• Image about Grace Hanadarko

Holly Hunter hits the small screen playing a detective with big-time problems.

Most of what the viewer needs to know about Holly Hunter's Grace Hanadarko, the protagonist of TNT's new series Saving Grace, happens right there in the first few moments, and what a wild few moments they are. She's a boozing exhibitionist having an affair with a passive-aggressive married man. Her house looks like a war zone, with liquor bottles as weapons. She zips through life as if she doesn't care much how or when she'll leave it. Though she's a detective sworn to serve and protect, it's clear that she's the one who needs the protection.

That protection comes in the strangest of ways, and it's the crust on which Saving Grace is based. She's visited by an angel one night on a dark, abandoned road after having run over a pedestrian with her sleek black Porsche. The man is lying in the street, his head busted open, and there's Grace, drunk and rattled, trying to give the poor soul mouth-to-mouth.

He's a goner, and the way it looks for Grace, so is she.

She begins to cry out to God (which is either temporary insanity or the unveiling of her true self), and with Grace, it's difficult to figure out what she wants most - for the man to live or for her career to be saved. That's when the angel appears. And while I believe that angels sent to look over us are reflections of our true selves, hers is an older, scraggly gentleman with bad teeth who looks like he's just stumbled by after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. (Come to think of it, maybe it is her reflection.)

"I'm Earl," he says, chewing what looks like tobacco. "Whaddaya need?"
Earl's spiel is that she's flushing her life down the toilet and that he's there to stop her before it's too late.

Grace thinks he's nuts, and it takes several other reminders to prove to her that this guy is the real deal (she's transported to what looks like the Grand Canyon, and the accident victim disappears and then ends up as a death-row inmate at the local prison), which only makes the ambivalence set in on Grace's already tormented soul.

Fortunately, her brother is a priest, and she tells him her tale. Unfortunately, he thinks the booze and wild life are talking and dismisses her. "If you're asking me if God can perform miracles, the answer is yes," he tells her. "If you're asking me if God would stage a drunk-driving accident and have an angel take you to the Grand Canyon - I doubt it."

Saving Grace is set in Oklahoma City, where the presence of God is just about everywhere, from the marquees of churches that sit on nearly every corner to the highway billboards that toss out proverbs to go along with your daily commute to people who say God bless you as easily as they say hello and goodbye. This is a warring place for an atheist to be, particularly an atheist as headstrong as Grace. She's quite open about having chosen a godless existence, one that now colors her impressions of the angel who's trying to make her do a 180-degree turn literally overnight.

It's clear where TNT is coming from with this bold drama: It's pursuing the possibility of re-creating the success of The Closer, whose Kyra Sedgwick, another veteran film actress whose well has gone dry in feature films, has found gold in good ratings and a steady paycheck.

Always quick-witted and mercurial, even in some of her lesser roles, Hunter - a 1993 Oscar winner (The Piano) who is one year shy of 50, if you can believe that - offers some interesting layers of behavior, which she conveys with heartbreaking emotion and without a trace of showiness. Her Grace is a cop with, I want to say, an attitude, but it's not even that. She's a sad and pathetic mess, a woman who refuses to believe that her demons caught up with her long ago.

Still, Grace has the uncanny ability to lighten the mood, as she does when a friend suggests to her that the next time Earl shows up, she take the opportunity to ask some of life's biggest questions, like "Is Jesus the son of God? Was he conceived by the Holy Spirit? What happens when we die?" To those, Grace adds, "What's the deal with cramps?"

But here's another thing: If we were privy to God's plan, could we live with the truth? Should we? Earl tells Grace in one scene that giving people answers only leaves little room for faith. The true test of faith is believing in the things you can't see. The things you don't know.

"So I'm supposed to do what?" Grace wants to know. "Change my life? Go to church? Be nice to people?"

It will be interesting finding out.