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A Madoff-like plot on "Damages"

Marketplace Staff Apr 16, 2010

A Madoff-like plot on "Damages"

Marketplace Staff Apr 16, 2010


Tess Vigeland: What if you could find out why Bernie Madoff swindled investors? And where all the money is now? Wouldn’t that be so satisfying, even if you didn’t lose any money to him? To see justice served?

If you’re nodding, you’ll understand the appeal of the TV show “Damages” on FX. Glenn Close plays Patty Hewes, a steel-hearted, big-time lawyer who goes after financial crooks like Ted Danson — or at least his character.

The season three finale is Monday, so we asked the creators of the show to talk to us about why they tapped into this particular world. Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, welcome to the program.

Todd Kessler: Thank you very much.

Vigeland: All right, if you would indulge for a moment, as a fan of the show, I really have to ask: Who killed Tom and where is the Tobins’s money?

Todd: We can’t tell you any of that.

Vigeland: Oh shoot.

Todd: We would be shooting ourselves in the foot to give that away right now.

Vigeland: All right, well I guess I will wait till Monday then. All right, for those who have been missing out on this terrific series, the reason we wanted to talk to you, its creators, was because for three seasons, in addition to a Rashomon of murder and mayhem, you’ve been building story lines around your main character — the lawyer, Patty Hewes — going to bat for wronged investors. Why go so deep into that particular territory? What was interesting about that to the three of you?

Glenn Kessler: This is Glenn speaking. When we started to work on the show, we knew we wanted to focus on power, and we knew we wanted to focus on how women can yield power in our society and our culture. And we found that the law was a place where women could rise to great power. And the type of law that Patty Hewes practices, which is high stakes litigation, is kind of an intersection of business and entertainment and sports and politics. So in the first season, Patty Hewes was actually representing employees of an Enron-type of company, who had lost everything when their CEO kind of cashed out when he saw that the company was tanking.

Daniel Zelman: This is Daniel Zelman speaking. One of the huge things that got our juices flowing when it came to what we wrote about was the documentary “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” about Enron. We were just outraged, I think personally outraged, in the case of Enron, there were those energy futures traders who were just gleeful the old ladies who were getting their energy shut off in California. So, really, we weren’t trying to do a show about a lawyer who defends investors, per se.

Vigeland: And this was a classic pump-and-dump. This is where, he was telling his employees to buy up the company stock, while he was actually selling it.

Patty Hewes: Arthur Frobisher told his employees to invest in the company and then sold his own stock.

Greta Van Susteren: He claimed he had a prior arrangement with his broker to sell.

Hewes: You believe that? Arthur Frobisher made hundreds of millions in personal profit, while his workers lost their pensions, their 401(k)s, everything they had.

Todd: This is Todd speaking. Over the past three to four years, while we’ve been actually writing the series, just time after time, reports — either in newspapers or interviews with people — no one seems to be telling the truth that people are being taken advantage of. Our desire was to put an attorney, front and center, who would fight for those people and try to get at the truth, even though the methods by which fights aren’t necessarily following the letter of the law.

Vigeland: Well, and then you return to the Enron scandal in season two, where Patty Hewes goes after a company called Ultima Natural Resources. And here again, you have yet another evil CEO, this time polluting ground water that was killing people, and on top of that, he hired a trader to manipulate energy and stock prices. This really was ripped from headlines, wasn’t it?

Todd: This is Todd speaking again. I mean, we started our research for the second season, and it was very much inspired by Bobby Kennedy Jr. And he’s been dealing with a lot with Mountain Top Mining in West Virginia. So he got us turned on to the travesty of what’s happening in West Virginia. And that’s still in the news with what just happened in the past couple days with the mine collapse. You know, these stories don’t go away. They may feel like they’re ripped from the headlines, but unfortunately, these headlines are now spanning years and years of material.

Vigeland: And that certainly goes, then, for season three, which is concluding on Monday. Here you had the baddie to end all baddies — Louis Tobin, otherwise known as Bernie Madoff.

Hewes: What kind of man steals $70 billion? The family, they’ve hidden money. A lot of money.

Joe Tobin: If you lost money with my father, I’m sorry.

Marilyn Tobin: You know what it’s like to have a husband who betrays you?

Hewes: You honestly believe you’re going to get away with this?

Vigeland: You know, all kinds of shows have played with this story line as well, but you actually built an entire season around it.

Daniel: Yeah, this is Daniel. Initially, I think our instincts were to stay away from the Madoff story, per se, but it just became infinitely fascinating to us, the more we read about it. And we saw a lot of opportunity for rich character in a family like the Madoff family.

Vigeland: Your main character, Patty Hewes, of course, played by Glenn Close, she really, really hates corporate America and its bosses. And frankly, I guess you were ahead of the times — I mean, corporate America is really the ultimate bogeyman these days, isn’t it?

Daniel: Yeah, exactly. This is Daniel speaking again. I mean, our outrage, we sort of transplanted onto the Patty Hewes character. But we always look at Patty as someone who hates bullies, as opposed to someone who specifically having some ax to grind against corporations themselves.

Vigeland: I remember reading a review of season two in the New York Times, where it pointed out that your hero is someone who is well-connected, wealthy herself, which is unlike some anti-corporate heroes of previous decades, like Karen Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, who were kind of accidental heroes, working class. Were you trying to say anything there about the ability of the small guy to go against the big guy?

Daniel: This is Daniel again. Yes, absolutely. I think one of the themes of our show is that you sort of need power to fight power. And we’re very fascinated by those gray areas, that in attaining the power that one needs to fight power, one is in great danger of becoming corrupt oneself. And that’s a huge dilemma. Those movies that you’re referencing, “Erin Brockovich” and “Silkwood,” to some extent, those are — I mean, they’re great stories, and they’re much more feel-good stories than our story, because it’s definitely an American fantasy that someone with no power can rise to the level of someone who can actually fight the big, powerful bad guys.

Todd: This is Todd speaking. Another theme of our series has emerged, which is what price success? And someone like Patty Hewes, who gets to decide which cases she wants to take on and knows that getting involved in cases where there’s a tremendous antagonist, and she’s going to have to make huge sacrifices to take down the power center that she’s fighting, it reverberates in her personal life. And that’s a theme that we’ve pursued in the past three seasons as well.

Vigeland: So from what I’m reading, I know that a fourth season is up in the air, but maybe a senator who voted for the bailout gets murdered, and you know, Patty Hewes has to solve the entire financial crisis? How would that work?

Daniel: Is this some fantasy of yours, I guess, that we’re tapping into here?

Todd: Sure why not?

Daniel: Done.

Vigeland: Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman are the creators of the series “Damages” on FX, which is wrapping up its third season on Monday night. Thanks so much for giving us some of your time. It’s been a lot of fun.

Todd: Thank you very much.

Daniel: Thank you.

Glenn: Yeah, it was wonderful talking with you. Thank you.

Vigeland: I’m kinda sensing they didn’t love my story pitch, so let’s hear yours! Go to Marketplace.org and give us your plotline for season four of “Damages. And promise to let us be your date at the Emmys.

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