Fire and Ice

Holly Hunter and Glenn Close get star vehicles.

Kenny Johnson and Holly Hunter in Saving Grace 

This week, in a gift to any entertainment journalist struggling to think up a trend piece, cable brings us the premieres of Saving Grace (TNT, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) and Damages (FX, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET). Grace features Holly Hunter as a hard-living police detective; Damages has Glenn Close as a hard-bitten litigator. Two actresses of a certain age, two writers’ rooms of uncertain talents, two dramas with definite luster.

Alas, on Damages, this is merely the glow of money: the cerulean blaze of backyard swimming pools, the candlelit warmth of yuppie apartment parties. By far the dumber and hammier of the two shows, it stars Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, top dog—a borzoi with the bite of a pinscher—at the expensively decorated Manhattan law firm of Hewes & Associates. Though her mascara plays up Close’s Cruella De Vil aspect, between the sandiness of her coloring and her peachy keen wardrobe, she rather resembles Martha Stewart.

Indeed, the Good Witch of Westport seems to have inspired the show’s producers, who have created Patty as a no-nonsense maternal intimidator. She plays hardball—Patty boasts of having discovered her talents as a liar at age 6—and does so with a superfluous flourish of disdain. At one point, she picks up some paperwork for the sole purpose of tossing it aside in derision. Later, she snorts at an inferior’s impertinence three beats after the kid has left the room. On the other hand, Patty solicits loyalty through cozy munificence. Ridiculously generous, she brings a puppy to a potential witness in a class-action suit; just plain ridiculously, she sets up a first-year associate in an Upper West Side co-op. This season’s halfway embarrassing plot concerns Patty’s battle against a corrupt CEO played by Ted Danson. To the actor’s evident delight, his role is constructed rather broadly. Don’t change the channel until after witnessing the moment in which Danson’s character, having just finished angrily humping a coked-up bimbo in the back of his SUV, orders a hit on a witness: “Do it!

Meanwhile, Saving Grace has a radiance that’s part magic-hour cinematography, part post-New Age spirituality, but mostly Holly Hunter, small and scampering and draping her uncombed hair across the screen. If Patty Hewes owes something to Martha, then Grace Hanadarko, an Oklahoma City cop, derives from Janis Joplin. She smokes without guilt and drinks to spectacular excess and sleeps with her partner, who’s married. A segment or two of Saving Grace will convince you that Hunter may well have invented smoking and drinking and screwing—or at least that she has not been this juicy outside of a Coen Brothers film or this foxy since Cronenberg’s Crash. The whole of Damages isn’t worth the one moment when Hunter uncaps a beer bottle with the hem of her nightshirt.

In the pilot, Grace, driving while pixilated one night, strikes and kills a pedestrian with her unwashed Porsche. A tobacco-dipping angel intervenes and undoes the accident on the condition that Grace, a skeptic at best, tries to follow the true path. There’s nothing gauzy or reverent about the show’s approach to religion. At least, I think so: Truth to tell, I’m not trying very hard to follow the convolutions of the show’s divine visions—nor have I paid much mind to its perfunctory detective plots. The details of the play between Hunter and her co-stars are engrossing enough that you’re glad to let the big arc sail over your head. As the producers obviously know, the story is but a framework for one 49-year-old actress and the shine on her—a hot flush.