Tuned In: 'Damages' gets it right this season

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The Glenn Close FX drama "Damages" has always been better in concept than execution. A TV series about a ruthless, amoral corporate attorney played by Close sounds fantastic but as it's been executed in its first two seasons, the mayhem that followed Close's Patty Hewes was more than one could swallow, especially for a program so determined to root itself in the real world.

A montage sequence at the start of the third season premiere (10 p.m. Monday) reinforces the past preposterousness that overwhelmed the charm and novelty of Close as a TV star.

Season two continued to demand a high suspension of disbelief as Hewes protégé Ellen (Rose Byrne), who had been through all sorts of trauma perpetuated by Patty, continued to work at the firm while seeking revenge for her fiancé's murder. Season two also suffered from the after effects of a season one hangover that pulled too many old stories forward like stones around the show's neck, discouraging new viewers from getting on board.

As season three begins, "Damages" finally gets its formula right. Almost nothing from the past two seasons -- beyond the wary Ellen-Patty relationship -- has any bearing on this week's season premiere. Better yet, Ellen is more realistically working outside of Hewes & Associates in the district attorney's office.

The show introduces a new story that's timely -- a Bernie Madoff-like character, Louis Tobin, has swindled millions of dollars from thousands of victims -- and a whole new roster of characters played by familiar actors in unfamiliar roles.

"Damages" always excels at unconventional casting, from Ted Danson as the wily season one villain, Arthur Frobisher, to "Saturday Night Live" regular Darrell Hammond as a mysterious baddie last year. The savvy casting continues this year with Martin Short as an attorney for the corrupt Tobin family. Short, his hair done up in John Edwards' sweeping bangs style, gets a particularly nervy introduction scene where he gets to put the kibosh on a TV interview with a network news producer.

In addition, Lily Tomlin, looking like Endora from "Bewitched," plays the Tobin family matriarch. But the focus is primarily on Louis (Len Cariou), the swindler, and his Dudley Do-Right son, Joe (Campbell Scott).

Patty has her hands full representing the people who lost their money in Tobin's Ponzi scheme and for some reason she's missing Ellen. This almost makes icy Patty wistful but only to the point that she, on a whim, tells deputy Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) that it's time to put his name on the law firm's front door.

Although the new season of "Damages" kicks off a new mystery, the series retains its trademark flash forwards that signal murders and/or deceits yet to be revealed. It's one of the show's more operatic touches but this time the revelation, a fantastic and personal driver for stories, feels less like an attempt to manipulate the audience and more rooted in the plausible.

Like so much in the new season of "Damages," that's a welcome new twist in a series already known for its knotty, complicated plots.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. First Published January 24, 2010 5:00 AM


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