TV REVIEW: Moral ambiguity makes 'Damages' fascinating

Since there are already approximately 10,207 Emmy categories, I might as well suggest one more: Outstanding Performance In The Field Of Standing Cliches On Their Heads. And the winner by a country mile is "Damages," FX's new legal drama, a compulsively watchable marvel of misdirection.

It starts out like a clone of "The Firm," with a young attorney joining a high-powered firm and suddenly finding out she's skated onto thin legal ice. But then it quickly morphs into something infinitely more layered and sinister, with Machiavellian machinations within machinations. You can't even sort out the victims from the victimizers, much less the good guys and girls from the bad.

Starring Glenn Close as legal attack dog Patty Hewes and Rose Byrne, the British actress who played the queen's best friend in "Marie Antoinette," as her protege Ellen Parsons, "Damages" has as potent a female cast as you'll find anywhere in television, though it may not necessarily be a poster child for feminist empowerment.

Hewes is a vengeful egomaniac who not only wants to beat her opponents but destroy them. "If you were a man, I'd kick the living dog(bleep) out of you," rages one opposing attorney after she suckers him into a needless and expensive settlement. "If you were a man," replies Hewes cooly, "I'd be worried."

Parsons, a sharp young law school graduate, turns down $150,000 a year from a more staid firm to work for Hewes, which seems like a wise decision when she's immediately assigned to a high-stakes lawsuit by the bereft former employees of a rogue billionaire who lost their pension plans and 401(k) with Enron-style wheeling and dealing.

But the picture turns murky when Parsons begins to wonder if she was hired merely because she's related to a potentially key witness. And bribes, threats and subterfuge - with hints of worse to come - prevail on both sides of the lawsuit.

It's the lack of moral clarity that makes "Damages" so spellbinding. Every character wears multiple masks; every action is cloaked in ambiguity and, often, outright duplicity. Producers Todd and Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman scorn the easy choice every time.

The billionaire, played with yahoo elan by Ted Danson, is a perfect example: Rather than a mustache-twirling villain, he's more like a once-friendly animal who has turned to fight for his life when when cornered by the implacable Hewes. "Everybody's hiding something," Hewes declares at one point - perhaps the only line spoken in "Damages" that can be taken at face value.

"Damages:" airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on FX.