"Damages" returns to FX on Monday (Jan. 25) and fans of the show will be pleased to know that within the first 44 minutes, the linear chronology becomes an utter freak-show, several characters who seemed to be good guys have become bad (or vice versa) and the series has dropped a massive bombshell sure to leave some viewers disappointed or sad. Within that first episode, I became reinvested in the drama and the characters and then instantly became frustrated and disassociated due to the show's structure trickery, which has become an unnecessary encumbrance by this point. But the great thing about "Damages" is always that I can tune the show out and become re-obsessed at a rate of two or three flip-flops per episode.

"Damages" continues to exhaust me with its frequent changes of course, but it's not like I'd ever miss an hour, even if you happen to hear me grumbling.

[Some thoughts on the start of the third season of "Damages" after the break...]

Somehow confusing itself with an incarnation of "Law & Order," "Damages" goes down the ripped-from-the-headlines path for its big seasonal arc. Theater legend Len Cariou plays Louis Tobin, a wealthy New Yorker who bilked his investors out of billions as part of an elaborate Ponzie scheme. The character's name might as well be Schmernie Badoff for the degree to which Glen Kessler, Todd Zelman and Daniel Zelman are cribbing from the Bernie Madoff scandal and its aftermath.

Also joining the cast for this season are Lily Tomlin as Tobin's wife and Campbell Scott as his son. It's pretty clear that we're going to spend a full season going back and forth on whether or not Tomlin and Scott's characters are innocent victims of their family troubles or the perpetrators of fraud. We also meet Martin Short as the Tobin family lawyer.

With the occasional exception -- Darrell Hammond and Matt Davis would be two guest stars who didn't benefit from the "Damages" treatment -- the FX drama has become adept at helping familiar actors readjust their images. Scott, already as versatile as they come, isn't doing anything new, but Tomlin's enjoying playing a character who's brassy, powerful and intimidating, so watching her go toe-to-toe with Close is a treat. Tomlin also smokes cigarettes like a champ.

This season's biggest benefactor will be Short, whose mere presence is a distraction for maybe two minutes before you start paying close attention and wondering what secrets this guy is hiding. It's my assumption that this season will totally overall Short's persona and the worse a guy Short's character turns out to be, the more fun he'll be to watch.

The Tobin case is complicated. Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) are handling the civil side of the case, attempting to recover the purloined funds. Handling the criminal charges is the ADA's office, including a certain Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) as a new employee. Those they haven't been in touch basically since things left off at the end of Season Two, Patty and Ellen's shared history is strong enough that neither can escape the other's powerful gravity.

In the two episodes I've seen, it's hard to tell what Ellen's current angle is, though it's a fair bet that none of the confusing things she does in those episodes are without an agenda. One thing that some viewers will appreciate is that Byrne looks less severe this season, which could be the function of costuming choices, makeup options or improved nutrition.

Even when I'm not buying what "Damages" is selling on other fronts, it's hard not to appreciate the ongoing work from Close, who has probably deserved those Emmy wins the past two years. While Patty remains as formative as ever, Close is getting to show different colors as her marriage to Michael Nouri's Phil approaches its conclusion. In one of the season's two or three interlocking timeframes, Patty's also attracted the romantic attentions of Keith Carradine's Julian, who claims to be an architect, but probably harbors some darker secrets.

Everybody on "Damages" harbors darker secrets.

As over-Madoff-ed as the season's major arc initially seems to be, the third season of "Damages" is off to a better start than the second, especially with that big twist I mentioned.

And now? Back to writing about Sundance movies!

 

"Damages"  returns to FX on Monday, Jan. 25 at 10 p.m.