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Saving Grace: The Final Season
God works in mysterious ways. Television studios? Not so much. What else besides idiotic executives can explain how--despite good ratings, critical praise, the cast and crew's willingness and a green light from TNT--Saving Grace was cancelled by Fox in the summer of 2009 due to less than satisfactory "international and ancillary revenue"? That news came as the show approached the end of its third season's first half (the season was initially planned as a 15-episode run with the final six shows to air in 2010). As a small consolation, Fox gave Grace three additional episodes to tie up loose ends and give fans some closure (tacked on to the six already-filmed yet unaired episodes), resulting in nine episodes that concluded the series in June of 2010.
The result? An uneven yet still solid season that tries to squeeze in too much too fast, leaving me heartbroken at how such an amazing series could come to such an abrupt end. Given another seven episodes or so, I'm sure the writers could have come up with a more fitting finish. But to be fair, they made some missteps before the plug got pulled--so I can't blame just Fox for the fact that this is the least fulfilling season. But Saving Grace is still a remarkable series, and even with the disappointments this season manages to satisfy as it beautifully blends personal drama, exciting police cases and supernatural musings on the meaning of life--with its smartass heroine stumbling along the way. (It's also frequently funny, even if you don't have an allegiance in the Sooner/Longhorn rivalry.)
After the execution of Leon Cooley, Oklahoma City Police detective Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) discovers a new person in her life--one that presents another mystery. Have God and "Last Chance Angel" Earl (Leon Rippey) been preparing the non-believer for this new mission all along? Who is the mysterious woman (Yaani King) Grace has been dreaming about? "God wants you to know her heart," says Earl. But first, Grace has to find her--and when she does, another obstacle soon delays her enlightenment. Add to it Grace's already questionable faith, and it turns out to be a challenging road: "He can do anything he wants," says Earl. "He could have created each one of you to worship him, but what would be the fun in that? He wants you to come to him on your own, to pray because you want to." (I'll repeat a side note from my Season 1 and Season 2 reviews: Don't be turned off by the themes if you aren't religious or are of different faith--this show never preaches, doesn't have an agenda and isn't about anything else other than good storytelling).
Grace also gets a few more challenges this year, including an unwanted bout with fame and a new nemesis. Back at the police station, Grace continues to keep Ham (Kenny Johnson) at a distance. He wants a commitment, something she's afraid of--despite the fact that, deep down, we know she loves him. That doesn't stop her from succumbing to temptation, both with him and the other men who pass through her revolving bedroom door this season (she sleeps with both Jesus and the devil this season...don't ask). That's a habit that soon hits too close to home with her best friend, forensics specialist Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo)--who starts to have trouble at home with husband Ronnie (Benito Martinez takes over Jose Zuniga's role this season).
It's one of this season's best continuing subplots, and allows the show to play to one of its strengths: the relationship between Grace and Rhetta. The two actresses work so well together, their natural rapport leaving no doubt that their characters are lifelong friends. There's something so special and comforting about the scenes between the two; I never tire of hearing their childhood stories brought to life. Far from being throwaway filler scenes that you would see in so many other shows, these quiet moments mean so much. That feeling epitomizes the heart and soul of Saving Grace, and the connection the entire cast shares is obvious. We believe that these people care deeply about each other, something you can feel even when they fight (which they do, a lot). Watch for the duo's scene together near the end of this season's first episode; it perfectly encapsulates the love from the characters, actors and writers.
I only wish that the attention given to Rhetta was shared with more of the supporting cast. Ham comes close to getting the attention he deserves--a confrontation with his father and conversation with his brother hint at powerful stories, but they aren't explored nearly enough. He's also given a few new love interests this season, but neither is handled believably. One is actually impossible to buy--the writers spring it on us without warning, leaving us completely un-invested in the outcome (and the woman's emotions). It's a story that only gives us one perspective, which is odd for this series.
The same can be said for Butch (Bailey Chase, whose gaze continues to be an appropriately arresting vision), who also gets a meaningless relationship that feels empty (sadly, one of my assumptions about the character and where the show might lead him proved to be wrong). Equally neglected are Bobby (Gregory Norman Cruz), whose relationship with his father is only hinted at; and Captain Perry (the outstanding Lorraine Toussaint), who isn't given nearly enough to do despite a late-season push to add some excitement to her storyline. It's the shows treatment of these three characters that disappointments the most; we get a hint at what could have been in a scene between Butch and Capt. Perry in Episode 16, a touching moment that retreats far too soon.
Thankfully, getting to see the gang in action on the cases is still a blast. Saving Grace continues to integrate its overarching themes with individual mysteries each episode, and they continue to be a brutal lot that may surprise some viewers expecting more family friendly material (make no mistake, this ain't for kids). Considering the crimes aren't the show's main focus aren't given full devotion each episode, it's amazing that the cases are so intriguing--there are just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, and the suspects provide some surprisingly emotional moments. It's also fun to watch the detectives in action as they try to piece together the puzzles.
