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Two Oscar-winning actresses on basic cable, in shows premiering mid-summer. Weird. Where else are you going to see Holly Hunter or Glenn Close, though? Nowhere, that’s where. If you’re a middle-aged woman who isn’t Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep, the silver screen doesn’t want you. Basic cable, though, might. Following their premium-cable cousins, basic networks are beginning to push limits, defy censorship, and cater to niche markets. Presumably to snag the pepper-gray, FX and TNT have each lured a mature Oscar-winner with potentially career-redefining roles.

Perhaps by corporate mandate, FX goes for gritty ensembles (The Shield, Rescue Me, The Riches) while TNT creates shows around single characters (The Closer, Heartland). It’s not surprising that Hunter gets the better character from TNT. Similarly unsurprising: Close has the better show.

Damages is a legal potboiler and cultural commentary on womens’ evolving place among the power elite. Patty Hewes (Close) is probably the best litigator in America. This seems to have come at a high personal price. She hires an upstart named Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) based on instinct and maybe — probably — definitely — a hidden agenda. Blood and legal briefs flow. Damages follows Ellen more than Hewes and swirls with intriguing performances (more Ted Danson!). Close is kept distant, mysterious, human, and satisfying.

Saving Grace, conversely, is a character vehicle and nothing else. Hunter plays a drunk, adulterous, atheistic wreck named Grace who just happens to be the best damn homicide detective in Oklahoma City. After killing a man — drunk, with her car — she asks for God’s help. God assigns an angel with a taste for chewing tobacco. Cute. To add pathos, we learn Grace was molested by a priest. Tired.

Hunter has fun with the religious, psycho-sexual grab bag she’s given, but Saving Grace never adds up to the sum of its parts. Indeed, it doesn’t have many parts at all. The supporting characters are cast-offs and automatons.

It’s a truism that didn’t need re-proving for the 40-to-60-year-old demographic, but TNT did it anyway. No matter how kooky-great a central character is, it’s the contextual framework (themes, supporting characters, foils, conflict) that makes a story compelling. Television — which sticks with stories for 10 or 20 or 80 hours — makes that dependence greater, not less. Damages is making something of itself, but I fear there’s no saving Grace. •

See also

Who Wants To Be A Superhero? Real people dress up as the super-hero characters they create, and battle evil reality-TV-style. Stan Lee nicely recreates (most of) my childhood fantasies. (SciFi, Thursday, 9 p.m.)

Masters of Sci-Fi Masters of Sci-Fi is a brilliant, writer-driven, well-casted thing that’s been mangled into a four-episode mid-summer cast off. Shame. (ABC, Saturday, 10 p.m.)

The Company You can tell a CIA talkie is going for authenticity when its main character is a nerdy chump with a weak jaw (see The Good German). Chris O’Donnell’s looking a little puffy, though still taut-jowled, so the scorecard’s mixed. (TNT, Sunday, 8 p.m.)

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