the bad mother we can’t take our eyes off — because she is too dangerous, and because bad is fascinating. Partly, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of not watching women as victims (I can’t tell you how much I loved Teeth!), but also the gathering battle between Hewes and whatshername, the young woman, has a very pleasing samurai quality about it.

Ha, yes — it’s like a samuri battle between two hot women with briefcases.

Glenn Close, like many of the more discriminating film actors, has said she chooses her projects based on the writing, and that the best scripts these days are often for television serials rather than movies. Do you agree?

Completely. TV series have been doing strange and edgy things for years now. HBO and others seem to be prepared to take risks (and lose some money?), and let writers write — at least until a couple of seasons in. Hill Street Blues, Homicide, Oz were far more interesting than most movies. So are The Wire, Boston Legal, Weeds, Studio Sixty (before they messed with it), Breaking Bad… and Damages. Maybe it’s the scope permitted for developing an idea and characters that a film hasn’t got. And there’s also a playfulness that’s allowed in TV series — Boston Legal (astonishing playing around with male love, as well as full on attacks on the American right).

But I think that there have been many indie movies that do interesting and original stuff — Charlie Kaufman still gets to write (and now direct) films. It feels like people writing and making a lot of TV series are having fun and assuming that their audience think, in the way that the fast, wordy comedies of the 30’s did. They expect you to keep up. I don’t get that feeling with most regular movies.

I’ve only just finished Season One, so I’m way behind. Fans seem to be split on the second season. Should I bother? (As if I can stop myself.)

The terrible thing is that being in England, I haven’t seen the second series, either. I’m way behind with everything — though there again there’s lots to look forward to. And since I prefer pigging out and watching several episodes of stuff at a time to an allotted hour once a week, I have to wait even longer for the DVD’s to come out over here. I’ll watch the second season — and stop if it isn’t any good. I can see that it might not be. It’s done what it’s done. Terribly difficult to let something good be. The TV series suffer from the same thing as dreadful sequels of good movies — the milking of something that has been used up.

Thanks, Jenny. I can’t wait to start reading your next book.


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