`Saving Grace’ Blends Sacred and Profane

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Is the world ready for an R-rated drama about angels?

For a gritty crime drama that’s one part “NYPD Blue” for every part “Touched by an Angel”?

In “Saving Grace” a new television drama which was to begin broadcasting Monday on TNT, a troubled Oklahoma City cop played by Holly Hunter gets some divine help in the form of a scruffy, tobacco-chewing angel.

We meet Grace while she’s having sex with her partner Ham _ her married partner, I might add. When Ham tries to bolt their latest assignation out of religious guilt, she tells him: “I don’t believe in God, but I promise: You’ll never have mind-blowing sex with me again.”

Grace sleeps with the wrong men, drinks far too much, curses like a sailor and is heading down the toilet when God decides to take a hand in her life.

One night she’s out drinking and driving and listening to Cowboy Troy, when the Almighty places a man in front of Grace’s car for her to run over. When Grace begs for heavenly assistance, the body disappears and an angel named Earl _ dressed for a tractor-pull and able to sprout majestic wings _ appears to give her a holy assessment.

“You’re headed for Hell, Grace,” he says, “but God’s giving ya one last chance, and he sent me to help you.”

Even though she asked for this, Grace is a stubborn sort and fights Earl every step of the way. She keeps falling in and out of bed with Ham, doesn’t exactly curb the boozing or the bad language, and even recruits police scientist pal Rhetta to investigate whether Earl’s who _ and what _ he says he is.

Oh, and in between all that, she solves crimes, because this is a TV show and that’s what most TV characters are required to do.

The pieces shouldn’t fit together _ Earl’s celestial presence with Grace’s raging sex life, discussions of metaphysics with police procedural plots _ but somehow they do. (If anything, the combination makes the halves more interesting than they would be on their own.)

Creator Nancy Miller (late of “The Closer,” which is this show’s lead-in and inspiration) makes the very smart decision to keep Grace’s professional and angelic lives largely separate. Earl isn’t there to help Grace catch bad guys; he’s too busy trying to save her soul.

The bridge between the two worlds is Rhetta, a woman of science who’s also a woman of faith. She’s a devout Christian but is also fascinated by the idea of proving the existence of God in her lab, and she starts admonishing Grace to collect anything she can from her encounters with Earl. (In one episode, Earl sits in a tree branch and accidentally spits some tobacco juice on Grace’s clothes; Rhetta demands the clothes so she can analyze the saliva.) It’s the sort of character all the media coverage of the culture wars would have you believe doesn’t exist, but the divide between the two worlds isn’t and shouldn’t be that great, and Rhetta neatly conveys that crossover.

The marquee attraction, of course, is Hunter, the Oscar winner who’s joining the brigade of actresses of a certain age who’ve realized that TV is where the good parts are. (See also Kyra Sedgwick on “The Closer,” Mary-Louise Parker on “Weeds” and Glenn Close, whose FX show “Damages” debuts Tuesday (July 24).

Hunter’s Grace is a damaged person (there are hints of child abuse), stubborn and hungry for something. She’s small in stature but powerful in her effect on men, a power she revels in a little too much. (There’s a creepy old Peeping Tom who lives across the street, and Grace has no problems giving him a free look through the window now and then.) It’s simply a pleasure to watch Hunter work.

The police procedural elements are iffy _ there’s a stock Disapproving Black Captain, for one thing _ but the Oklahoma City setting provides some new twists to old scenes.

There’s a foot chase through a cattle auction, with Ham clambering over a series of horse and cow pens, and when Grace drives up to a crime scene in the second episode, the camera casually reveals that she has a deer carcass strapped to her hood.

I still wonder, though, whether the show’s contradictory parts will attract a large audience. Will audiences interested in the show’s spiritual aspects be repulsed by the sex, nudity and blue language? Will fans of dark police dramas be turned off by all the talk of God and salvation?

(Alan Sepinwall writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

DSB/PH END SEPINWALL800 words

Editors: Show premieres tonight

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