'Saving Grace' Has Help From Above, but It's Not Enough

As the title character, Holly Hunter wrestles with her demons, and an angel.
As the title character, Holly Hunter wrestles with her demons, and an angel. (By Erik Heinila)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007

Television's summer season can no longer be dismissed as languishing in the doldrums. Where reruns reigned, first-run shows now sprout, and while the "major" broadcast networks keep reconfiguring the same few reality and game-show formats, cable is churning actual scripted comedies and dramas.

This week new shows super-starring Holly Hunter and Glenn Close premiere on basic cable: Hunter in "Saving Grace" on TNT tonight and Close in "Damages" on Fox's cheeky FX tomorrow.

The first surprise about "Saving Grace" is not very happy: Holly Hunter looks something like Madame Tussaud's version of herself, if there is one. She appears to have been sandblasted from the chin up. Gone, with wrinkles and rough edges, are the kinds of details that made her distinctive. The restoration work is easily explained; Hollywood is not kind to leading ladies who dare to age.

Hunter is still a superb, compellingly quixotic actress, however, and as a young and determined cop (named Grace, of course) in Oklahoma City, she brings particular disarming quirks to the part. Unfortunately, too much else has been brought to it by the writer and series creator, Nancy Miller. She's saddled Grace with enough baggage to tax a camel, and some of it seems arbitrary and gimmicky. Grace is proudly promiscuous, for instance, with one of her steadier boyfriends being Jim Beam, bottles of which are lying all over a house as messy as the inside of her head.

She favors salty expressions, the most frequent being a four-letter vulgarism for excrement. Grace or someone else utters it perhaps two dozen times within the first hour-long episode. If a broadcast network included the word in a prime-time show, the sanctimonious loonies of the FCC would come swooping down with millions in fines, but TNT is basic cable and therefore exempt from the capricious rules.

Meanwhile, Grace whirls through life at about the speed of sound. Even her seams are threatening to come apart at the seams, and in addition to her unkempt personal life, she must do her job as a cop with skill and courage. On the premiere, that includes locating a missing child, a kid whom even the script, busy with setting up the premise for the series, sometimes manages to misplace.

But that's by no means all. There's one more angle: an angel.

Yes, one of those -- an angel in the form of a craggy and raggedy good ol' boy whose name is Earl and who is played engagingly by Leon Rippy. Earl first appears as the reflection in a car window, looking like a barfly or a vagabond (do we still have vagabonds?) until his enormous wings spread out behind him and a blinding bright light floods the frame. "I'm Earl," he tells Grace by way of introduction. "Whaddaya need?"

His arrival is timely; Grace has recklessly struck a pedestrian with her speeding car. It's a misdeed the angel can undo, but he's attached himself to Grace for other reasons: "You're headed for Hell, Grace," he tells her. "God sent me to help you. . . . I'm just FedEx delivering the message." Naturally she's stubbornly incredulous for too long a while, prompting the impatient angel to ask, "You want God's help or not? . . . I'm busy. There's a lot of people going to Hell these days."

No doubt.

The show seems a hodgepodge constructed from any number of sources: the sensibilities of "Fargo" and "Thelma and Louise" and even a similarity to NBC's "My Name Is Earl" among them. For an instant, when Earl whisks Grace to a towering peak in the Grand Canyon, the show evokes heavenly memories of "The Thief of Baghdad" (1940 version, with Sabu), if only for film buffs. The point is, the show is much, much too crowded -- with characters, with situations, with circumstances.

If Hunter can rise above the muck and melee and keep the focus on Grace and her issues -- of which there may be dozens -- "Saving Grace" could turn out to be a hot and spicy dish, but at present it suffers from a problem that predates not only television but radio and theater as well: Too many cooks, or at least too many ingredients bubbling to a busy and irritating boil.

Saving Grace (one hour) premieres at 10 p.m. on TNT.

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