LEAD: Glenn Close returns as hard-edged Patty Hewes on the FX drama. (FX )
The good folks behind FX's “Damages” have apparently never heard of the sophomore slump. Opening with a bang, literally, the third season of this gravity-defying balancing act of a show promises to be the best one yet.
Jumping at the chance to fictionalize Bernie Madoff, here thinly disguised as Ponzi-architect Louis Tobin (Len Cariou), creators Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman offer us the mouth-watering opportunity to see what would happen if our gal Patty could get to the bottom of things, all in the name of the defrauded masses: murder and mayhem, of course, presented in the show's signature and still tantalizing time-warped bits and carried out by yet another killer ensemble.
The first season's casting revelation was Ted Danson's power mad chief executive, Arthur Frobisher; the second, William Hurt's wife-murdering scientist Daniel Purcell and Marcia Gay Harden's tough as nails lawyer Claire Maddox. For Season 3, the producers not only tapped Lily Tomlin to play Louis' wife, Marilyn, and Campbell Scott his barely recovering alcoholic son Joe, but they've also got Martin Short doing a fabulously sinister stare-down as the Tobin family lawyer, Leonard Winstone.
Martin Short! As the hard-ass lawyer! This is why "Damages" is one of the best shows on television -- it operates without fear.
The fabulous original cast is still with us, though perhaps not for long. Patty's protégé/victim Ellen (Rose Byrne) has left Hewes and Associates for a job in the district attorney's office, members of which are, of course, attempting to nail Tobin and his family on criminal charges even as Patty is the court-appointed civil litigator. Which means a lot of off-the-record confabs between Ellen and Tom (Tate Donovan), who conveniently remain let's-do-lunch friends.
Both teams are furiously trying to discover where Tobin has put whatever is left of his money, which opens up the plot for unfettered double-agenting, double-talk and mysterious people of interest, including architect Julian Decker (Keith Carradine) and a remarkably articulate homeless man played with relish by Michael Laurence.
Although Patty and Ellen may have reached a detente (or have they?), and Tom seems poised to become partner (or is he?), Patty's in the middle of a far from amicable divorce (or is it?)
So how surprising is it that after the season's opening scene, in which Decker hits on a laughing and softly lighted Patty, we see her driving alone only to be murderously broadsided. When, dazed and confused, she looks into the other car, she sees nothing but an inflated air bag and something that resembles the Lady Liberty bookend that killed Ellen's fiancé in Season 1.
Have Patty's sins come home to roost? Or is there a whole new set of folks who'd like to kill her?
Early episodes offer twists and turns galore, including, impossibly, the death of a main character, though veteran "Damages" viewers know better than to trust these early scenes. If history is any indicator, pretty much everyone will turn out to be lying, intentionally or not, and the action should be read like a partial photograph, with the images that supply context lurking just out of frame.
But even more important than the brilliant story line is the air of confidence that permeates early episodes. From the moment it debuted, "Damages" was something else again, but there were rough spots as the actors, the ground shifting almost weekly beneath their feet, tried to fix their characters.
This time around everyone, Byrne in particular, moves with an air of confidence that allows you to keep your eyes on the knives being juggled in the air rather than the person doing the juggling.
Which is exactly where you want the audience's eyes to be when you're pulling off a con, or a show like "Damages."