Doodad Kind of Town

The Bad Girls of Basic Cable: "Saving Grace" and "Damages"
July 30, 2007, 12:42 am
Filed under: Holly Hunter

I have just one question: when did it become OK for people to say “Holy shit!” on basic cable?

I mean, really? Aren’t there still standards and censors for commercial networks, even the ones you can only watch if you have a cable box? Or am I out of touch?
Don’t answer that. I’ll do it for you. Yes, I’m totally out of touch with basic cable. Series like “Rescue Me” and “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” and “The Closer” and so forth have all gone unviewed in my home. For the past several years, my TV watching has been limited primarily to HBO, Bravo, Turner Classic Movies and a handful of the smarter network sitcoms (e.g. “The Office”).
So it was kind of a revelation to me when I turned on two new summer series this week to hear all this “holy shitting'” going on everywhere.
The emphasis is on the “holy” part in “Saving Grace,” a quirky drama starring Holly Hunter as a hard livin’, hard drinkin’, detective who has an encounter with the divine.
Despite all the hype celebrating “Saving Grace”‘s groundbreaking originality, this character turns out to be pretty much your standard-issue Southern spitfire in tight jeans and cowboy boots. She flirts, she cusses, she chain smokes. She drinks both beer and Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. She straddles her married lover with wild abandon (showing as much skin as basic cable allows), sucker-punches another man in return for an unwelcome come-on, and in between these mini-dramas, zooms around town in a mud-splattered Porsche (Which is a nice touch, since I would have expected a battered pick-up truck). All this is meant to suggest that Grace is beyond redemption, but God apparently thinks otherwise. After a night of hard drinking and reckless driving, Grace is visited by an angel. Since this feisty little missy is unlikely to be impressed by, say, Della Reese or Roma Downey, God sends Earl – a grizzly, tobacco-chawing old dude in denim (who I TOTALLY thought was Neil Young, but turns out is played by an actor named Leon Rippy.) Why the angel chose her – what God has in mind – well, none of that is clear, but there’s a whole series ahead to explore those questions.

The pilot is a bit overloaded with background information and introductions of supporting characters: Grace’s brother is a priest, her best friend (Laura San Giacomo in big, black, nerdy specs) is a devout Catholic; her beloved nephew lost his mom in the Oklahoma City bombing. Oh, and Grace has slept with pretty much every man in town. Now that we’ve got all that established, I hope this series gets going on giving some dimension to characters other than Hunter’s. It’s all fine to unleash Hunter’s force-of-nature energy into a part like this, but for the series to really work, she needs some folks who can balance her out. Personally, I’m always up for some unconventional exploration of God and faith, so I wish this series well.
“Damages ” filled me with nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time – the early 1980s. A time when Glenn Close played characters who were neither evil nor insane, but, rather, smiled beatifically and radiated goodness from beneath a halo of soft, blond curls. (If you are too young to remember this time, go find “The Natural” on DVD. Or even “The Big Chill.”)

Don’t get me wrong, Close is a terrific actress. Although not a force of nature like Hunter, she dominates “Damages” as a skillful, coolly assured portrayer of thinly disguised sociopathic malice. But, honestly, Close can do this evil bitch act in her sleep by now. It’s been twenty years since “Fatal Attraction” – what other rabbits can she pull out of her hat? Or boil, for that matter, and yes, there is an act of cruelty towards in a small animal in the opening episode of “Damages.” Which is only one reason that I so intensely disliked it.

The show is creepy and sometimes pointlessly sadistic. It plays up its more graphic and arresting images to good effect, but develops its major characters almost not at all.
Take the opening scene in which a woman flees an upscale apartment building, wearing only a blood-splattered trench coat and high heels. That’s a heart-stopping image, but what the hell is it all about? We won’t find out soon – once she turns herself into the police in the next scene, the action flashes back six months to show this woman being hired fresh out of law school by Close’s law firm.
Close is a personal injury attorney who loves sticking it to corporations on behalf of the little guy, although it’s never clear why. She doesn’t have much love for the little guys on whose behalf she scores huge, punitive settlements. What she does love is terrorizing and intimidating her employees. Rose Byrne is the fresh-faced law school grad she hires, but it equally unclear what Close sees in her. Doe-eyed, soft-spoken and ineffectual, Byrne hardly suggests the ambitious go-getter she’s claimed to be. She’s no foil for Close, and therein lies the problem. As with “Saving Grace,” the big-name actress at the center of the out-acts the rest of the cast, basically eating them all for breakfast. I’m less inclined to keep up with “Damages” in the coming weeks, but if I do, I’ll hope that some of the other actors start coming alive.

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