NEW YORK — "Damages" arrives just in time to help you start the new year right: off-kilter ... on edge ... hooked ... and loving it!
There's a comfort factor to this dizzying legal thriller, with its mind games, masquerades and clash of power brokers. Returning for its second season Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST on FX, "Damages" brings you reassurance at a time when, in real life, a U.S. Senator's seat has been peddled by a governor, and when Bernie Madoff's investors have seen their $60 billion go poof.
The unfolding events of "Damages" are similarly twisted and toxic, but (here's the reassuring part) safely fictitious. Neither your 401(k) nor your soul will be put in harm's way by the mischief "Damages" has in store.
Continuing her reign is high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes. Played by Glenn Close in an Emmy-winning role, Patty is a diabolical mix of charm and ruthlessness, with a dash of psychosis for good measure.
Last season, the action surrounded a huge class-action lawsuit waged by Patty's firm against billionaire mogul Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), who conned his employees and investors as his company collapsed. Patty was ably assisted by Ellen Parsons (series co-star Rose Byrne), a recent law-school grad whose wide-eyed idealism went dark when her fiance was murdered and she was charged with the crime.
In season two, a sadder-but-savvier Ellen has stuck with Hewes & Associates. But like everybody on this show, Ellen is driven by a hidden agenda: She wants revenge on Frobisher, who was responsible for her fiance's death, and, as an FBI informant, she wants to prove that Patty was behind her own near-fatal assault.
But there's lots more going on.
For example, a mysterious scientist named Daniel Purcell reconnects with Patty after many years. Played by William Hurt, he has life-threatening problems and desperately needs Patty's help. At first, she turns him away. Then she's forced to reconsider.
Some "Damages" fans thought too much was going on last season, with a multilayered narrative that whipsawed the audience between past and present. The seemingly disparate story lines converged in a sharply focused finale, but by then the series had shed more than half of its initial 3.7 million viewers.
"Damages" faithful rejoiced when FX (already enjoying success with antihero-centric dramas like "The Shield" and "Rescue Me") re-upped for not one, but two more seasons.
Now, with the goal of broadening its audience, "Damages" is easier to follow. But never simple. Things still have a habit of turning on a dime. Leave it to the brothers Glenn and Todd A. Kessler and their partner Daniel Zelman (who created, produce and write the series) to keep the plot in delirious flux.
No wonder guidance from this trio known as KZK has been essential for Hurt. His mercurial Danny Purcell is a role even he began the season not fully grasping.
Hurt is an actor accustomed to nailing down the character and story for himself long before shooting begins, and to not being forced to bring his character to life on the fly, script by script, on TV's unforgiving terms.
As he adapts to his first TV series, he remains an actor who loves to muse about the creative process, his interview laced with such aesthetic observations as: "The most exquisite form of violence is mediocrity, because it's the absolute absence of consideration, absence of sensitivity. Art is in constant combat with that."
On "Damages," the 58-year-old Hurt retains a creatively combative streak decades after his run as an A-list star in films such as "Body Heat," "Broadcast News" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," for which he won an Academy Award for best actor.
He confers stature on a series already boasting splendid performances by fellow newcomers Timothy Olyphant and Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, as well as the old friend he calls Glennie, with whom he is working for the first time since their 1983 classic "The Big Chill." Also on hand are the returning Byrne, Tate Donovan, Anastasia Griffith and Danson (whose delightfully villainous Frobisher was presumed dead in last season's finale).
"I'm the least equipped for this of anyone," said Hurt, summing up the demands of serialized TV. "What I'm relying on here, instead of experimentation over a long period of time, is my faith in them: KZK. They know what they're doing."
But so did Hurt as he spoke, having reached the 12th of the season's 13 episodes, with the fate of his character now in his sights.
"The guys and I had these conjecture conversations about how it would turn out," he said. "There was one way I had hoped for the most." He pointed at his script for the finale while he gave himself a moment to feel satisfied. "This is where I hoped it would go.
"Now I know."
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org
(This version CORRECTS plot point regarding Ellen's revenge.)