TV Eye

Here's to Holly Hunter

<i>Saving Grace</i>
Saving Grace

Ordinarily, I wouldn't be excited about another cop show, but in the case of Saving Grace (TNT), I'm making an exception.

First, there's Holly Hunter. She stars as Grace Hanadarko, a hard-working, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed police detective who drinks too much, drives too fast, bends all the rules, and sleeps with all the wrong men. Second, there's the setting. It's refreshing to see a "fly-over" state – in this case, Oklahoma – presented realistically and not as a bucolic wonderland or a backward hellhole. And then there's Earl (Leon Rippy, Deadwood). He's the long-haired, tobacco-chewing figure who falls into Grace's life when she hits the wall one fateful, drunken night. Oh, yeah; he's an angel sent by God to help Grace clean up her life. And this is what makes Saving Grace unlike other cop shows. More importantly, it's unlike any other series wherein angels, religion, or talk of God appears.

Saving Grace is gritty when compared to its predecessors. Touched by an Angel, Highway to Heaven, or 7th Heaven it's not. While its bald look at Grace's life will appall the 7th Heaven crowd, it may intrigue others who are not bothered by stiff shots of realism. Lots of them. This, along with Hunter's performance, is what makes Saving Grace watchable.

Grace has a big heart, but her moral compass is warped. She carries the requisite baggage that would cause someone like her to live life hard and on the edge. This baggage has also made her turn her back on God and religion, something that her priest brother (Tom Irwin) and her best friend, Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), beg her to embrace. But it's Earl's hard luck that he is assigned to help Grace. Oh sure, he's revealed his angelic wings and pops in and out of her life like the supernatural being that he is. But Grace is not that easy. She's not going along without a fight. It's this fight – the questioning, the doubt, and the literal hand-to-hand combat – that makes Saving Grace as humorous as it is thoughtful.

Having said that, Saving Grace isn't particularly deep. While it should be praised for presenting a startlingly human woman at the core of a series that has faith, religion, and the existence of God playing in the foreground, like its predecessors, it always resorts to primary language. At a key moment in the pilot episode, Grace has an opportunity to ask Earl some of her burning questions about God. She gets angry when he feeds her a story about God riding a monster Harley through the sky and laughs at her when she's just about to buy it.

"I'm sorry; it's just you guys always ask the same questions," Earl says.

So far, so does Saving Grace. What stops it from replicating the treacle of its predecessors are Hunter's performance and a strong chorus of foils. Grace's lifelong friend Rhetta is a criminologist. Her deep faith baffles Grace, but she is a trusted and droll confidant with whom Grace can share her interactions with Earl.

"Earl cooked me breakfast this morning. ... He's going to be a huge pain in the ass."

"Grace, God has chosen you ... for whatever reason, he's given you an angel, and you call him a 'pain in the ass.' You want to get struck by lightning?"

"He asked me a whole bunch of questions about my life, my family. ... He even wants me to pray."

"He's an angel, Grace. He's going to want you to pray."

Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine) is another confidant, a death row inmate who is more challenging than Rhetta and harder to ignore. Grace's 10-year-old nephew, Clay (Dylan Minnette), brings out the cool aunt and softer maternal instincts of the otherwise sharp-edged Grace. He also spouts the most elementary ideas about God and religion, a dose of sweetness that is tolerable from a child. And then there's Earl. His gruff, good ol' boy vision of an angel is a welcome departure from the syrupy Roma Downey or even the sassy Della Reese in Touched by an Angel. But the most satisfying aspect of Saving Grace is that episodes are not tied up with a pretty bow. While the cop-show storyline usually comes to a neat conclusion, it's the outside incidents that create the ongoing tension and the maddening gray area where good intentions and reality inevitably collide. All of this makes Grace one of the most human characters TV has seen in a long time.

Saving Grace premieres Monday on TNT at 9pm. Check local listings for additional airtimes.

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