Genre Benders

Illustration: Rodrigo Corral and Steve Attardo. Photo: Courtesy of FX (Damages); Courtesy of Syfy (Caprica).

You’re a lawyer, right? You’re good at puzzles? I thought we could figure this out together.”

Damages was a captivating series from its first episode, with its stylish chronological shuffle and machinations among smart, well-dressed liars. It was a puzzle show, like Lost, except that the island was Manhattan. Then the season ended, and that initial mystery—bloodstained Rose Byrne, the Statue of Liberty paperweight matted with hair—was denuded and demystified.

The novelty chipped off further during the second season, although the show still had brilliant elements, especially Ted Danson’s ongoing portrait of self-pitying CEO Arthur Frobisher, a great modern monster. That’s the risky quality of structurally experimental television. A playfully contrived movie only has to mix you up for two hours; a show full of flashbacks and red herrings has a higher bar, once it gets past the first dozen episodes. By the second season, any show like this (24 comes to mind) has invented and cemented its own clichés. To go further, the writers need to raise the stakes.

Damages has managed to do that in its third season, both by killing a major character—Tate Donovan’s Tom Shayes—and hooking his story to a real-life scandal, the Madoff case. (Like The Good Wife, the show mines the audience’s curiosity about the inner lives of the rich and guilty—I assume a buddy show based on John Edwards and Tiger Woods is in the works.) The cast is star-studded: Lily Tomlin as the Ponzi schemer’s wife; Campbell Scott as his icily tormented son; and Martin Short, exuding elfin creepiness as Lenny, the family’s lawyer. Dominic Chianese, The Sopranos’ Uncle Jun, is hanging around, too, as is Brother Mouzone from The Wire, and Craig Bierko does a nice turn as a coyly manipulative Hollywood star. By refueling with the Madoffs, the show’s writers have brought a titillating jolt to the show’s by-now-established riffling of silvery, half-concealed trauma flashbacks. Even if, in the end, it’s nothing more than highly lacquered candy, it’s tasty stuff.

Caprica might seem like a peculiar show to compare to Damages: One is an adult cable drama, the other a prequel to Battlestar Galactica. But visually, the two series share a surprising amount, including a noir aesthetic and a devotion to puzzle solving. Caprica, still in the first season, has an even more baroque structural conceit than the chronologically shuffled shows that have come to dominate TV: Nearly half the series is set in a virtual world. Its own Arthur Frobisher is Eric Stoltz as Daniel Graystone, the CEO who invented a total-immersion avatar playground, a grid as dominant in his culture as Google is in ours. Paula Malcomson plays his prickly, fragile, privileged wife, and there are solid performances by a cast of teenagers, including Genevieve Buechner as a girl trapped in a virtual world and Alessandra Torresani as (work with me here!) the Graystones’ daughter Zoe, whose personality code has been uploaded into a sentient robot, the first draft of the Terminator-like Cylons that will terrorize humans in the future.

Like Lost (or Buffy or Battlestar Galactica), Caprica sounds ridiculous when you try to explain it to anyone who is not already a sci-fi cultist. “There’s this thing called the Holoband! It’s an alternate world where people can play out fantasies. But it looks like a really insane nightclub—or sometimes like a forties landscape with a lot of rain, and mobsters, and femmes fatales.” Damages is superficially sophisticated but mainly just juicy genre fun, while Caprica is superficially silly but (at its best) philosophically dense. Like the best sci-fi, it goes deeper than mere personal psychology. The Holoband is many things: a drug, a religious experience, the Internet. Visually, though, it’s a video game, one in which “figuring out the object of the game is the object of the game.” It takes a few episodes for this weird notion to kick in, but when it does, it raises dazzling notions about the mind-body problem, the moral implications of artificial intelligence, and pop culture as social control. Who knows how I’ll feel about it by season three, but right now, I’m entranced.

Mondays at 10.

Fridays at 9.

Genre Benders