Monday, July 23, 2007

TV premiering tonight: Saving Grace

I had high hopes for this show, which TNT has been advertising every other minute for months, even after the last new TNT drama, Heartland, turned out to be so lame. Saving Grace is certainly not as bad as Heartland, but it's definitely a disappointment - even more so because without its dumb high-concept hook (hard-living atheist cop gets guardian angel), it would actually be a really interesting and gritty crime drama, different enough from the network's other cop show with a strong female protagonist (The Closer) as to not seem like a rip-off or a pale imitation.

Like The Closer, Saving Grace benefits from having as its star a powerhouse actress best known for her work in movies (in this case it's Holly Hunter). Hunter's portrayal of Oklahoma City police detective Grace Hanadarko is forceful and raw and charming; with her relentless boozing, promiscuity and general recklessness, she's about as far from Kyra Sedgwick's Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson as you can get. And the show features an extraordinary sense of place; it doesn't merely use OKC as a generic American city, but gets deeply into its mix of Southern and Western culture, with cattle auctions and detectives in 10-gallon hats. Laura San Giacomo, as Grace's best friend, a devoutly Christian lab tech, is also excellent, and the two women have great chemistry.

The cases in the two episodes I saw are a little generic, but there is a greater emphasis on Grace's private life (and those of the supporting cast, to a certain degree) that takes the burden of carrying the show away from the mysteries. The problem, of course, is that Grace's private life is not just about whom she's sleeping with or how she's dealing with her large extended family; it's about her interactions with Earl (Leon Rippy), the angel sent to watch over and annoy her when she beseeches God for help after a drunk-driving accident. Thus the show's true message is conveyed: Grace's boozing, blaspheming, adultering ways may be a heck of a lot of fun to watch, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong. This is a show whose first episode opens with one of the most graphic sex scenes I've ever seen on basic cable, and then chastises the viewers (and the characters) for enjoying it. It's self-righteous bullshit that talks down to both the characters and the audience.

Grace is resistant to everything that Earl tries to do, and it's obvious that there's meant to be a redemption arc of sorts. She'll learn not to drink so much, not to sleep around, not to have sex with her married partner, not to question God's existence, etc. The problem is that after two episodes, I hate Earl even more than Grace does, and I don't think that's the intended result. His whole intervention is a contrivance (both by the writers and by the Almighty), and he's insufferably smug. I'm personally an atheist, but I welcome shows that deal with religion in an honest and complex way (from The Book of Daniel to Joan of Arcadia). For all its allegedly mature subject matter, Saving Grace is nothing but a pious, condescending sermon. TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m.

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