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If you don't love "Damages," you might well be in a coma — or at least in the throes of some sort of brain rot. The deliciously edgy and multilayered FX drama begins its second season of playing with our synapses by picking up precisely where it left off last year, and the first two episodes show that it hasn't slowed an inch.

Forget everything I've ever written about "Mad Men." This is the best drama series on television.

It starts with the writing of exec producers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, which stitches such intricately plotted tapestries that it leaves your head spinning. Then there is the acting: If a better cast exists on the planet, it doesn't spring readily to mind.

It almost doesn't seem fair: An all-star team that already featured the incomparable Glenn Close (fresh from Emmy and Golden Globe triumphs), the enchanting Rose Byrne, Tate Donovan, Ted Danson (never better than here) and the highly underrated Zeljko Ivanek (who also won an Emmy in September) adds William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and "Deadwood's" Timothy Olyphant to the roster. Hurt and Harden are mere Oscar winners.

As the new campaign opens, smoothly diabolical lawyer Patty Hewes (Close) has no time to gloat over having taken down billionaire swine Arthur Frobisher (Danson) because she's suddenly being hounded by Daniel Purcell (Hurt), a mysterious scientist from her past. Also, despite being whacked by Hewes' ambitious protege Ellen Parsons (Byrne) at the end of Season 1, Frobisher somehow lives on.

Speaking of Parsons, she's now singing like a canary to the feds in an effort to take down her boss. (Good luck on that one.) Olyphant plays a guy in Parsons' grief counseling group, Harden a ball-busting corporate barrister. And everyone contributes mightily to a plot line that takes so many jaw-dropping twists and turns there is little time left to catch one's next breath.

The thing with "Damages" isn't so much that the Sony Pictures TV entry is so adept at taking viewers along on this thrill ride into insanity; it's that it aims so much higher than nearly every other hour on the tube, presuming an audience intelligence that's at once precarious and inspiring. One can only hope that the middling ratings numbers from its rookie season rise to a level commensurate with the ambition. (partialdiff)
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