Sunday, January 4, 2009

New season of "Damages" ripe with promise

Many people think television these days is losing its luster and, in a lot of ways, I agree with them. Many new shows are seriously lacking, and several old ones are losing their luster. There are multiple things to blame for this – the writers’ strike, networks allowing shows to linger on past their prime, etc.

Clearly, TV is due for, if not a makeover, some serious sprucing up.

But there’s one area of television with which I have no beef – the caliber of the actors and performances. By and large, TV acting is better than ever, even on shows that aren’t so great.

Why is that? My guess is that the recent, now-fading, renaissance in TV storytelling drew a higher class of thespians to the tube. Or maybe television is the only place that some of these performers (particularly the female ones) could find decent roles. Whatever the reason, television acting is still at a high point, and there’s no greater proof of that than FX’s twisty legal thriller “Damages,” which returns for its second season at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

In its first season, the series featured film actress Glenn Close (already beloved by FX audiences for her excellent work on “The Shield”) as scheming civil attorney Patty Hewes. Close won an Emmy for her work, but she wasn’t the only fine actor featured on the series.

“Damages” also provided a comeback role for erstwhile sitcom star Ted Danson, as Arthur Frobisher, the sleazy exec being sued by Patty’s clients, and a meaty, Emmy-winning part for highly-regarded character actor Zeljko Ivanek, who played tormented attorney Ray Fiske. And, though less lauded than his co-stars, we can’t forget Tate Donovan, who did nice, understated work as Patty’s right-hand man Tom.

The only weak link was Rose Byrne, who plays Ellen, Patty’s decent but ambitious associate, whose life is more or less ruined by her decision to work for Patty. It’s not that Byrne is a bad actress. She’s not. It’s just that she was not quite strong enough to stand up to such a formidable group of actors.

One wishes her luck in the new season. Most of the above performers return for season two, bringing along with them an even more impressive group of thespians, including William Hurt as a prospective new client for Patty and Marcia Gay Harden as yet another hard-boiled attorney.

Judging from the first three episodes of the new season, Hurt is likely to generate Danson-level buzz for his work as the volatile, mysterious scientist Daniel Purcell. Ok, maybe I’m biased. Hurt has always been a fave of mine, ever since my mom dragged me to see “The Doctor” when I was 13. Still, I think I can objectively say that he is beyond awesome playing a guy who is by turns sympathetic and kind of freaky.

Close, of course, is as strong as ever, tearing into the role of Patty like a shark ripping into an errant Scuba diver, while never letting us forget that there’s a conflicted human under all of Patty’s ruthless conniving.

Like the first season, season two of “Damages” starts near the end of this season’s storyline, then flashes back to the events that brought us to that moment. Last season started with a blood-covered Ellen dashing out of an apartment building. This season begins with Ellen calmly questioning an unseen someone about an unknown something. Oh, and she has a gun.

We then flash back to few months before this tête-à-tête, with Ellen in grief counseling following the death of her fiancé last season. She’s nursing deep bitterness toward Frobisher (yes, Danson is back), for his involvement in her lover’s murder. Ellen is plotting revenge on him and Patty who, after all, did try to kill her. Or, at least, we think that’s what happened. Anyway, Ellen’s aiding an FBI investigation of Patty, trying to bring down her corrupt law firm from the inside. Does Patty know of Ellen’s subterfuge? Maybe. She is, after all, Patty, who seems to be imbued with magical powers of perception.

But, at the moment, she’s actually more concerned with a potential new case, involving Hurt’s Purcell, a figure from Patty’s past.

Clearly, all this will end up explaining who Ellen is threatening in that first scene, and why she’s getting all vigilante on his/her behind. Last season, watching for the subtle (and not-so-subtle) clues of how Ellen ended all bloody and disheveled was great fun. And, mercifully, the season actually came to a satisfying conclusion, explaining pretty much everything.

I have high hopes for the new season as well, as the first two episodes were as good as anything in season one (the third ep wasn’t as good, but I’m willing to forgive a stumble if the end game is satisfying). While Byrne continues to be outclassed by her costars, she’s grown on me, and I’m looking forward to the development of the relationship between her and another member of her grief group, played by Timothy Olyphant, of “Deadwood.”

All in all, the new season of “Damages” has a lot of promise and potential. Can’t wait to see what happens.

Season two of “Damages” starts Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.

1 comment:

Sherman T Potter said...

I couldn't agree more with you about the quality of acting on TV today and this show in particular.

Danso was unbelievable last year, as was Glenn Close and Zelko who won an Emmy after doing such a nice job on Homicide for years. I am eagerly awaiting the season openener of this show and the eventaul return of 24 and Rescue Me.