Fox Family Channel series “State of Grace,” a single-camera dramedy about two 12-year-old girls growing up in ’60s North Carolina, targets the underserved female tweens demographic with hope of generating a tag-along parental audience. Skein closely resembles “Wonder Years” in structure and style, but with a decidedly distaff spin and a dose of “Brooklyn Bridge”-like ethnic sensibility. First two episodes will air back-to-back, with the middling, super-sentimental pilot leading into a much more surefooted follow-up. While it’s not of the same quality as its predecessors, show demonstrates promise.
Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) narrates this series with a nostalgic, low-key voiceover that could use a bit more personality. As an adult, she looks back on 1965, soon after her very Jewish family moved to North Carolina to open a furniture factory. Youngster Alia Shawkat (“Three Kings”) plays Harriet Rayburn at 12. She’s joined by a capable cast of actors who play the eccentric, and yet somehow very typical, Rayburn family, lead by Dinah Manoff and Michael Mantell as her parents. Harriet finds her family an embarrassing lot, particularly when her new best friend, Grace McKee, invites herself for a sleepover.
The relationship between Grace and Hannah forms the center of the show, although at this point “State of Grace” is a bit stingy on the dialogue between the two. The “grass is always greener” conflict comes through mostly via the voiceover. To Hannah, Grace seems the very embodiment of class: She’s blonde, wealthy and extremely gentile. But while Hannah has a close-knit family, Grace struggles for the affection of her flirtatious, socialite mom Tattie (Faye Grant). After Grace visits Hannah’s family in the first episode, Hannah is invited to a party at Grace’s in the second. There she discovers a world of beautiful dresses, alcohol and family dysfunction. The narration refers to the McKee family lifestyle as “a Noel Coward play written by Tennessee Williams.”
Although the show is not campy, as that quotation implies, the literary reference tells us a lot about what creators Brenda Lilly (the series version of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”) and Hollis Rich (“Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Grace Under Fire”) are balancing here. It’s a sophisticated reference that will be well beyond their core audience, but it demonstrates that they’re not talking down to the girls who are watching. It also reflects the show’s difficult mixture of the comic, the psychologically poignant and the weepy.
Theme song — the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” — launches each episode with its upbeat, wide-eyed hopefulness, and the first two half-hours end with a sentimental overcast — the pilot, for example, finishes with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends” in the background as Harriet’s father shows her pictures of relatives who died in the Holocaust.
Director Melanie Mayron (“thirtysomething”) manages to blend all this together adequately. The humor is not too forced and, for the most part, the dramatic elements feel genuine.
The mid-’60s Southern setting will undoubtedly provide the lead girls plenty of social issues to confront and life lessons to learn in future episodes. Period is captured mostly through Ann Major’s well-designed costumes and the overdone hairdos.
Anti-smoking advocates may have a problem with the equation of cigarettes and glamour in the second episode, which is undoubtedly historically accurate but possibly ill-advised.