Standing on a catwalk in Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, Glenn Close peers down on a set of a sprawling Manhattan loft. It's her character's elegant home on her new TV series, FX's legal drama Damages (premiering July 24 at 10 p.m.). ''My first movie was The World According to Garp,'' she remembers, watching the crew prepping for a shot. ''They built the sets, and I walked in and thought, 'Oh, s---, I've got to be good! All this, it's my house!'''
Close can rest easier now. After all, she's moving into FX, the house that The Shield's Vic Mackey built. With neighbors Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck, it sits on a foundation of ethical complexity and TV-MA extremity that has critics and studios calling FX the new HBO. Close's character will fit right in on the all-bastards-all-the-time network: She plays Patty Hewes, a fiendishly manipulative power attorney who's assisted by her idealistic young new associate Ellen (Rose Byrne) in pursuing a class-action case against a Ken Lay-like billionaire (Ted Danson). Summing up FX's fascination with bad boys and girls, network president John Landgraf says, ''For many years, network television had a very simplistic formula: Good guys win and bad guys lose. That just isn't the way the world works. If crime did not pay, no one would do it.''
Crime has paid very well for FX. When it launched in 1994, it was a benign little network with a morning show cohosted by Tom Bergeron and a puppet. Eight years later, The Shield premiered, starring Michael Chiklis as a corrupt cop so brutal he'd probably shoot the puppet while making Bergeron watch. The show was an instant cable hit, and FX found its new niche: unique, gritty dramas that frolicked in morality's gray zone and drew young fans. (This year, FX is the fourth-ranked basic-cable network in viewers 18 to 49.) ''Our viewers aren't the ones who want middle-of-the-road fare,'' says Landgraf. ''We're not McDonald's. We're making really spicy food.''
That wasabi mindset and a reputation for creative freedom lured Close in 2005 to costar on The Shield's fourth season as Mackey's tough but supportive new captain. She was so impressed with the network that she let Landgraf know she'd be open to doing her own series, and suggested a spin-off for her Shield character, Monica Rawling. The deal breaker was that it had to be set in Close's hometown of New York City; Landgraf instead pitched her the Manhattan-set Damages, which she agreed to without once wondering if TV might be beneath a five-time Oscar nominee. ''Very early on I did a TV movie for ABC [in 1984] called Something About Amelia, '' says Close. (Coincidentally, this also costarred Danson.) ''Everybody said, 'It's gonna kill your movie career.' I said, 'It's good writing, what difference does it make where it is?'''
The more FX has proved willing to experiment, whether with documentary series like Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days or Steven Bochco's short-lived Iraq-war drama Over There, the more attractive it has become to writers and actors tired of safe, diluted fare. ''FX has really proven that they take chances,'' says Jamie Erlicht, co-president of Sony Pictures Television, which produces Damages. ''[They] allow their artists the freedom to go further than they could on broadcast television. That's why they're able to attract someone like Glenn Close.'' Rather than shopping Damages around, co-creator Todd Kessler (a Sopranos veteran) only brought his show to FX. ''HBO set the gold standard,'' he said, ''but there was a sense of street-level thunder at FX that really turned us on.'' With that rough-and-tumble attitude comes a pay cut: Though FX renewed the Courteney Cox tabloid starrer Dirt and The Riches, featuring Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard as con artists who assume a suburban family's identity, each only averaged around 1.5 million 18-to-49ers per original airing. Fine numbers for cable, but hardly a financial jackpot. (Nip/Tuck basic cable's highest-rated show in that demo averaged 2.8 million last season.) ''There is a lot of creative freedom,'' says Danson, who starred in the quickly canceled ABC comedy Help Me Help You last season. ''They don't give you a lot of money, but they give you freedom.''
NEXT PAGE: ''Glenn's playing the good guy, but in the back of everybody's mind, they're saying, 'We saw her in Fatal Attraction, we know'''