If "Damages" -- which begins its second season tonight -- was presented purely as an acting demonstration, where the cast members would simply do a marvelous scene and then stop, leading into another actor doing a marvelous scene, and then stop -- but wait. That's kind of what "Damages" already is ...
Let me backtrack for a moment to say that, during my vacation, I read Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons." Considering what a big deal Brown now is, I was mildly surprised to find the dialogue was terrible, the characters' behavior inconsistent, at least one plot twist should have been terribly obvious to the characters and some scenes went on so long I though that I was trapped in the middle of an especially burdensome Ayn Rand monologue.
And still, I kept turning the pages, wondering what happened next, not only with a sense of obligation but with a certain enthusiasm because the whole thing was so wildly unbelievable that I knew just about anything was possible.
This brings me to "Damages," which also embraces the wildly unbelievable, even relishes it. In the first season, and in the two episodes I have seen of the second, anything was possible, any character could turn from hero to villain and back again, almost anyone could wind up dead. It did not seem to matter that the anything-anytime philosophy required that the characters act in a way that made no sense, even in the context of their previous behavior, or that any viewer with the slightest expectation of rationality had to toss that aside and just enjoy the ride. "Damages" is "24" with a more deliberate pace and less torture.
I don't have much patience for its storytelling. Indeed, when watching the second episode of the new season, I found myself impatiently skipping to near its end, to see what the big twist was and move along. But I can't honestly say I won't watch any more, time perimitting, because of two things.
One is the same thing that kept me plowing through "Angels & Demons," simple curiosity. The other is that, as I said at the beginning of this post, you get these marvelous pieces of acting. Indeed, the new season starts with Rose Byrne -- who plays Ellen Parsons -- delivering a wonderful, terrifying speech that is better than anything she did in the first season. (Ellen -- our window into the brilliant, unscrupulous Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) -- is much changed since the first season, at once harder and more glamorous, eerily closer in personality to Patty than she would probably want to acknowledge.)
Later in the same episode, a new character played by "Deadwood's" Timothy Olyphant gets his own set piece, and is equally impressive. Ted Danson, back as Arthur Frobisher, gets a juicy scene and does well with it. Also striding into the show are the likes if William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, neither a slouch in the acting department (although with uneven resumes, even if each includes an Oscar). Then there's Close, who can take control of a scene with a change of expression so subtle that you can't help but pause and admire it.
If only there wasn't that plot, next to which the acting seems too good for the material. The story is a complicated one even two episodes in, one picking up baggage from the previous season while introducing an array of new characters, including Hurt's scientist, Harden's attorney and a wealthy Hewes friend played deftly by James Naughton. It all leads, FX promises, to a "vast conspiracy." As if it could go anywhere else.