Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger figures Grace will be saved, but even an angel couldn't save Saving Grace.
Our review of Saving Grace: The Final Season, published August 12th, 2010, is also available.
Highway to Heaven meets CSI: Miami!
Grace, or more specifically Holly Hunter, is the trouble with the faith-based crime drama Saving Grace. As is her norm, Hunter showers the titular character with nuance and depth, bringing an otherwise stock character to life in unexpected and interesting ways. If not for her compelling characterization, it would be a simple matter to pass this show by without a glance in the rear view mirror. If you want to look back, however, Saving Grace: Season One is out on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Smoking, hard-drinking, manizing detective Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter, The Incredibles) is obviously headed for rock bottom. Whether it's because Grace hasn't fully given up on God or vice versa, Earl (Leon Rippy, Deadwood) is sent to cushion her plummet in his angelic wings. Between spits of tobacco juice and laconic digs at Grace, Earl dishes out just enough heavenly wisdom to keep Grace guessing whether he's real or an impending aneurysm. Grace's best friend, medical examiner Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo, Just Shoot Me!), is convinced that Earl is an angel. Otherwise, Grace's coworkers and bedpartners—notably Ham, played by Kenny Johnson (The Shield), and Butch, played by Bailey Chase (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)—are unaware of her recent spiritual encounters. But a death-row convict named Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine, The Last Sentinel) knows all about Earl and what Grace is going through.
Saving Grace has a lot going for it. Hunter was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy, young Dylan Minnette was recognized for his work, the writing is widely praised, and the show has a huge following of people who appreciate its honest, non-hypocritical take on modern spirituality.
Yet when a major character departed in the opening episodes, I experienced a pang of jealousy. Saving Grace would be much more compelling if Earl's existence was ever in doubt, or if Grace's "diamond in the rough" nature wasn't so easy to spot, or if any one of a dozen themes hadn't been telegraphed so far in advance. Though the marketers protest otherwise, Saving Grace is a standard anvil wrapped in some pretty white feathers. This trend exists in microcosm inside each episode, where obvious punchlines are established; we're asked to wait, and then the obvious punchline is delivered. The trend also runs series-wide, where deep interpersonal revelations are "subtly" introduced, and then the "tension" builds over the course of the season. The net result is that Saving Grace acts as though it has the viewer's rapt attention before it actually earns the viewer's rapt attention.
Creator Nancy Miller was involved with the wildly popular abomination known as CSI: Miami, which suffers the above problems in spades. Like Saving Grace and every other standard cop show, CSI: Miami uses crime show shorthand like "hey, so-and-so has a .44 registered in his name, and the victim was killed with a .44!" (Boom) He must be guilty, then, case solved. Earl says "Grace, you have one last chance"—and the sits by grinning while Grace commits transgression after transgression. To her credit, Miller establishes much richer characters than those found in CSI: Miami and dresses Saving Grace much more tastefully. This maturity makes Saving Grace more palatable, even if the show never fully breaks away from standard television rhythms. However, if you don't invest in the premise from the get-go, Saving Grace is full of painful moments such as when Rhetta and Grace do DNA testing on Earl's spit to scientifically determine the existence of God. (Is there a CSI: Heaven yet?)
The clearest example of Saving Grace's status quo approach is Grace's fellow team of detectives. These poor gentlemen, seasoned character actors all, are given no way to distinguish themselves. Thus we have two brash, macho detectives and a third brash, macho Native American detective as a change of pace. These guys indistiguishably cajole, pine for, and back up Grace. Kenny Johnson's character here is less memorable that his spirited supporting character in The Shield, but he fares better than the rest of the pack. In fact the support acting in general is bland. Even the usually luminous Laura San Giacomo has to work hard to find traction.
The trouble is Holly Hunter. Perhaps the writers switched gears when they landed this Oscar-caliber actress in the lead role, or perhaps Holly truly is dominant over a cast of truly good actors, but the net effect is that the writers and cast point continually at Grace, praying fervently for something more interesting to do.
Saving Grace: Season One's extra features do nothing to dispel this bias. The feature list looks large, but aside from the commentaries (reasonably entertaining) and music video (meh), they are all the same featurette. They all open with an annoying TNT intro, they were all shot on the same day in the same location, and they all feature various people talking about Holly Hunter. These are essentially television commercials, a marketing blitz transferred whole hog to DVD. Had the meat of these seven segments been combined into one moderate feature, it would have been much more palatable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many reviewers have praised the writing in this show, lauding it as unexpected and challenging. If I found it painful and obvious, I'm in a minority. Honestly I wish I knew what others were responding to. I really wanted to like this show, and I love virtually every actor in it, and I don't even hold the CSI: Miami thing against Nancy Miller. But my repeated attempts to connect with the material and characters failed. That said, the last third of the first season finally achieves consistent tension and builds to a decent finale. The series gels (in spite of the addition of reams of characters right at the end) and leaves you wanting to see the outcome. Those who do connect with it will find Saving Grace a welcome rumination on modern spirituality.
The show also looks good, with decently integrated special effects, a gritty, realistic palette, and great detail in the outdoor scenes. The indoor scenes are overly staged and claustrophobic, but look good as well. Though the 5.1 mix is often washed out in spacious outdoor scenes, it typically is immersive and clean.
Holly Hunter earned her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Lead Actress. She really acts the hell out of this thing and makes otherwise listless scenes watchable.
During the commentary on the last episode, Miller et al discuss a series of clues that Earl supposedly left behind during the course of the season that leads Grace and Rhetta inexorably towards an inescapable confrontation. They admit that this major revelation was a last-minute one, and that it was sheer luck that two of Earl's knick knacks happened to feature the letter M. Now they might have been kidding, or might not have been. In the first case, it means these tedious bits of minutiae, which are central to the show, are far too subtle for mortal viewers to grasp. If the latter, the writing is barely one step ahead of the plot. In either case, it reinforces my feeling that Saving Grace considers itself far more interesting than it is. What I saw was two gifted actors scribbling inane drivel on a whiteboard and trying to pretend it was the most interesting thing in the world.
The court saved Grace, and ended up with leftovers.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on first and final episodes
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