Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Saving Grace" - the new "Touched by an Angel"

You remember that show, Touched by an Angel, with the team of angels, led by Della Reese in her red caddy convertible, going around helping people out of their hard spots and then surprising them with the revelation that angels really exist? Remember Highway to Heaven, with Michael Landon and his smarmy, condescending grin that said in no uncertain terms that he was going to heaven and the rest of us could spend eternity folding skivvies in an all-night laundromat on skid row for all he cared. Remember that?

Well, I guess the kind of sweetness and light that worked for those shows doesn't work in these days of hard-ball religious proselytizing and now they've been replaced by a new, though much edgier convert-caddy for the Jesus-lovers called Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter. This show's got it all...and the warning that shows up before every segment of the show is the one I like best: "This program contains scenes with nudity, sexuality, violence and coarse language. Viewer discretion is advised." BOO-yahhh!

Oh baby, The Big Four. That's like having a four-layer devil's food cake with a different sinful filling between every layer. Slurp.

Hunter plays a cop named Grace Hanadarko. Grace has very few socially redeeming qualities. She curses, she drinks, she neglects her family, she's a slob, she breaks the rules at work, she's having an affair with her partner -- who's married -- and, the best part, which comes out in virtually her first spoken line in the pilot...she's an atheist. In other words, she's an enormously likable character who I fell in love with within the first sixty seconds of the show.

In the premier episode, they spend the first twenty minutes or so showing you what a sinner she is, which just makes you love her all the more. And then they ruin it all by bringing god into the picture in the form of a shiny-winged, tobacco-chawing, denim-and-tshirt-wearing angel named Earl (a direct rip-off of the brilliant character Michael, the archangel played by John Travolta) who comes along at Grace's darkest moment - right after she's killed a guy with her car while driving drunk.

The atheist Grace, upon realizing the guy is dead, cries out "Oh God! Please help me!" And poof...Earl appears right on cue. When Grace expresses skepticism at his claims that he's an angel from god, Earl gleefully whips out his glorious, glowing wings and says something calculated to be charmingly witty, while coming off sounding like a hillbilly trying to impress his toothless girlfriend. Still skeptical, sweetie? Ok...he whisks her off to the top of a tower of rock in the Grand Canyon and makes the wind blow so hard that she is forced to reach out for his hand to keep from falling to her death.

Way to convince someone that god exists there, dude. Threaten them with going splat at the bottom of a remote canyon. Real smooth. And of course, true to form, as soon as she gives in and takes his hand, he's all nice and sets her back on the street, where she discovers there's no dead body, no dented car and no knocked over street sign. (But a few little clues are left of the encounter.)

So now, we're exactly halfway through the show, and Grace is trying to convince herself it was all a dream, while her best friend, the forensics expert at work, is more than ready to believe that the angel Earl proves that miracles really happen and easily makes out the face of Jesus in the markings on the side of a cow that Grace has "liberated" from a lecherous cattle rancher.

"Holy cow," says Forensics Friend (played by a sour-faced Laura San Giacomo).

Later, after stepping in dog shit and spitting out a juicy "goddamit!", Earl appears again and scolds Grace for cursing. Grace takes the opportunity to ask a few questions, but can't quite find the words. "Let me guess," says Earl, "you want to know why pain and misery and death and destruction." "Yeah, pretty much," Grace agrees.

"If I gave you the answers, there's no room for faith," is the answer Earl offers.

Yeah right. Always with the evasive answers. How about a good solid "here's why and here's the evidence" now and then?

So the route has been graded and the gravel is being laid and we're being led down the super highway to Heaven. And in between scenes of Grace handily finding the kidnapper of a little girl, Grace discovers, with the aid of Forensics Friend, that the blood on her shirt (Earl isn't a very good launderer) was that of a death-row inmate. During a visit to said inmate, Grace and inmate discover that they had the same dream... he died after being hit by a drunk driver and was whisked off to heaven by an angel. Inmate and Grace also discover they have a friend in common - Earl the Erstwhile Angel. Inmate informs Grace that Earl appears to him irregularly, with no schedule, and refers to him as the "Last-Chance Angel."

So Inmate and Grace are both being given their last chances by god and has sent his emissary, the twang-talking Earl, to guide them both to redemption.


Ok... I have to confess that, in spite of the god angle, I liked this show. I like Grace's character a lot, and some of the peripheral characters seem to have a lot of potential too, especially Grace's partner/lover, who looks like he might be a Brad Pitt look-alike if not for the constant stream of black eyes, whiskers, bruises, dirt and scrapes he sports, not to mention the constantly drunk-or-hungover look on his face. San Giacomo as Forensic Friend (I'm too lazy to look up the character's name) looks like she'll be fun and interesting too...although as the god-lover in the cast of characters, she may turn out to be a bore. They've also got a long-haired Native American guy on the squad who looks like potential fun.

But, that said, here's the thing. I'm a little annoyed at the approach the Jesus-lovers are taking with this show. Obviously they won't get anywhere with the Touched by an Angel approach. Too gentle, too much preaching to the choir. Won't get any converts that way. With Saving Grace they've gotten sneaky. Create a character and plotlines that attract an atheist-type viewing audience and then slide in the proselytizing on the side like the brussels sprouts your mum used to force you to eat, only covered with loads of cheese sauce so you think they might just be palatable even though you hate them.

I'm also a little offended by the suggestion they make that atheists are amoral, cursing, philandering, wreckless drunkards. Gotta tell ya, I'm pulling for Grace to get a clue and tell Earl to shove off.

But I suspect that ain't gonna happen.

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