Last Night's TV: Brief encounter becomes a fatal attraction
Damages, BBC1; Curb Your Enthusiasm, More4; Coronation Street ITV1
Tuesday 29 January 2008
It is getting on for 20 years since David Lynch's Twin Peaks left television audiences baffled and befuddled, as we sought to get our heads round the labyrinthine mystery not just of who killed high-school prom queen Laura Palmer, but what on earth was going on at any one time. Damages is shaping up as a similar exercise in bafflement and befuddlement. At any rate, when your wife's waking comment at 6.38am is not "can you make Jacob's packed lunch while I have a shower?" or "will you be in at lunchtime because there's a chap coming to repair the washing machine?" but "why do you think Gregory would have lied to Ellen about the man getting into Frobisher's limo?" you know that the curse of the American serial has struck again.
Damages is schlock, of course, but it is highly superior schlock. Ellen (Rose Byrne) is a brilliant but not too worldly young lawyer who has fallen under the spell of legal superstar Patty Hewes, played by Glenn Close as a combination of Hillary Clinton and Cruella de Vil, with occasional undertones of the nutcase she played in Fatal Attraction.
My wife and I met Glenn Close once, backstage at the National Theatre, where she was starring in A Streetcar Named Desire. A friend of ours was in the cast and introduced us. She is tiny and birdlike, and gave the impression from under a baseball cap pulled low even in the cast canteen that not a corpuscle of her being wanted to make our acquaintance even fleetingly, which may have had something to do with the gruelling evening she'd just spent as Blanche DuBois. Or maybe it was more to do with the permafrost that protects some Hollywood stars, especially those from upper-class New England dynasties. Close went to Choate, a prep school in Connecticut, which also boasts as alumni John F Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson and the billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, not to mention, albeit fictionally, Dr Charles Emerson Winchester, the inveterate snob in M*A*S*H. She has probably known people like Patty Hewes all her life.
"Trust no one," Patty told Ellen last night, advice that applies to herself most of all. We know, because Damages fiendishly began at the end rather than the beginning, that Ellen winds up covered in blood being accused of the murder of her nice fiance. The murder will doubtless turn out to be Patty's doing, for she is more Prince Machiavelli than Perry Mason; indeed, in our house we are rooting for Arthur Frobisher, the tycoon and alleged $1.4bn fraudster, whom she is determined to destroy by fair means or foul. That is another dimension of the curse of the American serial; you end up empathising with slimeballs like Tony Soprano and Arthur Frobisher. Plus, Frobisher is played by Ted Danson, who even with snow-white hair still looks too much like Sam Malone from Cheers to hate properly.
Last night, indeed, was Ted Danson night; he also popped up on Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing himself. I have friends who would rather watch Curb Your Enthusiasm than spend half an hour doing almost anything else in life. Offer them the chance to share a bath with Michelle Pfeiffer, or watch the England football team win a penalty shootout in the World Cup final against Germany, and they would say nope, just give me another dose of Larry David.
For me, another Larry will always have the edge. The Larry Sanders Show of blessed memory was an infinitely superior exercise in mock-reality, while David's undoubted genius was more eloquently displayed in Seinfeld, which benefited rather than suffered from the constraints of network television.
In one of the greatest episodes of Seinfeld, entitled "The Contest" and much loved by all aficionados, the four main characters struck a bet to see who could go the longest without masturbating. At least part of its brilliance as comedy lay in the use of euphemisms. NBC gave Seinfeld plenty of latitude by American primetime standards, but certain taboos remained. David now produces his wares for HBO, however, and taboos do not apply. So when masturbation is the central tool, so to speak, in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as it was last night, there is no need for subtlety. Funny as it was, "The Contest" was funnier.
In Weatherfield, meanwhile, which spiritually, if not geographically, is about as far as you can get from Larry David's Los Angeles, Vera Duckworth (Liz Dawn) was cremated. Her no-good son Terry (Nigel Pivaro) turned up to pay his respects with one hand, and check his legacy with the other. "I'm in mobile phones... at the cutting edge, y'know," he told the ever-diminishing band who remember him. He lives right on the cutting edge in Wolverhampton.
After this Coronation Street funeral, the mourners repaired to the Rovers for sandwiches. "Vera Duckworth had a gob on her worse than mine," said Janice Battersby (Vicky Entwistle). Which was true, but Jack (Bill Tarmey) will miss it. We all will.
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