09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Embrace Your Grace

Grace is, by my definition, something unexpected.

So it should have been no great surprise to me to discover a great blessing of grace in, of all places, a television program.

In its second season, the TNT series "Saving Grace" is the best thing on television and one of the most articulate treatments of spiritual material I've had the pleasure of seeing in years.

The series follows Oklahoma City police detective Grace Hanadarko, played by Oscar-winner Holly Hunter in a virtuoso performance that rightly earned her an Emmy nomination this year.

Grace is a complicated, deeply faulted, entirely engrossing character. She drinks too much, chain smokes, cusses like a sailor and sleeps around with random men and, most perilously, with her married partner, Detective Ham Dewey (Kenneth Johnson).

She's a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and a family-survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing, where her sister was killed.

When we first met Grace last season, she was chewing up the screen and her life, living recklessly and without apologies for her sins, until one night, driving drunk, she hit a pedestrian and killed him. Kneeling over the man's bleeding body in terror, she asks aloud, "God, help me."

And with that, Earle appears. He is, we (and Grace) soon learn, her last-chance guardian angel, a tobacco juice-spitting, T-shirt-wearing, tabbouleh-loving, drawling messenger from God, come to save her (or, more accurately, help her find salvation).

Before you roll your eyes, make no mistake: "Saving Grace" is no "Touched by an Angel," and Earle (Leon Rippy) is a whole lot grittier and more real than the ethereal Roma Downey.

"Saving Grace" doesn't end each episode quaintly, all the messy ends tied up in a pretty bow. Grace doesn't see the light, at least not at first and in some life-altering way. But the God of "Saving Grace" is a patient, persistent being who pursues her relentlessly, not unlike the God described in Biblical accounts.

Grace is a modern-day King David, a woman after God's own heart despite -- or perhaps because of -- her fallen-ness. She makes the same mistakes over and over with troubling and sometimes tragic results. And yet, God doesn't stop extending grace to Grace, giving her chance after chance after chance to change her life and get healed.

Earlier this week, I chatted with Nancy Miller, the creator of "Saving Grace." I wondered how she might see grace -- the notion, the spiritual concept -- in her own life.

"I think of it as a gift from God," Miller said. "An answered prayer. Grace is something that's just given through love, pure love. And I don't know if we deserve it, but I guess we do because God gives it to us. That's what I think of grace. I've seen it in my own life, I've seen it in others."

Earle the angel is a delightful, deeply moving character. He's the voice of a gracious God, who assaults Grace with equal parts love and the truth.

"Earle dispenses a lot of grace," Miller said. "And the man himself, Leon Rippy, is just walking love. Oh my God. He's so talented as an artist, but as a man -- I'm gonna cry just talking about him. He really is just wonderful and meant to play this part. He's the kind of angel I would need in my life, and he's just a graceful, patient, loving angel."

That's how I like to believe God is.

"So do I. He delights in humans and what we do and how we try so hard. Several times in the show, he holds Grace -- that's God, to me, holding us when we're ashamed of something we've done and just there with his arms around us," Miller said.

While "Saving Grace" is an adult drama -- with explicit sex and violence, it's not for the faint of heart -- it's also funny. "I think that helps these moments that are very emotional and very deep ... and then just butt up against that and make you laugh because I think God has a sense of humor," Miller said.

If the feedback on the Web site TNT has set up to accompany the show,, is any indication, there are not a few people who find the show upsetting. "There are a lot of people who are appalled and hate the show and tell me I'm going to hell and better be ready to meet my maker," said Miller, a self-described "practicing Catholic."

Those who do find it appalling are missing the point. The show is dressed in the trappings of sensational plot lines and torrid encounters, but it's smartly layered and never preaches.

Miller says she intends the show to present many questions, but not necessarily to give hard-and-fast answers. That's because, even though she is a person of deep personal faith, she leaves room for the possibility that she doesn't have all the answers.

"We very clearly state that there is a God. How you get there, what you believe, is all up in the air. But that's not the message of the show as much as there's this woman who God gives this amazing life, this gift of life and so many pleasures in it," she said. "And Grace is a woman who eats it up.

"But does she have a relationship with the place that comes from, and what should that relationship be? Grace represents all of us. All of us are Grace. All of our good and our bad, all of our appetites for pleasure and even the conflicts of life. She's not afraid of those things."

Grace's journey to grace isn't over yet. I'd urge you to tune in to TNT at 9 p.m. Mondays to see for yourself.

Embrace the sacred messiness of life and, perhaps, your own grace.

Cathleen Falsani is religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, to be released later this month.

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