Screen Savors: Granting Holly some grace

Actress Holly Hunter's sojourn into series TV comes so close to good that it hurts when Saving Grace falls short.

Actress Holly Hunter's sojourn into series TV comes so close to good that it hurts when Saving Grace falls short. But angels, detective work and Hunter's angst prove a mix too heavy pull off, leaving YES's new addition a tad shy of outstanding television. It's hard to dislike anything starring Hunter, whose movie roles from Raising Arizona and Broadcast News to The Piano have all been incredible. And early on we liked everything about Saving Grace, particularly the scenes establishing our heroine Grace Hanadarko as a cussing, drinking, promiscuous Oklahoma City detective. Besides sleeping with her partner Ham (Kenny Johnson, The Shield's Lem with a hard to accept Southern accent) she drives her old, black Porsche way too fast. Grace has a little girl's kidnapping to solve, which would be easier if she wasn't getting hit on while looking for suspects at the local cattle auction. No problem. She decks the guy, who turns out to be the richest cattle rancher in the country. We've established she's got an attitude, a drinking problem and, oh yeah, a nephew with no mother. But here's the spin: Grace is so bad that God's sent an angel to give her one last chance to do good. She first encounters Earl, a winged though tobacco chewing angel, after hitting a man while driving home after a night of drinking with her friend Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo of Just Shoot Me), a lab technician. "Dear God, please help me" says Grace, and before you can say, It's a Wonderful Life, there he is to tell her, "You're headed to hell Grace, but God's giving you one last chance…" He then whisks her off to the Grand Canyon to demonstrate His power. Moments later she's back on the road, no dead guy. "Holy shit," she says, gazing skyward. Truth be told, there were signs. A cow with Jesus-shaped spots at the auction, for example (setting up the "holy cow" line for all you Phil Rizzuto fans out there), a not uncertain clue that this show joins a plethora of recent TV efforts involving the supernatural, from Joan of Arcadia to Touched by an Angel, to mention a couple. Grace goes to talk it over with her brother, who happens to be a priest ("This is not about the Catholic church. It's about God and an angel," she insists when he hands her a Bible). That leads to some goopy scenes, including Grace spilling booze on the Good Book then wiping it off. Groan. Much better was the conversation between Rhetta - who wears a cross as subtle as a tire iron - and Grace regarding which questions she should ask Earl the next time he turns up, particularly "What's the deal with cramps?" Meanwhile, Grace and Ham are on to a young punk who loves heavy metal and has a thing for little girls. Just when she's about to close in on him, however, the teen leaps to his death, adding another layer of guilt to her already messed up life. The frustrated Grace gives out a "Goddamn it," and Earl turns up again. With Grace wanting to know about angels, heaven and death, Earl responds with, "You guys always ask the same questions. If I give you the answers, there's no room for faith." Then there's the back story. Grace's sister died in the Oklahoma City bombing, having gone to the building that day because of a screw-up by Grace. The absent mom's a reason for additional touchy-feely stuff between guilt-ridden aunt and precocious nephew. Obviously, Grace and Ham find the girl but the detective stuff seems to be just filler for the "greater questions" posed here. That said, Hunter works. Her performance is so outstanding that the occasional mawkishness inherent in the idea by Nancy Miller (The Closer) is overcome by Hunter's raw, robust and riveting presence. And Leon Rippy (Deadwood) is also a hoot as Earl, her winged redeemer. Miller should've simplified the show by eliminating one or two layers. But America loves its angels, with a reported half of Americans believing in them. That's not going to make this program any more believable, but with Hunter on board, the TNT network at least has an angel of an actress, which is the real saving grace. Saving Grace is offered on YES Stars 2 on Friday at 10:05 p.m., Saturday at 9:10 p.m., Monday at 10:20 p.m. and Tuesday at 5:20 p.m.