Can the second season of FX's delicious 'Damages' possibly surpass the first? Yes.
Clear your evening schedule, put the cellphone on silent and get those kids to bed early; “Damages” is back, so focus, people, focus. Exhibit A in the struggling sub-genre of Shut-That-Laptop-and-Pay-Attention television, FX's fledgling drama premiered last season with a plot so convoluted you needed a crib sheet and relationship with time based, apparently, on someone's favorite acid trip.
It was terrific, of course, with Glenn Close as the seductive and duplicitous ace lawyer Patty Hewes stalking debauched CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), who bilked his employees of their jobs and pensions while drawing doe-eyed neophyte Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) into a web of lies that left Ellen's fiancé dead and Ellen running, half-naked and covered in blood, through the streets of New York.
Close and Danson guaranteed critical attention and "Damages" delivered; it opened big and played like a top-notch psycho-thriller feature film, only it was better because it lasted for months instead of hours. Emmy nominations all around, with Zeljko Ivanek winning best supporting actor in a drama for his portrayal of Ray Fiske, Patty's poor doomed opponent in the Frobisher case.
So how on Earth do you top, or even follow, that? By bringing back everyone involved (including, marvelously, the dead characters) and a bunch of their powerhouse friends to answer that age-old question: What do you do when you believe your boss has tried to kill you?
If the first season of "Damages" was the story of Ellen's loss of innocence, Season 2, which begins tonight, follows, in a similar stutter-step time frame, her armed-and-ready foray into the world that stole it. The first episode opens, as last season did, with Ellen in present time. But instead of looking traumatized and blood-soaked, she is clearly in charge, brandishing a highball as she addresses a mysterious someone -- Patty? The mirror? Some soon to be introduced character? -- about his or her need to be afraid.
It isn't, frankly, the eyeball grabber that last season's opening motif was, mainly because Byrne does not quite have the inner python necessary to go one-on-one with the camera, but it does make it clear that things have changed. Quite a bit.
And they have. Patty has pulled down Frobisher, who, though shot and left for dead, is not. (That sound you hear is the collective sigh of the relieved multitudes, many of whom have interrupted holiday parties to grab my arm and ask in tones often bordering on desperation whether Danson had signed on for a second season.) Though basking in her win and the charity she is spearheading, Patty seems a bit off her game, less sleek and self-satisfied than before. Something, it would seem, is nagging at her. Literally. Could it be her attempted murder of Ellen (if that is actually what it was)? Ellen couldn't care less, since she is so over Patty that she is now colluding with the feds to bring her down. Or at least they seem to be the feds, and they seem to be colluding. This is "Damages," after all, so who knows?
But no one will be allowed to wallow in angst for long, or at least not only that. Forces are gathering, mostly in the shape of Daniel Purcell (William Hurt), a scientist who seems to know too much about shady doings at an energy company called Ultima National Resources. (With a name like that, surely they're up to no good.) Daniel turns to Patty, with whom he has a thorny but undisclosed relationship, for help, and before you can say "Get me Claire Maddox," Marcia Gay Harden's in the mix, as Maddox, the lawyer for Ultima, who has her own personal stakes (of course she does).
In the first three episodes, there is murder, near-murder, theft, hallucinations, lots of secret meetings, much classified document shuffling and key revelations about Patty's past. (I mean, key if they're true.) Ellen chafes when told it could take years to bring Patty down and takes matters into her own hands (Ellen, have you learned nothing?) while fending off the advances of Wes (Timothy Olyphant), a guy she met in group grief therapy who is most certainly not there simply to provide romantic tension.
If this all seems maddeningly vague, well, what do you want from me? Even if I had a theory, it would probably be wrong and I wouldn't tell you anyway. But here's what I know: The first episode may be a bit rocky in the beginning, what with the reintroduction of characters and story lines, but the second season of "Damages" promises to be even better than the first.
William Hurt offers a glorious, gimlet-eyed tower of contradictions, Rose Byrne has given Ellen a nice, jagged brittleness (down to her matchstick arms), and I'll turn on the television to watch Marcia Gay Harden and Glenn Close face off over the fate of the environment, or a bunch of kids, or William Hurt or just about anything (although if it turns out they're long-separated sisters I'll go with that too).
The deliciously tangled story threads, the endless possibilities, the killer performances, the really great lighting, even the mysterious Uncle Pete (Tom Aldredge) are all mustered and seething once again, a siren song of television to which we, our beloved multitasking forgotten, can only surrender once again.
Photo: Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne, left) tries to bring Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) down on "Damages." Craig Blankenhorne / FX