Saving Grace: EZ mystery and popular culture

Saving_grace Saving Grace debuted last night. 

Entertainment Weekly and Henry Goldblatt gave high marks to Holly Hunter as Detective Grace Hanadarko.  Predictably, her performance was flabbergastingly good. 

What Goldblatt didn’t like was the the "heavenly subplot" that suggests that Grace is the recipient of divine intervention.  I do see what he’s saying.  TV now resorts to intervention of divine and supernatural nature too frequently, from Joan of Arcadia to John from Cincinnatti. 

But I think this plot line is here for a reason.  (And it’s not just we are culture keen on organized religion and every kind of spirituality.)  "Heavenly subplots"  are useful.

Here’s what I mean.  Ours is a culture where genre is being loosened and elements of the imponderable are being let in.  Even the most predictable cultural artifact will sometimes have elements we don’t quite "get."  This was once the trade mark, the defining feature, of avant garde culture where artists have taken joy in creating art that evades our ability to make it make sense.  (According to the trade-off, only art that refuses conventional meanings can capture new ones.)

The history of Hollywood is the story of a "creative tension" between producers who want things to make perfect sense, and writers and directors who want to open up the semantic field and let in subtlety, nuance, and things that tremble on the edge of the intelligible.   

For a long while, the producers were winning, and this is a principal reason Hollywood was so robust as a cultural form and so successful as a cultural import. 

But now, writers and directors are making a little headway.  This is due to many things, and HBO and cable can take much of the credit.  But it is also due to the fact that our culture is getting less intimidated by difficulty, and a lot better working with relatively unformed materials.  A creative team can dial back the "keep it simple, stupid" advice and fill a project with notes that are strange, wonderful and sometimes downright inpenetrable.

Naturally, the war continues. Producers still want things to remain full-impact obvious.  And when the creative team can’t stand it anymore, they have a "last chance" strategy.  It’s divine intervention.

The divine element certifies plot elements that are hard to understand.  After all, God works in mysterious ways. This is "premise" you might say of religious discourse.  Now, the creative team has the right to loose the bounds of genre and construct a world that’s less formed.   Now they have a license of forgivable mystery.   

I think that might be what is happening in Saving Grace.  Naturally, when you have an actor as good as Holly Hunter, you can do anything you want.  On the other hand, perhaps TNT, the producing partner, is not as open handed as HBO. Perhaps, it was necessary to use a heavenly subplot to smuggle in more genuinely creative options. 

Divine mystery is EZ mystery. It’s certified mystery.  Everyone knows what it is.  The question to ask is whether TNT was right to think that mystery here needed certification.  Hey, they may be right.  Or maybe because they are relatively new to the producing game, they are working up to creative risk by stages.  It might even be that the wonderful performance we get from Holly Hunter was actually "purchased" by this divine certification approach.  It was the price the creatives had to pay to give her this room and us this gift. 

I don’t pretend to know.  This much I think is clear.  The center of our culture is moving away from the days of "big studio simplicity" and towards, lets call it, "cable complexity."  And in this view, divine intervention as a strategy at TNT may be seen as the swing, the intermediate, position. 


Goldblatt, Henry.  2007.  Holly Holy.  Entertainment Weekly.  July 27, 2007, p.

1 thought on “Saving Grace: EZ mystery and popular culture

  1. ken

    Don’t forget the award wining Medium (the sister show “Ghost Whisper) and the much more interesting cable presusor The Dead Zone.
    Numbers, indeed, could be viewed as the “science” program to counter these (or join them as another religon) since the magic is in the numbers. you’ve come up with a good economic explanation but what is teh social/cultural one. I’ve actually been puzzled by this for a bit

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