Two thoughtful cable dramas return this week with observations about what makes Americans the anxious, self-doubting but resilient people we are, and what passes for American heroism these days.

If you believe these very different but equally engrossing series, recent events have shaped the national character in significant ways that we don't even notice as we adapt.

We the People — whether elitist professionals like the Manhattan lawyer played by Glenn Close in "Damages," or blue-collar city workers like the firefighter played by Denis Leary in "Rescue Me" — are scarred by a decade of post-traumatic stress, misgivings about our role on the world stage and a certain war weariness. A decade of fighting global terrorism has left unconscious reverberations in our relationships close to home.

"Damages," on DirecTV beginning Wednesday, incorporates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and American mercenaries fighting abroad in storylines that draw parallels to a Blackwater-type outfit operating outside the law.

"Rescue Me," launching its seventh and final season on FX at 11 p.m. Wednesday, brings its signature mix of dark oddball humor and issues of addiction to a plotline geared to marking the 9/11 anniversary. More than any show on television, "Rescue Me" has plumbed the psychological depths of the impact of 9/11 on New Yorkers in particular, Americans in general. The hour abounds with references to planes hitting the towers, firefighters losing their lives at Ground Zero, survivor guilt and more.


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When a documentary crew wants to tape material at the firehouse, including shots of a deceased fireman's plaque on the wall, Tommy Gavin (Leary) erupts, lunging for the camera.

"What's their angle?" he demands. He's seen it all and he's plagued with the angles himself: Could he have done more? Should they have been better prepared? Why wasn't communication better?

No, he's told. They're doing a hero story.

He's heard that before, too. The word "hero" has been parsed, mocked and honestly invoked more on "Rescue Me" than anywhere else in prime time. The show's protagonist, an alcoholic, adulterous, overgrown adolescent now approaching middle age, a guy who regularly sees dead people, epitomizes the modern American antihero.

The show has twisted itself into silly knots at this point. Janet (Andrea Roth) and Sheila (Callie Thorn), the women in Tommy's life, used to be at war with each other, but are now allied, more or less, against him. Still, the underlying story rings true as a city of walking wounded manages to carry on after traumatic loss. The series that launched in 2004 with the shock of 9/11 at its core will conclude on Sept. 11 with an episode called "Ashes."

"Damages," which moves from cable's FX to the satellite provider DirectTV for its fourth season, continues to explore corporate corruption, this time with a military contractor. John Goodman plays the head of a private military company akin to Blackwater, who is first glimpsed asking Congress to underwrite unspecified covert actions abroad.

It seems Ellen (Rose Byrne), protege and antagonist of Patty Hewes (Close), wants to pursue a wrongful-death case against CEO Howard Erickson (Goodman) and his High Star Security Corp.

Dylan Baker also has a guest role, doing the dirty work for High Star. Repeated flashbacks to a prisoner, bound and with a black sack over his head, call to mind photos of torture, all too prevalent in American memory.

The questions linger: Who's a hero? Who's a victim? And how do we continue to sort it out?

Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830 or jostrow@denverpost.com