TERRY GROSS, host:
While broadcast TV has spent lots of energy and money reconfiguring its late night roster. Cable TV is proceeding as usual, turning out shows in primetime that are welcome alternatives to what the major networks have to offer.
Our TV Critic David Bianculli notes the return of a few such shows tonight.
DAVID BIANCULLI: So far, in the year 2010, there hasnt been a better, more compelling serialized drama on TV than the Jay versus Conan battle. But that ended Friday - and ended, for the record, with a farewell show from Conan OBrien that was classy in its restraint, and in his gratitude to NBC for giving him his career in the first place. But that was Friday. Now its Monday. So now what? On commercial TV, we have one sizzling offering - the fifth hour of "24" on Fox, with Jack Bauer, getting involved in a New York assassination plot.
On PBS, on "American Experience," we have a really interesting biography of Wyatt Earp - one that goes far beyond the usual portrayal of the Western lawman in popular movies. But unless you turn to cable, thats about it. On cable, though, the joint is jumping. The best cable series returning tonight, beginning its third season is "Damages," the intelligently crafted legal series from the FX Network. It stars Glenn Close as super-lawyer Patty Hewes, a woman who is as successful as she is ruthless. Like Tony Soprano, shes both the hero and villain of her own series. And Close, in this role, is just great.
She acts with such range and such subtlety, its the best and most nuanced performance by a female lead since Helen Mirren starred in "Prime Suspect." And Close, in "Damages," is keeping some fast company, and giving them chances to shine just as brightly. In season one, her main antagonist was played by Ted Danson, in a role that forever shattered his stereotype as the affable bartender Sam Malone on Cheers. The second year, Close played opposite William Hurt, her old co-star from "The Big Chill."
And this year on "Damages," the recurring players include Keith Carradine, who's made a new playing great supporting roles in such shows as "Deadwood," and "Dexter;" and also knew to the series are Lily Tomlin and Martin Short, who, like Ted Danson, play it straight and play it beautifully. The primary plot, this year, has Patty Hewes prosecuting Louis Tobin, a man accused of a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Heres a scene in which Glenn Close, as Patty, is conducting a deposition. The Tobin family lawyer played by Martin Short is there, and answering Pattys questions is Tobins wife, played by Lily Tomlin, played very nicely and very icily.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Damages")
Ms. GLENN CLOSE (Actor): (as Patty Hewes) And thats when he told us about the fraud.
Ms. LILY TOMLIN (Actor): (as Marilyn Tobin) That it was a Ponzi scheme.
Ms. CLOSE: (as Patty Hewes) Yes. He said the business is all a lie. The investments werent real. He said he couldnt hide it anymore.
Ms. TOMLIN: (as Marilyn Tobin) Your son, Joe, contacted the district attorney the next morning. Isnt that right?
Ms. CLOSE: (as Patty Hewes) Yes.
Ms. TOMLIN: (as Marilyn Tobin) Did that make you angry?
Ms. CLOSE: (as Patty Hewes) What my son does is his own business.
Ms. TOMLIN: (as Marilyn Tobin) Joe worked for your husband. Do you think he knew about the scheme?
Mr. MARTIN SHORT (Actor): (as Leonard Widmore) Objection. Calls for speculation. Ms. Tobin cant be expected to guess whats in her sons head.
Ms. TOMLIN: (as Marilyn Tobin) You want to depose Joe, ask him.
Ms. CLOSE: (as Patty Hewes) Ms. Tobin, you said that you knew nothing about your husbands fraud.
Ms. TOMLIN: (as Marilyn Tobin) Yes.
Ms. CLOSE: (as Patty Hewes) You shared your life with him for over 40 years and yet you didnt know that he was stealing.
Ms. TOMLIN: (as Marilyn Tobin) Actually I Im so sorry. Can you get me an earl-grey, no sugar, dash of skim?
BIANCULLI: She may ask for skim, but "Damages" is the cream of a crop. Another cable show I enjoy a lot - another one returning tonight - is "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," beginning its third season on Showtime. Billie Piper stars as Hannah, a young woman making her way through British society by adopting an alter ego as a prostitute named Belle and blogging about it. Its based on a real woman in England, who not only blogged about her secret life, but published a popular book about it, and recently revealed her true identity.
As this new season begins, the TV version of Belle has just seen her book published, and her life changes a bit as a result. It all may sound tawdry or tacky, but it really isnt. Pipers vulnerable yet charming performance sees to that. And "Secret Diary" actually has a lot more class and ambition than, say, your average late-night offering on Cinemax. Finally, also on Showtime tonight, theres a new season of Tracey Ullmans "State of the Union," in which the amazing Ullman - half comedienne, half chameleon - burns through about a dozen outlandish caricatures or impressions in each show.
In this years opener, in the makeup room for a TV talk show, she impersonates not only Rachel Maddow, but Ariana Huffington, Barney Frank and several others - all at the same time - courtesy of clever editing and special effects. The problem, though, is that the techniques and the makeup are so distracting, the comedy itself is kind of diluted. I feel like I should be laughing more, especially since Ullmans talents are so impressive. But as with "Damages," and "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," Ullmans series is another welcome midseason return, and another watchable alternative to what the broadcast networks arent offering these days.
GROSS: David Bianculli writes for tvworthwatching.com, and teaches TV and film at Rowan University. His new book is called, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
Im Terry Gross.
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