Saving Grace

Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) is back and looking for more drama. In the second season premiere of TNT’s Saving Grace, this pursuit took forms that were both overt and effectively repressed. As she faced off against Father Murphy (guest star Rene Auberjonois), the priest who molested her, she didn’t tell her best friend and fellow cop Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo). She also kissed her partner Ham (Kenneth Johnson), a married man who is one of her many eager suitors.

While the episode, which aired 14 July, often leaned into melodrama, the series remains compelling. Deeply flawed and passionately committed, Grace is investigating her own past and identity as much as the criminals she’s assigned to track. The character study is often riveting, not least because of Hunter’s fierce performance. She’s a little tornado, sometimes a pocket diva.

Yet when the series reaches for the “big questions,” it can turn clunky. The overarching angel storyline — wherein Grace is visited by Earl (Leon Rippy) — too often recalls Touched by an Angel, with a bit of CSI in the detecting segments. Will Grace lose her faith completely or regain it? Why is she so tortured? Why does she need a “last chance” angel? Why does God let bad things happen to good people? And how does any of this affect her forensic pursuits? The series only avoids tipping into after-school special-land because Grace is so exuberantly dysfunctional, a badass with cowboy boots and roughneck attitude.

Introduced last season, the molesting priest backstory raised the ante on her dysfunction. Though Earl insisted that God loves and forgives the priest too, Grace went after him with special determination. In the new episode, she kidnapped him and tried to force him to confess crimes involving more than 50 children, herself included. While she did end up turning Murphy in — to Earl’s relief — she was also super-happy when another molestation victim killed him. What’s more, the episode revealed, the killer, also a cop, had been molesting his girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter, a plot point underscoring the cycle of violence and wrenching emotional consequences wrought by sexual abuse. Watching over the proceedings from a distance, Earl hung his head and wept at this revelation, another instance of the show’s using his response as emotional and moral shorthand, encouraging the audience to join him in his judgment.

Even more manipulative is the other major backstory that was slowly revealed last season and reappeared in this episode. One of Grace’s sisters died in the Oklahoma City bombing. Her large Catholic family’s attempts to come to terms with that tragedy in different ways are obviously offered as a family-scale dramatization of the country’s efforts to deal with such trauma. Grace blames herself for her sister’s death and, as we learned in this episode, some others do too. Here we also saw her trying to care for her sweet (but too cutesy) nephew, feeling wracked by guilt, and watching her siblings burn with ever stronger anger and desire to settle scores.

Grace continues to resist revenge fantasies and wrestles with religious conviction. Sometimes the signs of her struggle are subtle, as when, feeling bothered, she puts a few strands of her hair in a braid. More than an internal barometer, this coif symbolizes her connection to her American Indian grandfather, her other big backstory. When he appeared briefly last season (before he died), she bonded with him and tried to honor his customs, a storyline alluding to the vexed legacy of Indian-white relations in the U.S.

Other signs of Grace’s struggle are more obvious. At one point in this episode, Grace had a dream in which she imagined her entire precinct of fellow detectives congratulating her for a job well done. But they weren’t lauding her for catching one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted criminals that day, which she did (busy day!). Instead, she imagined them celebrating her execution of the priest. It was a surrealistic scene, because even as she sought their approval, they stared back at her and repeated the phrase, “Atta girl!” In imagining this disturbing response, a possible aftermath of her revenge fantasy, she realized that she could not kill the priest.

In taking viewers into the wilds of Grace’s subconscious, Saving Grace is finding the most crucial crime scenes of all. Typically, these scenes argue that faith — as it represents moral order — must defeat the chaos and irrationality of violence. We get the message.

RATING 7 / 10