Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Road to Oklahoma

I like Alan Sepinwall’s take on Saving Grace very much: ”Is the world ready for an R-rated drama about angels? For a gritty crime drama that's one part NYPD Blue for every part Touched by an Angel? Since the show in question, TNT's new Saving Grace, stars an acting force of nature, I guess we had better be.”

Holly Hunter’s Grace Hanadarko shares much in common with the early Andy Sipowicz, from the cursing to the drinking to the sex.

But she’s also part of a continuum that started with Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus—the early persecutor of Christians, thrown from his horse by a light that blinded him. After three days the scales fell from his eyes and he was baptized as Paul and became the uber-apostle of Christianity.

Grace is a media age incarnation of the desire to have a dramatic encounter with something divine, while the rest of us muddle through far less well-lit channels.

The premiere of Saving Grace drew the character very well: she’s the tough, drinking, smoking, cop who throws a good punch. She’s the Fabulous Aunt, who is sleeping with her married partner. She’s carrying the guilt that her sister died at the Alfred Murrah building on April 19, 1995, because she “didn’t feel well” (a euphemism drunks use when they’re loaded) the day before. There was an allusion that she was abused as a child by a priest, and oh, her brother is a youngish Catholic priest, which given the crisis of vocations in the Church makes it unusual, and in a state where Catholics are less than 5% of the population, bordering on miraculous.

Grace’s life takes a turn one night when she’s driving drunk and hits a man. She calls out for God’s help—in the “there’s no atheists in trenches” way—and that brings in Earl (Deadwood's Leon Rippy), the angel. He says she is on her way to hell, but that God is giving her a chance to turn her life around. Turns out, the guy walking on the road was a set-up: he’s actually a prisoner on death row, who dreamed the same car accident with Grace. But Grace has found trace physical evidence that they weren’t dreaming—some blood on the backside of a button on her blouse. And it’s his blood. On a secular plain, this would be X-Files territory.

There’s a lot going on here: the desire to find “proof” of God; the certainty that there is a physical hell; the fear that to accept God means giving up lots of earthly delights (the married partner, drinking and driving, etc.)

There was a small piece on AOL the other day, questioning how SG would play across the country.

A review by Robert Bianco in USA Today gives an idea:

"[But] where does faith fit in when God quite literally leads her to the edge of a cliff and threatens to throw her off, and leaves physical evidence of his existence behind to boot? That's not faith, it's blackmail. And Grace's refusal to go along — her insistence, for example, on continuing to cheat with her married partner — makes you question her intelligence, if not her sanity.

Actually, an angry, threatening God might be an interesting change for a medium more comfortable with new-age, feel-good philosophy. But even there, Grace lacks both sense and courage. Every angry act is countered by some cutesy joke or trick from Earl, who represents your standard, vague, interdenominational Supreme Being."

So he’s not buying any of it. I think his blackmail point is just off. But I think at the heart of his dismissal is a clash of sensibility more than theology. And that is also part of a culture war that’s been going on forever.

Take a look at Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the way to Damascus.” I saw it for the first time this summer at the Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It is a startling masterpiece of darkness and light, and the central figure is the horse. It’s a visually crowded, messy, earthy, painting that tells the story of Paul more powerfully—and with a grounded reverance— than all the clouds and halos that came before Caravaggio’s extraordinary vision. As Wikipedia explains: "The essence of the problem was that while Caravaggio’s dramatic intensity was appreciated, his realism was seen by some as unacceptably vulgar."

Nancy Miller is not the Caravaggio of our day, but Saving Grace has an earthy tale of big-question ideas to contribute to the tv landscape. As Edward Copeland commented on Sepinwall’s post, “it’s exploring with much more clarity and entertainment many of the same issues John From Cincinnati seems to be looking at.” Do two things make a trend?


blue girl said...

Great review, M.A. I meant to watch it, but got wrapped up in watching the old movie, "Beaches" and then forgot to switch over.