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Leading Women: Damages and Saving Grace

Star power: Hunter and Close, below, take on the small screen. (Photo by Frank Ockenfels)

Star power: Hunter and Close, below, take on the small screen. (Photo by Frank Ockenfels)

Kyra Sedgwick never had the movie career that Glenn Close or Holly Hunter did, but her success heading TNT’s ratings-hot police procedural The Closer — which just started its third season as popular as ever — has certainly led the way for experienced actresses of their caliber to strut a certain charismatic maturity as the leads of two new TV series. (On broadcast television, middle-aged women, unless they’re a desperate housewife, are lucky if they nab the role of a 20-something’s mother.) Of course, Close and Hunter are already established small-screen presences — Close having starred in countless made-for-TV films, plus an entire season on The Shield, and Hunter reaching docudrama-queen status playing Jane Roe, Billie Jean King and the Texas cheerleader-murdering mom — but now they’re fronting their own shows. Close is the star of FX’s new suspense drama Damages, about a ruthless New York lawyer, while Hunter grabs the reins of a vice-ridden Oklahoma detective on TNT’s newest series, Saving Grace.

Close and Hunter became unlikely movie stars in the 1980s by way of a fortunately timed trajectory of performances that, by skipping the ingénue stage altogether, aimed straight at adult spikiness. They flocked to the eccentric, invariably upped the excitement quotient of any movie they were in, and demanded respect, often overcoming the perception that they might seem ill suited to certain roles. Diminutive, chipmunk-cute and armed with a sidewinding Tennessee bark, Hunter was a comedy natural for something like Raising Arizona, but it never hindered her galvanizing breakthrough turn as a D.C.-based TV segment producer in Broadcast News. And you knew Close’s intelligent regality made her perfect for something Machiavellian and costumey like Dangerous Liaisons, but a hot-blooded mistress on a violent revenge tear? Close so permeated the nooks and crannies of the trashily risible Fatal Attraction that it’s easy to forget we never actually see her boil that bunny.

Close’s omnipresence gives weight to the slickly evocative Damages as well: Her Patty Hewes is a force even when she isn’t in a scene. That’s partly because the pilot’s script by creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman informs us often enough — as explained to the character who serves as our entry point, wide-eyed law-school grad and Hewes protégée Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) — that Patty is the kind of big-name lawyer whose high-powered patronage is all-encompassing, and she tends to swallow employees whole.

“There won’t be room for him and Patty,” a lawyer (Philip Bosco) at a rival firm warns Ellen when she mentions she has a fiancé (David Connor). “There won’t be room for you and Patty.”

But this aura of ubiquity mostly comes from what a gifted actress like Close does when she knows we’re observing. With minimal gesturing and a tendency to keep her aristocratic face and soothing contralto as controlled as possible, she oozes I-get-what-I-want power but also a poker player’s calculating evenness. Her demeanor — whether providing face time with clients she’s trying to win big jury awards for, or dispensing wisdom while she does a little paperwork, or even dog walking — projects a kind of quietly fierce, self-possessed and even magnetic exclusivity, as if we should be awed and grateful that Patty Hewes agreed to appear in her own story.

This isn’t off-putting, either. In fact, Close’s burnished enigma characterization works beautifully because Damages, which will spend its 13-episode season detailing the six months that led to the opening shots of a blood-covered Ellen escaping a murder scene, is more a well-oiled genre exercise than the stuff of rigorous personality study. If it were, we’d want the actory moment when an egomaniacal talent magnet like Patty learns that Ellen at first passed on the chance to join Hewes & Associates because the main interview with Patty conflicted with Ellen’s sister getting married. Instead, we get the thriller-ish moment when Patty suddenly appears to Ellen — not as shockingly as Close did in Fatal Attraction, but certainly with the surprise of a daunting authority figure when you’ve just done something bad — in the ladies’ room at the wedding. Smiling, brandishing a glass of bourbon, she offers Ellen a spot-on, gently withering analysis of her conflicted sense of ambition, ending with, “You turned it down to be with your family. It’s an interesting choice.”

Naturally, she gets the job, which means Ellen must throw herself into the massive civil suit that is occupying most of Patty’s time, an Enron-like situation in which an insanely wealthy CEO named Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) allegedly inflated his company’s stock in order to cash out and leave invested employees high and dry. Frobisher wants to settle, and perhaps most importantly he wants the silence of a pretty young chef (Anastasia Griffith) who may hold a crucial piece of information that he doesn’t want to see revealed at a trial. But while Frobisher — played with the right mixture of zillionaire hubris and cornered lion by Danson — indulges in some decidedly villainous chess moves, the contours of the case indicate that Patty is a compromised crusader with a flair for machination and play acting who wouldn’t be out of place in one of David Mamet’s grand con tales. And thanks to Close’s coolly radiant turn, Damages promises to be knife-twisting good fun.

I wish I could say I found something equally enjoyable in Hunter’s series, Saving Grace. But where Close is after a portrait of domination and mystery that doesn’t always require her to hog screen time, Hunter seems to mostly flail in a show that is too unremarkable for her talents. The structure is renegade-cop procedural, with Hunter’s spitfire character Grace Hanadarko a Sipowicz-like rule breaker on the Oklahoma City police force. She combines work obsessiveness with a self-destructive bent that includes alcohol abuse and a raucous affair with a married guy (Kenneth Johnson) in her squad. The gimmick, however, appears after a drunk-driving Grace hits a bystander on the road one night: a shaggy, T-shirt-wearing, tobacco-chewing, drawling angel (Leon Rippy) named Earl — what’s with trailer-park-inspired TV do-gooders named Earl? — who informs Grace that she’s running out of time to right herself.

The problem is that I’d rather be touched by how Hunter portrays a lost soul in turnaround than touched by an angel. It means Saving Grace, which was created by Nancy Miller (who last wrote for that other twangy investigator, Sedgwick’s Brenda Johnson on The Closer), is too busy serving the gods of crime shows and spirituality episodics to leave us much in the way of a cohesive, gripping character drama about redemption. It doesn’t help that the mysteries aren’t terribly interesting, and the scenes with Earl have a kind of bland crypto-religious irreverence that at times feels like high-school-level playwriting, and at other times disingenuous. He makes jokes about working for You Know Who, she complains about Earl’s intrusiveness, they wrestle in a Greek theater in the sky (yes, you read that right). There’s plenty of “God” talk — and apparently Earl visits Jewish temples and Muslim countries — but no Jesus patter. Isn’t this the Bible Belt?

What’s a shame is that in individual scenes you can get glimpses of Hunter’s effectiveness playing strong modern women. It’s fun watching her take down a rich, lewd cattle rancher, and in a lovely scene at the end of the pilot — in which she visits the Oklahoma City bombing memorial with her nephew, and we get a sense of how much trauma this family has suffered — Hunter can cleanly evoke the sadness that drives her job and her headlong ways. So my faith in this award-winning actress hasn’t wavered, but as for a weekly series debut, Saving Grace isn’t quite the worship service I was hoping for.

DAMAGES | FX | Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

SAVING GRACE | TNT | Mondays, 10 p.m.