Have You Met My Guardian Angel?

Illustration by Henry JansonPhoto: Courtesy of TNT

Saving Grace, the new cable series about angels and cops in Oklahoma City, has two things going for it, and it needs both of them. First, it has Holly Hunter playing Grace Hanadarko, a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, pill-popping police detective who enjoys seismic sex with a man married to some other woman. Grace may be on her way to hell, but we’ve spent so much time rooting for Hunter—as a producer in Broadcast News, the plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade, the parent in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, the picket-line coal miner’s spouse in Harlan County War, and the paladin of women’s rights, Billie Jean King, in When Billie Beat Bobby—that we pile happily into her handcart and rollick along for the ride.

Second, the angel who appears to Grace—Deadwood’s Leon Rippy, calling himself Earl and acting as rock-star seedy as John Travolta in Nora Ephron’s Michael—may be able on radiant wings to prestidigitate his tobacco-spitting self anywhere in the world in nanoseconds, but he is not permitted to help Grace solve her criminal cases, even when a child is missing. So the police work in Saving Grace is played straight. Which isn’t to say straightforward. It is frantic with chop-socky crosscuts and jujitsu camera angles, as if the mean streets of Oklahoma City had gone to film school. But it relies on intelligence and resourcefulness rather than divine providence. This means that half the show is safe to watch even by those of us who are agnostics about reality itself.

Otherwise, we have a cast strong enough to carry Grace’s considerable psychic baggage. (A traumatic past accounts, of course, for her self-destructive present.) Kenny Johnson (The Shield) is her partner and lover. Laura San Giacomo (Just Shoot Me) is her best buddy since high school and the CSI lab rat who will run DNA tests on the angel’s saliva and feathers. Bokeem Woodbine (The Big Hit) is the death-row inmate who dreams the same dreams as Grace. Creator Nancy Miller is a veteran of such strong-women TV series as Profiler, Any Day Now, and The Closer. If you absolutely insist on miracles, there’s a teleportation to the Grand Canyon and a wrestling match in ancient Athens. But Hunter herself is miracle enough for me, jumping without a parachute out of the frying pan and into our hearts.

Whereas Lili Taylor calms herself down for State of Mind. The indie misfit—just picture her excessing in A Slipping-Down Life, Girls Town, Cold Fever, Household Saints, and I Shot Andy Warhol, and her scarecrowing in Six Feet Under—is asked here to play Dr. Ann Bellowes, a family therapist in a kind of Victorian-house psychiatric commune in New Haven, Connecticut. Thus she is required to be sane while everybody else is overacting out. Even catching her husband, a fellow shrink, cheating on her, she’s supposed to be mostly frazzled instead of incendiary furious, casting him out of the commune and hitting him with a car. So she cries some (when she thinks she’s alone), hallucinates a little (strangulation, heavy petting), dreams a lot (teddy bears, green slime), and then rouses herself to save somebody else’s marriage.

Among the other therapists, Derek Riddell plays a chance-taking child psychologist, Mido Hamada is a womanizing psychopharmacologist, and Theresa Randle specializes in at-risk teens. Devon Gummersall is the idealistic young lawyer who replaces Ann’s husband in the commune, and Kevin Chamberlin is the straight–out–of–Our Town office manager. I suppose I should also rehearse again my surprise at how shrinks, so generally reviled in novels and films, are so often valorized on the small screen—maybe because an intimate medium is predisposed to believe, like Freudians, that most of our ogres live at home under the bed instead of outside in the lousy weather of politics or history. Still, add Lili Taylor to a luminous list that includes Hal Holbrook and Tom Conti in TV movies; Bob Newhart’s therapy group; Allan Arbus in M*A*S*H; Elliott Gould in Sessions; Carolyn McCormick on Law & Order; Ted Levine, Martin Donovan, and Michelle Forbes on Wonderland; Peter Strauss as Moloney; Robbie Coltrane as Cracker; and Hank Azaria as Huff.

But State of Mind will be worth a careful watching as much for the writer as for the star. The writer, creator, and co–executive producer is Amy Bloom—that Amy Bloom, the wonderful prize-winning short-story writer whose new novel, Away, will be published by Random House in August; who teaches at Yale; and who also just happens to be a practicing psychotherapist.

Saving Grace
TNT. Mondays at 10 p.m. Premieres July 23.

State of Mind
Lifetime. Sundays at 9 p.m.

Have You Met My Guardian Angel?