Heaven help her

Times Staff Writer

"YOU look like the sort of angel I'd get," George Bailey said to Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life," and an entire genre was born. Since then, dramas as varied as "Wings of Desire," "Angels in America" and "Touched by an Angel" have envisioned heavenly beings in every way but the traditional Renaissance image of muscular men or flirty babies.

And so we come to Earl (Leon Rippy), the tobacco-spitting, ill-shaven angel of "Saving Grace." Earl is a real angel, with big, shiny, Pegasus-like wings, magic powers and a message: that Grace Hanadarko, the show's hard-drinkin', freely fornicatin' police detective, must change her ways or risk hell.

The setup is trite (how many hard-drinkin', freely fornicatin' police detectives is one expected to endure in a lifetime?) and the theology highly suspect -- surely, in this time of terrorism, war, corporate greed and political corruption, God could find better employment even for Earl. But, mercifully, Grace is played by Holly Hunter, and that alone may just be enough to save "Grace."

In this year of the great movie-star diaspora, Hunter joins the ranks of such high-wattage women as Mary Louise Parker, Parker Posey and Glenn Close seeking shelter, and inspiration, in television -- and that is good news for TNT. It also doesn't hurt that the wonderful Laura San Giacomo is Grace's best friend and forensics expert or that the series takes place in Oklahoma City, rarely the setting for a TV show. Reference is swiftly made to the 1995 bombing in which Grace's sister was killed while getting her son a Social Security card. Which she would have done the previous day if Grace had driven her there as she had promised. And you see where this is going.

So Hunter also joins the ranks of the emotionally damaged, badly behaving anti-heroes who dominate today's top shows, from "Dexter" to "House." She captures well the worn-to-the-bone, irritable and slightly skanky buzz of a person living on too little sleep and too many medicinally applied Cokes, while infusing her character with a gentle heart and a sudden, dazzling smile.

But much of the rest of the show is tediously familiar -- Grace's maverick, hot-headed tendencies put her at odds with her superiors; her use of sex as a cure for pain makes true intimacy almost impossible; and she's always almost blowing whatever case she's working on because she Won't Play by the Rules. Isn't that the territory covered by Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of "Police Shows for Dummies"?

In the pilot, the case involves a missing girl, a very troubled youth and child pornography, and Grace does solve it in the end, due, of course, to the same obsessive, hot-headed tendencies that make her so troubled to begin with (Chapter 5).

Clearly, Grace is a good cop and, by extension, a pretty good person. Troubled but making the world a better place in her own small, profane way. Yes, she should stop having sex with married men, but what she really needs is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, not an angel.

To be fair, Earl is also very busy with other, um, clients, including a death row inmate who seems to have some sort of connection with Grace, but this is the trouble with angels, at least on television: They almost always come to people who are less in need of divine intervention than they are of a good therapist. But then, good therapists are hard to find, and angels appear to be pretty much everywhere.



'Saving Grace'

Where: TNT

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-MA-L-S-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence).

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