Scheming is in danger of becoming a lost art on television. Ditto malice and guile. Lying we've got plenty of; cheating, violence, your basic psychotic rage are all pretty well represented, especially on cable. But guileful, malicious scheming, that requires an artist. Someone with a face full of sunshine, a mind six steps ahead of everyone else and a heart that pumps sleet. Someone like Glenn Close.
Or rather, Patty Hewes as played by Glenn Close on "Damages," which premieres tonight on FX. The legal drama will undoubtedly be classified as a vehicle for Close's first long-term commitment to television. (Two years ago, she did a stellar turn guest-starring on a season of "The Shield.") Although this is not quite fair -- there are many fine actors in the cast of "Damages," including Ted Danson -- I say stick with whatever keeps Close playing the most beautifully vicious and complicated woman on any screen since Bette Davis stopped making movies. So star vehicle it is.
Conjured from the combined talents of creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman, Patty Hewes is a high-stakes litigator with the sort of reputation that causes other attorneys to grow pale and twitch at the mere mention of her name. Far too fearsome to be a protagonist, she requires a less defined foil. That honor falls to Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a doe-eyed, newly minted lawyer who somehow lands a job at Hewes & Associates. Think of it as "The Devil Wears Prada" gone noir. Very, very noir.
This is clear from the very beginning because "Damages" opens with Ellen, bloody and half naked, running from her apartment building. So a little darker than, say, "L.A. Law." Early episodes of "Damages" are told in fractured time frames -- the present, which is the aftermath of that scene, gives way to flashbacks explaining the events that led up to it.
It is an unusual structure but a wise move on the creators' part. As a lawyer, Patty tries civil cases against big companies. (Damages, get it?) When Ellen enters her lair, er, firm, Patty is suing Chief Executive Arthur Frobisher (Danson, with that terrific silver hair), who may have coerced his employees into investing in his company mere days before he dumped his stock. To prove this, Patty must find someone who saw him talking to his stockbroker in the key two-day period. As far as McGuffins go, this is not the most spine-tingling. Though the theft of workers' savings and 401(k) plans makes for tragic headlines, as far as televised drama ... well, it's much better to open with a bloody young woman running half-naked in front of a cab.
The contrast between the scenes of past and present help create that dramatic Grail -- the true psychological thriller. It doesn't matter, in the end, what the actual case is. The show is about the battle of two ruthless adversaries, Patty and Arthur, and Patty's psychological seduction of Ellen. "You know what I like about you?" Patty tells the younger woman, her head tilted charmingly to one side. "You don't fall for" B.S.
As any world-class player knows, the first thing you have to do is make the mark feel smarter than she might actually be. The case grows ever more complicated -- the person who can put Frobisher and his broker in the same room, for instance, turns out to be Katie, Ellen's future sister-in-law -- and it's hard to know how much seduction is necessary. For all her alabaster blandness, Ellen seems like a pretty tough cookie. But Close's chilling ability to say the most cold-blooded thing in such a well-modulated, lovely manner would be hypnotic if she were selling shoes.
"How old were you?" she asks Katie (Anastasia Griffith) at their initial meeting.
"I'd just turned 6."
"When I realized I was a good liar. How old were you?"
Great dialogue, perfect delivery. Close is a big old-fashioned American movie star (thank heavens there are a few of them left), and in "Damages" she proves that genus is just as flexible as its British cousin. Like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, her performance illuminates rather than outshines with its high wattage. It would be easy to compare Patty to Alex ("I will not be ignored") Forrest in "Fatal Attraction," but that would miss the point. Alex was a damaged, out-of-control victim, while Patty is precisely the opposite. Besides, it isn't at all clear that she is the bad guy. Frobisher seems capable of bilking his employees and stopping at nothing, including murder, to cover it up. If that turns out to be the case, then won't Patty's extreme measures seem justified, her schemes and machinations something like heroic? And on whose hands, besides Ellen's, will the blood be?
We've got a whole season to find out. Can't wait.
When: 10 to 11 tonight
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)