by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Damages (FX, Tuesdays, 10 pm)
Saving Grace (TNT, Mondays, 10 pm)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & wo Oscar-winning actresses on basic cable, in shows premiering in midsummer. Weird. Where else are you going to see Holly Hunter or Glenn Close, though? Nowhere, that's where. If you're a middle-aged woman who isn't Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep, the silver screen doesn't want you. Basic cable, though, might. Following their premium-cable cousins, basic networks are pushing limits, defying censorship and catering to niche markets. Presumably to snag the pepper-gray, FX and TNT have each lured an older Oscar-winner with promises of career-redefining roles.
Seemingly by corporate mandate, FX goes for gritty ensembles (The Shield, Rescue Me, The Riches) while TNT creates shows around single characters (The Closer, Heartland). It's not surprising that Hunter gets the better character from TNT. Similarly unsurprising: Close has the better show.
Damages is a legal potboiler and cultural commentary on women's evolving place among the power elite. Patty Hewes (Close) is probably the best litigator in America. This seems to have come at a high personal price. She hires an upstart named Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) based on instinct and maybe -- probably -- definitely -- a hidden agenda. Blood and legal briefs flow. Following Ellen more than Hewes and swirling with intriguing performances (more Ted Danson!), Close is kept distant, mysterious, human and satisfying.
Saving Grace, conversely, is a character vehicle and nothing else. Hunter plays a drunk, adulterous, atheistic wreck named Grace who just happens to be the best damned homicide detective in Oklahoma City. After killing a man -- while driving drunk -- she asks for God's help. God duly assigns an angel with a taste for chewing tobacco. Cute. To add pathos, we learn that Grace was molested by a priest. Tired. Hunter has fun with the religious, psycho-sexual grab bag she's given, but Saving Grace never adds up to the sum of its parts. Indeed, it doesn't have many parts at all. The supporting characters are automatons.
It's a truism that didn't need to be proved again for the 40-to-60-year-old demographic, but TNT did it anyway: No matter how kooky-great a central character is, it's the contextual framework (themes, supporting characters, foils, conflict) that makes a story compelling. Television -- in sticking with stories for 10 or 20 or 80 hours -- makes that dependence greater, not less.
Damages is making something of itself, but I fear there's no saving Grace.
Who Wants To Be a Superhero?
Real people dress up as the superhero characters they create, battling evil in reality-TV-style. Stan Lee nicely recreates (most of) my childhood fantasies. This is just about the only reason besides Battlestar Galactica to watch Sci-Fi. (Apologies to devotees of large, poorly-rendered serpents.) (Sci-Fi, Thursday, 9 pm)
You can tell a CIA talkie is going for authenticity when its main character is a nerdy chump with a weak jaw (see The Good German). Chris O'Donnell's looking a little puffy, but could still probably slice meat with those jowls, so the scorecard's mixed. (TNT, Sunday, 8 pm)
Masters of Sci-Fi
Two years after Showtime began airing Masters of Horror (with thoroughly mixed results), ABC upped the geek anthology stakes considerably ... then effectively killed it. Masters of Sci-Fi is a brilliant, writer-driven, well-casted thing that's been mangled into a four-episode castoff. Catch it while you can. (ABC, Saturday, 10 pm)