The ensemble is smart and spiky, particularly Griffin Dunne as Tony Mink, the office’s opaque, magisterial, cranky boss. But the standout so far is Monica Potter as Sarah Krajicek-Hunter, an inspired basket case stymied by fits of arrogance and an inability to play nice in largely male offices. In the premiere’s funniest scene, Sarah’s ex-boss ticks off a list of why he doesn’t like her, concluding with, “You’re a good writer, but there are a lot of good writers in this city. I’m going to go hire one I don’t hate.”
There are dangers in a show like this: As anyone who has watched one too many episodes of Gilmore Girls or The West Wing can attest, patter can curdle into cutesy blah-blah-blah. The “dramedy” blend of wit with sentiment is tough to maintain. And a person can only take so much shouting. Yet magically, the show does manage to make the creation of a new advertising campaign—those false starts and lurches into creativity—feel like visceral stuff, passionate and obsessive enough to devote your life to. “You live and die by this stuff,” his boss’s boss tells Mason as he promotes him over his partner and best friend, and in the tradition of aspirational “be the ball” workplace clichés, it’s praise that feels like a gunshot to the head.
To judge from its urbane surfaces, one might imagine Damages to be a nuanced, noirish exploration of amorality among the litigators, a character study of Glenn Close’s shivery antihero Patty Hewes, with her basilisk gaze and master-puppeteer ways. But watch a few episodes, and the series starts to feel suspiciously more like Lost, only set on Manhattan island: an entertaining-but-shallow puzzle of chronology, all paranoia and high-camp red herrings. This season, Hewe’s former dupe Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is back for revenge, and she’s wandering around looking smeary-eyed and, well, damaged, collaborating with the FBI. Thank God for Ted Danson, who is also back as the magnificently self-pitying CEO Arthur Frobisher, one of the single best performances of last season, along with a twitchy William Hurt and a perpetually amused Timothy Olyphant. The revenge plot is promising, but it’s a little freaky to see Patty Hewes vulnerable so early in the season: The show leans so much on Close’s cold smirk, I’m not sure I want to see her chessboard queen lose anything to Byrne’s pawn.
Call it the know-it-all procedural. In this weirdly replicating new genre, an expert taunts everyone with his brilliance and proves them all wrong. The arrogant expert’s gift is indistinguishable from his or her massive personality flaws: On Monk, he’s phobic; on House, pathologically cranky; on The Mentalist, he’s sort of a psychic; on Medium, she’s actually a psychic. On Lie to Me—based on fascinating real-life studies of lying and facial expressions—our annoying hero is Dr. Cal Lightman, a behavior genius, played by Tim Roth with a breezy British snottiness that would surely get him punched in the face regularly, a fact that the show, to its credit, does acknowledge. “Personally, I think what you do is a joke,” sneers a suit. “It’s a friggin’ carnival act.” But he’s wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong! The show is slack and often phony and stuffed with TV clichés, but the science is wildly fun, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a big hit.
A gorgeously weird pageant of repressed femininity, Big Love returns with its trademark elements intact: the polygamous family we root for despite ourselves, the three wives (sexy Margene, manipulative Nicki, and mournful Barb) and Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the blandly charismatic family man who toggles uneasily between seeker and sexist. This year, a fourth wife is in the mix: Eastern European Ana (Branka Katic), who has somewhat unrealistically decided to take the leap into this all-American experiment with quasi Mormonism. The trial of evil patriarch Roman Grant is ongoing, which allows all the loonier compound characters to get their moment—especially Bill’s shrill maniac of a mother, in a cover-your-eyes performance by the fabulous Grace Zabriskie. But it’s the second episode that brings the real payoff for Big Love fans, with the return of screwy child-bride Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), sad revelations about Chloë Sevigny’s sympathetic viper Nicki, and a magnificently fraught ending that suggests the ways in which the pull of this family will forever be as much of a trap for its women as it is a refuge.