Highlights this season include the death of a court reporter (Episode 2), the work of an underground terrorist organization looking to wreak havoc (Episode 3), a murder that has Grace exploring Judaism (and guest starring Blossom!), the death of a parole officer (Episode 9, which has Clea Duvall and a memorable finish set to Florence + the Machine's "Kiss with a Fist"), the murder of a woman that has caused conflict within a rock band (Episode 14) and the near-beheading of a man outside a gay bar (Episode 17)--a great case that sadly gets short shrift, as does Ham's brother Nick (Jack Conley) in the aforementioned exchange that is far too brief.
The show also plays with its formula in a few episodes: Grace disappears in Episode 6, forcing the squad to find her before something terrible happens. That provides a great adrenaline rush, and it's nice to see the detectives at work without her...although I wish the episode kept us in the dark longer than it does. Episode 8 also provides a cool twist, but again I think it's given away too soon--it would have been more effective if it were unveiled at the very end.
We also spend some time with Grace's family this season, primarily Father Johnny (Tom Irwin), who--much to Grace's chagrin--is on a mission to meet Earl and help the cause. Firefighter brother Leo (Patrick St. Esprit) shows up a few times, but the charismatic actor is underused; while mom Betty (Jessica Walter) and sister Paige (Jessica Tuck) get minimal screen time. Nephew Clay (Dylan Minnette) sticks around, but doesn't have much to do--and a subplot with his dad (the underused Chris Mulkey) hinted at in Episode 10 is shockingly dropped, never mentioned again. The most touching family moment comes with the worsening conditioning of Geepaw (August Schellenberg) in Episode 12, which beautifully tackles dealing with death from both perspectives. We also get to see a few more angels this season (including some competition for Earl in Episode 4), as well as the arrival of mysterious writer Hut Flanders (Gordon MacDonald) in Episode 11: "I'm working on a book about how darkness always follows a miracle." (Oh who am I kidding? We all know who he is!)
But the show makes a few unfortunate errors that prove counterproductive. Even without the abrupt finish that I can't fully blame the writers for, they still misfired with one central character--the mystery woman that may hold the key to Grace's destiny. The show makes a big production about the Neely, this season's version of Leon Cooley. But--through no fault of actress Yaani King --the character is a schizophrenic mess. She's forced to transform herself too many times, and we never feel like we're dealing with an actual person--there's no emotional connection to her, nothing to invest in. We never get to know the real Neely, and the writers don't seem to know what to do with her as the season progresses. As a result, we're left cold to her plight.
I was also stunned with the waste of Episode 15 ("So Help You God"), a clip show. That's right...a clip show. Minimal new scenes--structured around a dream Grace is having of herself being put on trial--is a big fat waste of time, nearly inexcusable for a show so young--and for a cable show with a shorter episode run. It stalls the season, and I'm left scratching my head wondering how in the world this happened (give us something new, or cut the season an episode short).
The other major issues arise from the rush job the show was forced into when Fox cancelled it--giving Grace just three episodes to find a quick solution to the "regular" cliffhanger presented in Episode 16 (we also get a cliffhanger in the Summer Season Finale of Episode 10). I'm at least thankful the writers were able to give us some closure, but they try to do far too much in the last three episodes. It just doesn't fit with the show's rhythm. (It also renders the cases practically pointless, especially in Episode 18, the least engaging mystery of them all.)
It's hard to share too much about the episodes without giving anything away, but the show--and Grace--spends too much time stuck in one emotion, and it quickly proves tiring for the viewer. Instead of capitalizing on a great ending to Episode 17, the show decides to stick with its funk in Episode 18--which includes a sidetrack that I couldn't warm up to. As for the ending? It's too quick and flashy, and left me unsatisfied. The writers try to get too fancy in the final three episodes, and it doesn't feel organic. I wish they opted for a controlled, comfortable and simple approach that relied more on feeling than fireworks.
But even with the mistakes, I still love Saving Grace. It set the bar so high in previous seasons, maybe I'm being unfairly critical. It still works on so many levels, and I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of this third installment. Its heart is in the right place, and you can feel the love from every creative area. This remains a unique effort that is able to blend a handful of genres into one, a thought-provoking work that explores love, loss, loneliness, guilt, responsibility, faith and forgiveness. It's an emotional work that asks you to question your place in life, forcing us to explore fate and destiny. No matter your faith, there's plenty of ways to enjoy and appreciate Grace I miss her already...
(Oh, and in case there was any doubt, I'll ruin one obvious fact: God is a dog person...and really, isn't that how anyone of substance should be?)
