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The Return of 'Damages'

Posted by Matthew Gilbert  January 6, 2009 01:26 PM

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I love it that “Damages” has the golden aura of high-quality TV about it.

The FX series won seven Emmy nominations last year, including best drama, and two of its actors -- Glenn Close and Zeljko Ivanek -- went home with statues. And this season, lead actress Close, a 1980s magnet for Oscar nominations, will be joined by a pair of Oscar winners -- William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. “Damages” reeks of acceptability for TV-phobes.

But when you watch the show, which returns for season two Wednesday at 10, you’ll find a legal thriller that’s trashier and more fun than you might have expected. “Damages” has a sensational tone that renders it campy around the edges, in the manner of Close’s “Fatal Attraction” or even FX’s “Nip/Tuck.” The acting is big, as in arena-sized, and the countless surprise plot twists grab you with the obviousness of an airport novel. “Damages” is addictive, satisfying, and filled with empty calories.

Close is as charged-up as ever as power lawyer Patty Hewes, who last season brought down evil billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). She presides over every scene she’s in, her tense facial composure clearly a mask for her shrewd cogitations and manipulations. There’s not a lot of subtlety in Close’s icy performance; she doesn’t quite succeed in creating one of TV’s great ambiguous heroes, such as Vic Mackey from FX‘s “The Shield.” But she’s riveting in an exaggerated, pulpy way.

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Rose Byrne is back as Ellen Parsons, Patty’s protégé, whose fiance was murdered by the machinations of Frobisher (who, by the way, survived last season’s shooting). Now traumatized by the death, Ellen is also haunted by the knowledge that Patty tried to have her killed. She has become an FBI informant to bring down Patty, and even her FBI handlers think she might be a little too eager for revenge. So relentlessly mousy last season, Byrne seems appealingly jazzed to be going up against Close.

By the way, you don’t need to have seen the first season to pick up “Damages” tonight. Danson appears sporadically as remnants of last season’s plot linger, but most of the action is new, revolving around Hurt’s energy-science researcher, Daniel Purcell. Purcell, who has a mysterious history with Patty, has uncovered incendiary information about the energy industry that has made him a target. Reunited with “Big Chill” costar Close, Hurt plays the temperamental Purcell like Close plays Patty -- with broad strokes signifying nothing in particular. He’s an entertaining addition, and so is Harden, whose purpose in the plot will emerge slowly.

Last season, “Damages” wore thin, as the Frobisher case became tiresome and the writers’ efforts to build subplots out of it became forced. As on “24,” rampant suspicions about each and every character’s motives can get silly after a point. And all the show’s trademark time-shifting -- “6 months earlier,” “10 years earlier” -- can feel unintentionally self-parodying. Here’s hoping this season’s mystery builds carefully to a finish, not a fizzle.

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