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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

help her, Jeebus! ‘Saving Grace’ on TNT

I thought: Wow, this is gonna be cool. Here’s Holly Hunter as a rough, tough cop: she drinks too much, smokes too much, swears way more than cops on commercial television get to, sleeps with her married partner. She’s a mess — bad for Grace Hanadarko, major case detective in Oklahoma City, but great for fans of gritty TV drama, especially in the hands of someone like Hunter (Nine Lives, The Incredibles), who tears her way into this meaty role, her first regular TV series, with gusto. Grace even expresses not only a disbelief in God but an utter contempt for the knee-jerk “Help me, Jeebus!”ing American culture tends to.
Ah, but I should have known. No one gets to be out as an atheist on American TV unless he or she is about to get a smack upside the head from the Big Guy. Which is precisely what happens in the premiere episode of Saving Grace, the new drama debuting on TNT on Monday, July 23, at 10pm Eastern. Grace is driving drunk one night, kills a man walking along the side of the road, and in her distress at what she’s done, she asks God to help her. And along comes Earl (Leon Rippy: Gridiron Gang, The Alamo), a good ol’ boy of an angel — hobbies include spitting tobacco juice into a Mountain Dew bottle, eww — to set her on the road to Heaven.

And so I though: Oh, man. They gotta do this? An atheist is no more likely to ask God for help during a moment of crisis than a Christian is to beg Thor to step in and render assistance. But of course Grace isn’t really an atheist — she believes, she’s just mad at him, for reasons that start to become clear throughout this pilot episode. So thanks, TNT, for perpetuating some misconceptions about atheism. *sigh*

But I’m sticking with Saving Grace anyway, because as the second episode — “Bring It On, Earl,” which I also sneak-peeked — makes plain, this ain’t gonna be one of those sappy angel melodramas. Grace isn’t “saved” overnight, and — heh, God willing — she never will be, and these two episodes deal more realistically with the struggle we all go through, whatever we believe, with understanding why bad things happen that just about anything I’ve seen before on TV. And it approaches the angel business with a lot of sophisticated humor: Grace’s CSI pal, Rhetta Rodriguez (Laura San Giacomo), begs Grace to snag one of Earl’s wingfeathers — yes, he has wings — for her to analyze in the lab; Earl shows up wearing T-shirts from his travels around the world.

Mostly, though, I’ll stick around for Grace, who is perhaps the most fully realized nontraditional female character on the TV at the moment (though she bears dramatic similarities to Kyra Sedgwick’s on The Closer; Grace creator Nancy Miller served as an executive producer on that show). And for the overall hard-edged attitude, which is completely at odds with what we typically expect from, ahem, faith-based television. This hasn’t been watered down into “family friendliness”: it looks like it might actually deal with thorny stuff in a complex, biting way.

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