Tuned In

Angels in Middle America

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Hunter, right, with Laura San Giacomo. TNT

Holly Hunter’s Saving Grace debuts on TNT tonight, and I’ll be writing more later in the week, for the print magazine, on the new breed of female antiheroes represented by this show and Glenn Close’s Damages, on FX starting tomorrow. Well, that is, I already wrote on this–you just won’t be reading it until later, when the article hits newsstands. Because that’s how we roll in print magazines. Late. We roll late.

As for the show itself, Saving Grace is a classic case of great performance, OK show. (This is true to an extent of Damages as well, but more on that tomorrow.) Hunter plays Oklahoma City cop Grace Hanadarko, who has a drinking problem, and a sleeping-with-married-guys problem (well, actually, she has little problem with it), and they all tie back to a guilt-because-my-sister-died-in-the-Oklahoma-City-bombing-because-I-missed-an-appointment problem. [Frequent commenter Keith: your homework is to report to us on how well the show gets OKC.] One night, she’s driving home drunk from an outing and runs over a pedestrian, apparently killing him. Desperate, the unreligious Grace asks for God’s help, and gets it, in the form of Earl (Leon Rippy), a tobacco-chewing angel who shows up to bust her (metaphorical) balls and offer her a shot a redemption, which she resists feistily.

Saving Grace hits a bit too heavily on the notes of quirkiness and uplift for my taste, but I admire what it’s doing and how it tries to do it. It has a real clarity of vision, and distinctive voice: it’s basically the story of Touched by an Angel, told with the language and sex of an FX show. Hunter is fabulous, selling Grace’s unrepentant gusto and free-spiritedness with a saucy smile and a raspy, barrel-aged drawl.

It’s the structure of the show that throws me: this is another one of those series which hedges its risks (getting people to invest in an unusual, serial story) with a very conventional structure (usually, as in this case, a meat-and-potatoes cop procedural). It bothers me–here, as with TNT’s The Closer and Fox’s upcoming K-Ville, among others–for two reasons. First, combining an ongoing story with the need to wrap up a crime in an hour tends to flatten the serial elements while ensuring that not enough time can be spent on the cases to make them especially interesting. Second, the whole business just feels too self-consciously like something that was dreamed up in a TV-network conference room, with a lot of talk of “closure,” and “relatability” and “payoffs” for “less-engaged viewers.”

Still, I’ll probably keep following Grace for a while if only because of how well Hunter plays the character. She makes her encounters with Earl play like something from Angels in America; like Prior Walter’s angelic run-ins, they’re combative and oddly sexually charged, and Hunter plays the scenes with an off-balance near-drunkenness that fits both Grace’s addictive character and the idea that the presence of holiness is literally intoxicating. Saving Grace the series has not won me over yet, but Hunter’s performance so far is its–ah, but that’s too obvious, isn’t it?