Tuned In: Hunter says edginess is TV role's saving grace

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TNT's "Saving Grace" is a show that, on paper, should have broad appeal. It's the story of Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter), a hard-drinking, Oklahoma City police investigator who converses with Earl (Leon Rippy), a tobacco-chewing angel.

And if Grace were just a little damaged, fans of "Touched by an Angel" would be racing to watch the show. But Grace is really messed up. She has uninhibited sex with her married partner, swears like a sailor and curses at God. I'm pretty sure those are the reasons I've heard from so many viewers -- mostly older, mostly women -- who don't just dislike the show but seem actively angry with it for not being the series they expect and want it to be.

It's exactly those edgy aspects of the character that most appeal to Hunter, a 1980 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University.

"I think that Grace is an examination of a whole person," Hunter said in a recent call with reporters. "Grace is one of the reasons I love fiction. We all need a departure from our own lives to see humanity. That's why people go to the museum, why people see paintings of great horror and of great desire. It's why we read Dostoyevsky or Tom Wolfe.

"You're swimming in the world of possibilities, in the world of what we are capable of as human beings. We're capable of a lot -- great nightmares and great horror, great fun and great fantasy. ... As an artist, that's what I want to explore. We have the chance to reflect and understand, what can our lives be about? That's a question that affects 20-year-olds who are asking big questions and 80-year-olds who are asking big but different questions, perhaps about their lives and the experiences they've had as young people. I think that Grace kind of inhabits it all."

Viewers who watched the "Saving Grace" pilot and then jumped shipped missed future episodes that expanded Grace's backstory and offered insight to her personality and the choices she makes. The first season ended with Grace training a gun on the priest who molested her at age 9. Next week's season premiere (10 p.m. Monday, TNT) reveals whether or not Grace pulled the trigger.

"It's an exciting ride being Grace. Her life is fantastical in many ways," Hunter said. "She's somebody people can relate to but maybe they're not leading that life."

Hunter said while studying acting at CMU she didn't have a particular goal to act on stage or screen or TV. She just wanted to act.

"I remember when I was at Carnegie we had an actor come to see us and the actor made his living by doing commercials and we followed him around campus barraging him with questions about what it's like out there in the real world," she recalled. "When I first got to New York [after college], I did nothing but extra work. It was a great way to make a living that was not waiting tables. After I did 'Broadcast News' and it was a very successful movie both critically and at the box office, the next thing I did was a TV movie of the week. It was the '80s and television was already expanding in terms of it not being a punishable place for feature film actors."

Making the move to a weekly series, a more demanding grind than feature films, hasn't taken a toll on Hunter.

"I've got to tell you, I've got a lot of energy," she said, laughing. "I'm kind of impressed with myself. It seems as though I'm not really getting that tired."

'The Closer' returns

As it begins its fourth season, "The Closer" (9 p.m. Monday, TNT) remains a more accessible, easy-to-digest series than "Saving Grace." Partly it's because the show has a more familiar structure -- crime committed, cops solve it, bad guy goes to jail -- but mostly it's because of actress Kyra Sedgwick.

Her take on LAPD deputy chief Brenda Leigh Johnson is such a welcome mix of warmth ("Thank yew so much!") and dogged determination.

The denouement of Monday's season premiere is predictable, but fans will enjoy the return of pyromaniac Bill Croelick (Jason O'Mara), who plays Hannibal Lecter to Brenda's Clarice Starling.

Developments in Brenda's private life also lend the episode some comic relief, which makes "The Closer" a well-balanced prime-time drama that has improved markedly from its earliest episodes.

Why are the listings wrong?

I hear a recurring concern from readers upset when TV Week listings are sometimes inaccurate.

We have an explanation as to how this happens at the bottom of page two in every issue of TV Week, but let me state it again: TV Week is printed.

The networks change their schedules at the last minute. Voila, some TV Week listings become inaccurate.

On page two every week we suggest viewers consult the daily print or online listings (post-gazette.com/tv) for the most up-to-date TV schedules.

Channel surfing

The Science Channel will air "Robocars" (10 p.m. Monday), a six-week series chronicling last year's DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Urban Challenge robot race. (Spoiler alert: CMU's Tartan Racing team won the $2 million prize.) ... KDKA has hired Trina Orlando from WJET in Erie as the station's new Westmoreland County bureau reporter. Details in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv. ... "In Their Own Words," a book of cancer survivor stories collected by 14-year-old Kelsey Barner of Murrysville, will be featured on CNN Headline News' "Glenn Beck Show" at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Blogging press tour

If all went according to plan, I arrived at the TV critics summer press tour in Beverly Hills yesterday and my first reports from HBO's sessions are already online at the newly interactive Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.

Through July 21 I'll be filing multiple reports daily. With the new commenting function, you can chime in or ask questions.

Tuned In podcast

This week I chatted with WPXI meteorologist Scott Harbaugh about forecasting the weather, what he watches in prime time and his interest in TV Christmas specials. Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/tv.

One topic that came up was what will become of NBC's Weather Plus, which WPXI carries as a digital sub-channel, now that NBC is acquiring The Weather Channel.

WPXI news director Corrie Harding said Channel 11 Weather Plus remains "an important part of WPXI's mission," but it's too early to know NBC's plan. My bet: Since there's no need for duplicative services, NBC will shutter Weather Plus and adopt a Weather Channel brand for its affiliates' digital sub-channels.


This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about the new "Knight Rider," former local broadcasters and WPXI's fireworks coverage. Read it at post-gazette.com/tv in the lower right corner.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112.


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