Like the Biblical Jacob, the title character in TNT’s drama Saving Grace, wrestles with an angel. The angel is a tobacco-swirling, taco-munching, Oklahoma country-boy angel named Earl (Leon Rippy), while his counterpart is a homicide detective named Grace. A confirmed sinner with a Catholic background, Grace was drunkenly swerving home in her Porsche when she hit and killed a man on the road. Her simple prayer of “God help me” is answered by the appearance of Earl, a “last chance angel.” His attempts to woo her back to God, and her steadfast resistance, form the backbone of the show. Her job as a homicide detective and her connection to the community round it out into a rich and complex tale.
Saving Grace, with faith at the forefront of the story, covers territory not often visited on TV. “I wanted to make a show about the taboo topics we’re not supposed to talk about,” said Nancy Miller, the creator of the series, when I spoke to her recently, “I wanted to explore God, faith, religion, and sin.”
Grace, played vibrantly by Holly Hunter, certainly explores sin. She drinks too much and beds any man that catches her eye, including her married partner. She isn’t above lying to get what she wants — whether it’s to avoid her family, to convict a murderer, or to deny sleeping with another woman’s husband. Because of the frank depiction of her behavior, Saving Grace isn’t for everyone. The sexual scenes are explicit and Grace swears like, well, a homicide detective. “It’s not shocking to me,” says Nancy Miller, “and it’s not shocking to God either. I don’t think anything we do shocks God.” Grace’s behavior is portrayed as self-destructive, as well as a source of pain to those around her. It’s essential to the story. Without a full depiction of Grace’s behavior, the viewer would not understand what God needs to save her from, or the extent of His patience.
Despite her bad behavior, it’s easy to see what God sees in Grace. Hunter brings her to life with a mix of buoyant fun, passion for the underdog, and genuine caring for others. She’s complex: strong yet vulnerable, unprincipled yet concerned with justice. As the season developed, we learned about the wounds, both spiritual and physical, that Grace carries. She was mistreated by a priest as a child, victimized in a one night stand as an adult, and lost a sister in the Oklahoma City bombing. When her friend Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), a sincere believer as well as a scientist, gushes to Grace that God cares about her, Grace asks where God was when she was a child, where He was when her sister died, and where He was for the murder victim they’d found that day.
There are no easy answers in this series. Faith is messy. It’s messy enough for ordinary office drones, much less for a homicide detective, who encounters evil in every case, and in the inescapable memory of a senseless bombing. The show never shies away from hard questions, but is unique in an entertainment landscape of aggressively secular shows in that it suggests that the answers are to be found in relationship with God, rather than by rejection of God.
Grace is not alone in her struggle with God. She’s surrounded by a large, if baffled family, her affectionate colleagues, and Oklahoma City itself. “I wanted Grace to be in the Bible belt, I wanted her to be surrounded by people who believe in God and are vocal about it,” said Ms. Miller. Grace’s brother is a priest, a good man, but an exasperated brother. The series plays as a tribute to Oklahoma, Ms. Miller’s home state. She was tired of stories set in LA and New York, and of the tendency of Hollywood to write off “flyover country”. “There’s some great stories to be told about the middle of the country,” she said, “After the [Oklahoma City] bombing, Oklahoma set the standard.” Authorities had to stop people from coming to give blood within hours, she explained, because the system was overwhelmed with donations. When the call went out that rescuers needed boots, they were inundated with work boots. The affection Ms. Miller feels for her home state comes through in the series. The characters love it as much as she does. Grace states it best when, riding a horse to a crime scene, she climbs a tree and looks out at the grassy open spaces. “It’s so beautiful,” she says, lingering in the tree to enjoy the view.
Saving Grace is not without flaws. Earl is wonderfully human and accessible, but from time to time he takes Grace on mystic journeys to the Grand Canyon, or ancient Greece, which breaks the flow of the show and doesn’t accomplish much. Although much of the ethos is Catholic, Earl is an agent of God, not of Christ. He tells Grace it doesn’t matter much if she goes to a synagogue, mosque, or mass. The point doesn’t come up very often, but it is one that almost every religion would contest, and thrusts an odd inconsistency into the show (Earl, an angel, is after all a hallmark of absolute truth).
Nonetheless, Saving Grace is a gripping show. It works because Holly Hunter infuses Grace with life, because of rich and engaging storylines, and because of strong characters. At the heart of the show, Grace’s choice is one rarely touched by modern storytelling, but one of the greatest dramas of life. A woman clings to her selfish habits and self-destructive crutches even though God wants better for her. Will she submit or will she wrestle with the angel until His patience runs out?
Saving Grace starts up with new episodes on Monday, December 3 at 10 on TNT. It is rated M for Mature Audiences. A recap of the season can be found here.
–Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.