Cornered Office

Trust Me's admen McCormack (left) and Cavanaugh.Photo: Karen Neal/Courtesy of TNT

To judge from decades of TV drama, we all love our jobs—or, rather, we all are our jobs. Existentially, at heart, beneath the skin, under our suits, we are prosecutors or surgeons or president of the universe (and on television, there are few other jobs: With the exception of The Office, TV provides the fantasy that our jobs always matter deeply). At home only among our workmates, we spend days in meaningful collaboration, which is to say, stylized bickering—strutting Sorkinishly down the hallway or making bad puns over a homicide victim, often with a quasi-erotic charge.

TV offers a dreamscape of a work life so intense, so embracing, that such sniping partnerships are deeper than any love affair, a fact sometimes lamented on these shows but inevitably accepted as transcendent truth. This is particularly true on series about the creative workplace—for a TV writer, the equivalent of an autobiography. This may mean the marriage of one neurotic (thirtysomething’s Michael Steadman, Sports Night’s Casey McCall) with one louche type (Elliot Weston, Dan Rydell). Often it’s one exasperated goody-goody (Mary Richards, Liz Lemon, Newsradio’s Dave Nelson) hitched to an ensemble as diverse as a platoon in a World War II movie. Perhaps there’s an opaque, magisterial, cranky boss (Lou Grant, thirtysomething’s Miles Drentell). Maybe there’s a stallionesque horndog (Suddenly Susan’s Luis Rivera, Newsradio’s Joe Garrelli). Always, there are explosive brainstorms, which function like sex scenes on an HBO series, providing catharsis and naughty verve.

Trust Me is a neat spin on this ancient tradition—and in fact, I shall grandly state that it is, in both its lovable and off-putting elements, a workplace drama for our time. Set in the world of advertising, the series has it both ways: It makes the development of catchphrases for cell phones feel as fraught as a Chicago hospital, all while maintaining an ironic distance from that very conceit. Like a certain type of hyperwitty ad, Trust Me can be a little glib. And yet beneath its screwball rhythms, it captures something very modern, the sickening rush of the glamorous workplace under financial threat: the terror of the blank page, the fear of being a hack, the reassuring monologue of grandiosity a “creative” delivers when she feels she’s being overlooked, and possibly made (in that poignant British word for fired) redundant. On Trust Me, creativity is fueled by the sense that the beautiful job is about to disappear.

There have been a few series about ad folk: thirtysomething, One Day at a Time, and Bewitched come to mind. And, of course, there’s Mad Men, that eerie slipstream of early sixties nostalgia, in which the production of a great slogan is the equivalent of a brilliant novel, so cynical are those who produce them. Trust Me is a lighter concoction, all smarty-pants rhythms and dinka-dinka-dink energy music. But it too has a convincing anxiety at its center, a sense that all the patter—these guys are funny, but they do tend to talk in catchphrase italics—is there to fend off something bad that’s on the way. A boss’s nail taps on a desk during a bad presentation. A man dies mid-brainstorm, his heart finally giving out from the competition.

The show stars Eric McCormack as, basically, Will from Will & Grace—handsome, conventional, and prickly. But rather than a straightish gay guy, here he’s a gayish straight guy, and his name is Mason. He’s paired with a louche partner, Ed’s Tom Cavanaugh as Conner, a lanky, goofball, chatterbox bachelor, cast in the Jack role.

The series thrives on the engine of these two charmers and their spitting, fizzing mutual charisma, but it also owes a debt to Josh Ferris’s group-narrated And Then We Came to the End—it even features a moment when, as in that novel, a character steals a fancy office chair from a dead colleague’s office. The show shares that book’s aura of jaunty doom, its debate about precisely what kind of personality it takes to stay employed in terrible times. After a rage-filled boss rants about the necessity of scaring clients into submission, Mason snaps at him, “I guess I just think it’s possible to do this job without being an asshole.” The boss explodes back: “Do you think you’re safe because everybody likes you? You’re not.”

People shout a lot on Trust Me. Things like, “This agency will collapse under the weight of its own mediocrity!” and “Anyone who is planning on spending time with their significant other this week, cancel it!” Anxiety music rushes in when new people are hired, and during the show’s many meetings, there’s an air of nauseous resentment: over who is getting a window, who is the favored “creative,” over the fear that even talented people feel that their inventiveness is sputtering like bad gasoline.

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.

Photo: Craig Blankenhorne/Courtesy of FX

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.

Photo: Lacey Terrell/Courtesy of HBO

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.

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Trust Me
TNT. Mondays at 10 p.m.
Premieres January 26.

FX. Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

Lie to Me
Fox. Wednesdays at 9 p.m.
Premieres January 21.

Big Love
HBO. Sundays at 9 p.m.
Premieres January 18.

Cornered Office