Saving Grace



10-11 p.m., Monday, July 23

What happens when a young woman of negligible faith is visited from heaven and forced to rethink her values and consider a new spiritual dimension? If it's done well, you get a series like CBS' "Joan of Arcadia" which, without being preachy, encouraged people to find divinity in everyday life.

But when the execution is ham-fisted and clumsy, you get TNT's "Saving Grace," which practically drools at the prospect of preaching salvation and redemption through God. It is a series that divides the world into two categories: those who have put their faith and trust in the Lord and those who simply don't know better yet. Agnostics, atheists and humanists, if they exist at all, might be decent enough people but they are terribly misguided.

Oklahoma City police detective Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) drinks, smokes and is sexually involved with her married partner. To the rescue comes series creator Nancy Miller, who will be saving her protagonist with the help of Earl (Leon Rippy), a tobacco-chewing good ol' boy and an angel. Not just any angel, though. He specializes in mortals who get one last chance.

Naturally, Grace has a lot of questions about heaven and such, which Earl conveniently dodges. "If I gave you the answers, there's no room for faith," he says. Maybe so, but how much faith do you really need when you're being frequently visited by an angel? It's not exactly as if Grace is being asked to trust that still small voice within.

Mostly, Miller doesn't pin God down on particulars. However, she does share with us that God thinks killing innocent creatures for sport is fine. "Nice shot," Earl calls out during Episode 2 as Grace and her partner and married lover, Ham Dewey (Kenneth Johnson), bring down a deer with their pistols.

Each week, Grace solves a crime but the greater emphasis is on leading her to discover the faith she denies. Sometimes, that means cribbing from the Bible, as in Episode 2 when Grace wrestles Earl to a draw, just as Jacob did in the good Old Testament days.

Miller doesn't want you to get too hung up on details but she understands the importance of inserting a few mystical elements. So every chance she gets, Grace spirits away bits of angelic evidence for her good friend, police examiner Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), to stick under a microscope. Grace also discovers a personal link to death row convict Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine), who turns out to be part of Earl's case load.

With theology that never gets deeper than "Highway to Heaven," the main reason to watch can only be Holly Hunter. She can go from raunchy and sexy to sweet and tender in nothing flat (and she is in amazing shape). Although she's a prisoner of the material, her performance is so good that it can distract you from this otherwise simplistic take on a complex issue.

Fox Television Studios
Executive producers: Nancy Miller, Gary A. Randall, Artie Mandelberg
Produced by: John Ryan
Producer: Holly Hunter
Teleplay-creator: Nancy Miller
Director of photography: William Wages
Production designer: Rick Roberts
Editors: Geoffrey Rowland, Paul Anderson, Mitchell Danton, David Handman
Music: Susan Marder
Set designer: Lorraine Edwards
Casting: Robert Ulrich, Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer
Grace Hanadarko: Holly Hunter
Earl: Leon Rippy
Ham Dewey: Kenneth Johnson
Butch Ada: Bailey Chase
Leon Cooley: Bokeem Woodbine
Rhetta Rodriguez: Laura San Giacomo
Bobby Stillwater: Gregory Cruz
Father John: Tom Irwin
Lt. Yukon: Roger Aaron Brown
Clay: Dylan Minnette