A troubled woman’s mistake leads to tragic consequences, and she calls out to God for help. Instantly, an angel appears before her with an offer of redemption. He’s not Roma Downey, but Earl (Leon Rippey), a tobacco-chewing roughneck, better suited to handle a pill-popping alcoholic detective like Grace (Holly Hunter). As Earl observes, “This one’s gonna be hell.”
Saving Grace opens with Grace screwing her married partner Ham (Kenny Johnson). She’s got a string of one-night stands and mangled romances behind her, a fondness for Jack Daniels, a mean right hook, and an insatiable drive to catch bad guys. In other words, she’s just about every bad-ass movie cop you’ve seen wrapped in a tiny female frame with unkempt blonde hair.
Earl’s appearance, however, removes Saving Grace from the realm of generic cop shows, into one concerned with metaphysical questions. Is there a God? What does He want from us? And where the hell is He when we need Him most? Grace has had plenty of moments of need, including her childhood molestation by a priest and the murder of her sister in the Oklahoma City bombing. The pilot episode established that her pursuit of answers will put her on a road toward self-discovery, rather than praise of God.
Her journey began on a rough day, her primary case involving a missing child. As she focused on an adolescent perpetrator and tried to find his young victim, Grace was accosted by a cowboy. It was only after she knocked him unconscious that she learned he was one of the richest cattlemen in Oklahoma: he duly pulled strings to get her put on desk duty. After a night of drinking with best buddy Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), Grace was driving home when she plowed over a man walking down the side of the road, killing him instantly. Her subsequent prayer led to Earl’s visit: even when he whisked her away to the Grand Canyon and wrapped her in the healing warmth of her wings, she remained unconvinced of his identity. A further sign — Earl erased the corpse and all indications of the accident — left her thinking it was all a hallucination.
Still, Earl left Grace with evidence that it was real: sand from the Canyon in her shoes and a spot of blood on her blouse. With the help of Rhetta, a forensic pathologist, Grace identified the blood as belonging to Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine), an inmate on death row. It was only after a second visit from Earl and a prison visit with Leon (also one of Earl’s projects) that Grace began to believe.
The most obvious question before Grace is “Why me?” The distressed souls on Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven were generally good-hearted people who had simply lost their way; Grace has no personal moral compass. Her selfishness was manifest after the car accident, when she stood over the corpse and screamed, “You can’t do this to me!” But even though her brother (Tom Irwin), a priest, suggested she was a lost cause, the show’s point is that everyone can be saved, even Grace, and even Leon.
That’s not to say Grace doesn’t demonstrate worthiness, but she is refreshingly complicated. Though she’s close to her nephew Clay (Dylan Minnette), the relationship appears to be built on her feelings of guilt, as Grace’s sister was supposed to go to the Federal Building the day before the terrorist act that killed 168 people, but Grace wasn’t “feeling well” that day and was unable to babysit. Had she been well, her sister would still be alive. Still, Grace has genuine affection for Clay, which she shows in inappropriate ways such as taking him riding in a police cruiser with sirens going. Predictably, Grace displays a strong sense of morality when it comes to her job. Dogged and emotional, she always nails the right culprit, even if her indignation over the child kidnapping case appeared to be rooted in her own past.
While Saving Grace is yet another series featuring an out-of-the-ordinary detective, it is also an exploration of a woman’s multiple crises — ethical, spiritual, and personal. Grace provides an alternative lens into the world of macho-cop bravado, convincing by virtue of Holly Hunter’s performance. It is worth noting that she and other women actors “of a certain age” — Sally Field, Kyra Sedgwick, Glenn Close — are turning to television for complex, vibrant roles. And we can be thankful they’ve found them.