The 19 episodes from Season 3 are presented on 5 discs; all run about 42 minutes:
1. We're Already Here (aired 6/16/09) Grace's investigation causes her mystery woman to get hurt and Butch has a surprise.
2. She's a Lump (aired 6/23/09) A suicide note causes Grace to question a member of an alcoholic support group. Rhetta has to find a way to keep the farm.
3. Watch Siggybaby Burn (aired 6/30/09) After a bomb goes off in her brother Johnny's church and someone takes shots at her brother Leo, Grace and her fellow detectives deduce that someone is trying to get to her.
4. What Would You Do? (aired 7-7-09) There is a brutal home invasion which the squad investigates as a part of a string of invasions, but things seem different with this particular case.
5. Mooooo (aired 7-14-09) Grace has to figure out why cows are dead and deal with Jewish Law at the same time.
6. Am I Going to Lose Her? (aired 7/21/09) Everybody rushes to find Grace after she vanishes while pursuing a suspect.
7. That Was No First Kiss (aired 7/28/09) The team investigates the death of a man shot at home, recalling an earlier crime. Grace and Kate get to use their gambling ability. Bobby reconnects with his father and Ham gets in touch with a spirit.
8. Popcorn (aired 8/4/09) The bizarre murder of a drug company whistleblower becomes a potential national news story for Kendra . Grace's brother Leo is convinced his next-door neighbor is keeping a dead body in his house. Johnny pressures Grace to arrange a meeting with Earl.
9. Looks Like a Lesbian Attack to Me (aired 8/11/09) Grace and her brother finally find Neely. The death of a parole officer forces the team to uncover a secret that may provide the answer as to how he died.
10. Am I Gonna Die Today? (aired 8/18/09) In the Summer finale, a prominent doctor fatally wounds an intruder in his house, but Grace doesn't buy the doctor's story. Ham breaks some interesting news to Grace, and Earl tells her she will need to help Neely.
11. Let's Talk (aired 3/29/10) Grace decides to talk with God. Ham and his dad don't see eye to eye.
12. Hear the Birds (aired 4/5/10) As Grace continues to deal with the spotlight, she also has to deal with her sick grandfather. The squad has to figure out which of the ranchers started a dispute, and Rhetta learns a secret about her daughter.
13. You Can't Save Them All, Grace (aired 4/12/10) A friend of Grace's doesn't want any help in the possible murder of her husband. The squad has little time to waste in trying to track down a missing person with special needs.
14. I Killed Kristen (aired 5/24/10) Grace gets to see a new side of her nephew when a rock band is related to a murder case. Neely begins withdrawal with help from Earl. Rhetta continues where she left off with Ronnie.
15. So Help You God (aired 5/31/10) Grace may be able to tell God all the things she has done through her life because of her bond with Earl.
16. Loose Men in Tight Jeans (aired 6/7/10) Everybody can't figure out why Capt. Perry seems to be on an edge. Rhetta and Ronnie learn to communicate better.
17. You Think I'm Gonna Eat My Gun? (aired 6/14/10) Grace must cope with survivor's guilt. Captain Perry has an announcement. The squad looks into a murder mystery.
18. I Need You to Call Earl (aired 6/21/10) Grace has trouble but doesn't go to anybody for help. Neely's drug problem spirals out of control. A friend of Butch needs help getting out of a tough situation.
19. I'm Gonna Need a Big Night Light (aired 6/21/10) Grace returns to Oklahoma City, rejuvenated and with a new perspective on how to deal with crime. The family is still trying to grasp what exactly happened.
Like the previous two season sets, this anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer seems pretty faithful to the original broadcasts--which are hazy affairs bathed in brown tones. Saving Grace will never look impressive from a technical standpoint, but it's not really supposed to. A lack of sharpness and detail, along with plenty of grain, are in store.
The 5.1 track is a different story--it sounds great, making excellent use of little details like crowd noises, wind and other details. Dialogue is also solid; you might get the sense a few characters mumble every so often (I rewound a few scenes here and there to no avail), but I'm not sure that's a fault of the track. Subtitles arrive in English for the Hard of Hearing, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
As if the abrupt end wasn't enough of a slap in the face, the abuse continues here. Not a single extra (unless trailers excite you), which is a crying shame. This was a special show, and I would have loved to hear from the cast and crew about this season and the series as a whole. It--and the fans--deserve better.
I'll never forget the rush I felt when I finished Season 2 of Saving Grace. Sadly, the series couldn't match its stellar sophomore campaign in its last season. A few mistakes--including a quick ending brought about by the studio cancelling the series, thus forcing a rushed three-episode arc to tie things up--prevent this from reaching the angelic heights I've come to expect. But a less-than-perfect Saving Grace is still pretty darn good, and this season offers up plenty by way of compelling characters, exciting cases and musings on what this whole "life" thing is all about. Series fans will love it, while casual fans should still find plenty to appreciate. Recommended.