The TNT crime drama "Saving Grace" is off and running with its third season of following the life of detective Grace Hanadarko (Oscar winner Holly Hunter) fighting crime (and a personal demon or two) in Oklahoma City. One difference in the critically acclaimed series is that Grace has an angel named Earl (Leon Rippy) who watches over her and advises her on the choices she makes in her life. According to series creator/executive producer Nancy Miller, who talked to our Jim Halterman about the latest season, things are not going to be getting any easier for Grace in the coming episodes which may not be good for Grace but should be great television for fans of the show.
Jim Halterman: The term anti-hero is thrown around a lot. Is Grace an anti-hero?
Nancy Miller: I don't know. I don't know. I guess she's an anti-hero just because she's not encased in all things acceptable. You know what I mean? But I don't think any of our heroes, once you really peel back and get under that layer, are anything but human. And all of us have our mistakes, the dark edges of our soul that we don't reveal too often or to too many people.
JH: It's very interesting this season how you're opening Earl's world as an angel with the addition of other overzealous angels trying to get to Grace.
NM: We're going to find out this year that Earl is preparing something for Grace that's very important. He doesn't even know what it is himself. He just knows that God has told him that Grace needs to be prepared and that's his job. He knows something is going to happen and he knows Grace had better get ready. We're trying this year to make it real clear that Earl is not God. There's only one God and Earl is an angel, a messenger. He's not human but we'll see more depth of Earl this season in dealing with all aspects of Grace's life and this new coma girl that's in the picture.
JH: For whatever reason, if Earl went away, would Grace fall apart? Is he the only thing really keeping her going?
NM: As much as Grace doesn't want to admit it, it would rock her world.
JH: I loved her reaction in the season's second episode when the other angel shows up and asks her to choose him and leave Earl. She was truly fearful.
NM: When I was writing that [episode], I didn't realize it but when I saw it and, in the end, Earl is there and when they saw each other, it was a love story. That scene took me so by surprise. I just got so emotional. I went "Oh my God! This is a love story!" Sometimes you write stuff and you don't even know what you're writing. I just love that last moment when they look at each other and you know she chose him.
JH: Is faith a part of your life since it's such a part of the show? Do we all have angels?
NM: I don't know about the winged angels. I do believe in God. I'm Catholic and my faith means a great deal to me and I think God puts people in our lives who are angels. They come, they go, they show up or they stay for a long time. We're not talking about the divine there but it's all a mystery to me. Because I have faith, me personally, I don't need the answers. I'm curious but I don't have to have them and that's what our show is about. It's about asking the questions but never answering them. That's why it was real important for us to make sure that it was clear that Earl wasn't just a Christian angel. When Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine) became Muslim, he was an angel still. Earl has been an angel to a Jew so we don't ever want to say this is the way... it's because I don't know the answers, I don't ever want to present 'This is the way you have to think about God.' We clearly say there is a God but beyond that we don't say Jewish, Christian, whatever.
JH: You have such a long career in television crime dramas. What's the appeal of the genre for you?
NM: Cops are different breed. They're just a different breed of human beings. They're fascinating. This is really the first time I've been able to go deeply into their personalities. Usually in crime shows, you have to tell a crime story so you don't have time for the fun, the laughter, and the result of what happens to these people because of what they do. I hung out with the LA Sheriff's department for almost two years researching a pilot fifteen years ago so I've been to many crime scenes, autopsies, conventions with these guys and they are wild. They have the best sense of humor and that's a big part of Grace. These people laugh with each other, they get a kick out of each other, they have to because what they have to deal with everyday would just send them over the edge. Because of all of that and plus, cops deal with the worst of humanity, so dramatically it's a very easy plot device. It's a cop show. There's a bad guy, you gotta catch the bad guy, you gotta investigate so just as far as the craft goes, a cop show gives you an engine, gets you a train that you become very comfortable with telling those stories on television. It's the same with the drama that comes from a medical show or a law show, those franchises. With Grace, we get to really round out the cop's life, I think. Not that cops are doing something that Grace does but I've been with them and I know what they can do and I like cops. I just really enjoy them as people and admire what they do.
JH: That explains the practical jokes that are a big part of the show.
NM: Wait until you see what's coming. There's some great stuff coming up that I'm really exciting about.
JH: Creatively, do you approach the show season by season or do you know where the whole series is going.
NM: I know what the last episode will be of the entire series but what I do is I try to get a theme for the year. The theme for this year is Earl wanting to know and asking Grace the question, 'What do you believe?' She needs to know what she needs to believe because of what is coming. That thematically what we're touching on in the episodes this season.
JH: I like that Angel Matthew asks her "What do you want?" and it was clear how much that question alarmed her.
NM: Can you imagine if someone was there and they'll give you whatever you want? What is it you want is really a hard question to answer!
JH: Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo) and Grace have such a long history. Is Grace capable of having a healthy relationship? She and Ham (Kenny Johnson) go back and forth but never seem to be able to settle down.
NM: She does have friends like Capt. Perry (Lorraine Toussaint). Perry and Grace go back a long time to their vice days but she's not as close to Perry. Rhetta is her best friend but I would say you're going to meet someone else this season in episode 5 or 6 who Grace has been friends with her whole life. There are other people that she's absolutely friends with but we haven't told stories about them yet.
JH: Was Holly Hunter always attached to play Grace? I can't imagine anyone else playing her now.
NM: She came in later. I didn't have anyone in mind as I wrote it. She's one of the best actresses of our generation. TNT had a very short list of actors that they would approve because the show is edgy and the whole show rides on whether you can take this ride with Grace. The list was very short and I chose Holly and we sent her the script and I think it was on a Thursday and on Monday we heard she was interested and I'm still pinching myself. I mean, for a writer, every writer should be so lucky to write for her.
JH: How do you come to the fine line of making sure the audience root for Grace when her self-destructive decisions sometimes makes it difficult to like her?
NM: That's a very interesting question on a couple of levels. I think people look at some of the things that Grace does and if it were a man you wouldn't blink an eye. Look at Tony Soprano. Look at Tommy Gavin. I mean, Grace is a woman. She lives life uncensored which is what a lot of us wish we could do but don't have the balls or the guts and when I think of Grace my first thoughts are so positive. I know that Grace does things that some of us wouldn't do but a lot of the things are things we want to do. She's a woman of courage, of incredible loyalty, a huge heart, a sense of humor, she can hang with the guys and yet she loves women as well. She's had Rhetta as her best friend forever. So her characteristics are positive. It's easy for me to write this character because I admire her so greatly and yet we go places where it's like 'Oh my God, is she really going to do this?' and that's why we needed an actor like Holly because in the wrong hands, you could take Grace in a direction that's totally unlikable but with an actress who is so brilliant she just draws you in. She makes you understand Grace. That's the major thing is the way she's playing the role but, underneath that, I just love Grace's take-no-prisoners take on life.
"Saving Grace" airs every Tuesday at 10:00/9:00c on TNT.