The title is the only thing that’s simple about “Saving Grace,” a dark, mesmerizing drama anchored by Holly Hunter’s delicious star performance, the sort of showy role that compensates for a multitude of sins. Although ostensibly another female-lead cop franchise a la “The Closer,” catching bad guys proves an afterthought in this strong character-driven piece, so much so that it’s easy to wish the title character was a veterinarian or something — anything less predictable than a homicide cop. Otherwise, the angels were on TNT’s shoulders when the network developed this one.
Hunter’s Grace isn’t a woman overly burdened by conscience. We meet her rollicking in bed with her married partner (“The Shield’s” Kenneth Johnson), followed by a heavy round of drinking with her friend Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), as she puzzles over a maddening missing-kid case. Her most endearing attribute, actually, is that she lets her butt-ugly bulldog sleep on the bed.
A drunken drive home, however, puts Grace in an unexpected predicament that causes her to evoke the name of God, and he obliges by sending her an angel named Earl (“Deadwood’s” Leon Rippy), whose tough-love approach is a far cry from Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yet far from being stricken by her brush with the Divine, Grace (who greets Earl with the exclamation, “Holy shit”) jockeys, argues and literally wrestles with him during the introductory episodes, even if the warming glow of his wings approximates something close to an orgasm.
Earl also guides Grace toward a death-row inmate (Bokeem Woodbine), who, like her, is apparently being offered a chance at redemption. Not that she’s happy about it, especially when Earl pulls little stunts like making “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” play on every radio station.
Given how touchy religion tends to be, “Grace” will surely provoke some discussion, especially since the program pushes the boundaries of not-quite nudity and salty language into FX territory — a dichotomy from its unabashed embrace of a mysterious, loving God that intervenes in individual lives.
The show’s blessings, however, are more earthy — beginning with Hunter, who oozes anger, sexuality and irreverence, sometimes all at once. San Giacomo is perfectly cast as her friend and sounding board, and Johnson, Rippy and Woodbine all deliver solid support, with the jailhouse sequences among the show’s best.
Series creator Nancy Miller cut her teeth on “Law & Order,” but the cop plots are so secondary they’re frequently lost in the shuffle. With a boozing, promiscuous protagonist who sees an angel, one would think the show wouldn’t really need a “Kojak” riff, too, but if that’s what it took to get a series this intriguing sold, so be it.
Earl patiently tells Grace that God’s plan for her is “not like a crime that you can solve,” but she continues to resist, at one point saying, “I don’t think there’s a God who cares if I’m screwing a married man.”
He or She probably doesn’t watch much cable TV either, but assuming God has any sense of humor and can admire fine writing and terrific acting, he’d have to give “Saving Grace” a whole-hearted “Amen.”