Faith is rewarded on series' road to screen


They are two upcoming cable drama series that share not only similar tone, humor and strong female law enforcement agent leads played by accomplished actresses, but they also share long paths to the small screen full of obstacles and lucky breaks.

TNT's "Saving Grace," which premieres Monday night, and USA Network's "In Plain Sight," which debuts early next year, will get on the air exactly two years after each was picked up as a cast-contingent pilot -- a lengthy period even by cable standards.

In "Grace," Holly Hunter plays a foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, promiscuous detective who gets a chance for redemption when an angel comes into her life. Writer Nancy Miller came up with the idea in 2002, after she wrapped her Lifetime series "Any Day Now." "I knew I wanted to do a show that explored faith and God and sin through the eyes of a woman who is struggling in a deep way with her life, like so many of us are," she says.

From the get-go, humor was very important. "When you have a topic like this, humor is your saving grace."

Miller set up the project at TNT in fall 2004 for what turned out to be a roller-coaster ride. Because of Miller's long history with Aaron Spelling, the project was laid off at his company. But Spelling TV soon began to scale down dramatically as part of its absorption into CBS Par TV and had to pull out of the expensive project that featured special effects.

"My stomach fell on the floor," Miller recalls.

Then faith intervened, and the pilot was quickly picked up by Fox TV Studios. The studio happened to have on its roster producer Gary Randall, who worked on Miller's three previous series and came aboard "Grace." (Another longtime Miller collaborator, Artie Mandelberg, also is an exec producer on the project).

"Grace" was on track with a pilot order in August 2005 when it hit another setback. The lead couldn't be cast, and it was put on hold.

"Those are scary words no writer wants to hear," Miller says.

But the following summer, TNT took another crack at it by going back to the top of its wish list of actresses. It again approached Hunter, who had been unavailable the previous year. This time, she agreed to read the script. She got it on a Friday and on the following Monday committed to the project.

"Sight" came out of a blind script deal writer David Maples and producer Paul Stupin had with UPN in 2004. The network was interested in a show with a female lead, and Maples assembled a long list for occupations for a female protagonist -- anything from a basketball team owner to candlestick maker. But he found himself coming back to a U.S. marshal working in the witness-protection program.

"I thought it was an interesting world to explore and not very many had an idea how it worked," Maples says.

He penned the script, which didn't make it to pilot at UPN but got the attention of USA brass. But as it happens, when rival media conglomerates are involved, it took months to move the project from Viacom's UPN/Par TV to NBC Uni's USA and NBC Uni TV. It was formally greenlighted by USA in January 2006, and its contingency soon was lifted when Mary McCormack was cast as the lead. A year later, in January, "Sight" was picked up to series, but McCormack's pregnancy delayed the launch by another year.

Because they are so character-centered, Maples and Miller believe their shows will feel as fresh as when they were first conceived four to five years ago. The long gestation period even had some advantages.

"I've had much more time to think about it, to get to know the characters and play with it," Maples says. "And meanwhile, television has changed; there are more female-lead shows."

For Miller, it took seven years of bartending before she could make a living as a writer and another eight to get "Any Day Now" on the air, so she takes the long wait on "Grace" in stride.

"Things happen for a reason," she says.