March 30, 2010

I have railed a couple of times (at least) about television shows I've liked that have been canceled. Yes, I'm one of those people who gets bitterly angry when "my stories" are interrupted, whether that be a book series, comic book run or television. I am notorious for snapping the head off of anyone who attempts communication with me during the last 50-100 pages of a novel that I'm into. I am known for buying an entire story arc of comics and not reading them until the arc is completed and purchased so that I can get through the entire thing in one sitting.

It's not that I use stories as escape from my own life, because that's never actually been the attraction. Instead, others' stories are a clear view into how people work. What makes people tick. Why do they act in the ways that they do. I learned, early on, that a really good story, no matter where it is found, doesn't just tell you about the unique experience of a particular person or group - instead it both tells a unique history and emphasizes how in our disparities we are so very, very similar.

In short, I become utterly fascinated with the dichotomy of different and similar in a good story.

Television stories, however, are often little more than amusement to me. They are rarely allowed to be complex enough to truly explore the differences deeply enough until they become similarities. Television rarely surprises me and it rarely requires my full attention. Frankly, in the last 10 years, I think my television has been on just too damn much - but while I prefer to listen to music, my partner can't read with music on, so I've grown accustomed to no radio. She enjoys having the television on for background noise - I can't read with spoken word as background noise, so my reading habit has gone largely by the wayside and has been replaced by various activities I can do whilst watching television. We watch a fair amount of DVDs since television is largely a cotton candy affair - nice and fluffy, but rarely anything of substance. With DVDs, we can stick to shows that require attention and are at least somewhat intellectually stimulating.

I watched Joss Whedon's Firefly and Dollhouse regularly, fascinated by the complex characters the writers and creator wove into being. Joan of Arcadia was another show that was complex, trusting the viewers to pay attention and think for themselves. Dark Angel started out as another complex show, but the more the network (rather than the writers) screwed with it, the less intelligent and demanding it became, until it, like all the others I've mentioned here, was canceled.

These were all shows which attempted, some better than others, to examine how people work and why they work the ways they do. These were all shows which required thought and sometimes required watching the show a second or third time to catch important nuances. They could all certainly be watched at a surface level - at least I think they worked that way as well. But there was a deeper side to each of these which truly made them worthwhile.

However, only two television shows have ever required my full and complete attention: Showtime's Dexter ... and TNT's Saving Grace. Often, I have finished watching an episode of Grace only to immediately hit "Start Over" and watch it again.

I should have known it was too complex to continue to air, despite its very high ratings for TNT. Fox Television Studios, the producer of Saving Grace, decided last summer (at the end of season 3) that DVD sales were not "good enough" to continue making the show. Apparently they agreed to shoot six additional episodes and TNT is paying for another three episodes so the writers can tie up the series. Thank goodness TNT decided to do that.

Saving Grace has been more complex and important television than anything I've ever seen. As fascinating as Joan of Arcadia's questions into religion and God were, Grace has taken it to a completely new level, at once more realistic and less compromising than Joan (don't get me wrong - I still think Joan of Arcadia was awesome television).

cover of Same Kind of Different as Me book

Watching last night's episode was an experience I can't describe. It was so intense, so realistic, so well acted, written and well-paced - I've never seen television like it. And what I find particularly fascinating is how well it meshed with Same Kind of Different as Me - the book we just finished reading in Sunday School, with current events, with Passover and Palm Sunday both.

A quick recap of the show:
Grace Hanadarko is a detective in Oklahoma City, on the major crimes unit. She's a typical Southern cop - hard drinking, plentiful smoking, hard language, and promiscuous. Except, of course, instead of being a good ole boy, she's female. You get the impression that Grace has embraced the stereotype rather than the writers - because there are plenty of moments where that shell of the good ole cop breaks and we see the real person beneath it. Grace comes from a large Catholic family - her older sister was at the Murrah Building on the day of the bombing. Her father was a firefighter and at least one (if not two) brothers are also firefighters. Another brother is a priest. (She also has a sister and a very beloved nephew - the son of the dead sister.)

The first seasons deals with Grace having a "last-chance" angel named Earl, a real salt-of-the-Earth almost hick type. During the first season, Grace eventually confronts and acknowledges a series of events which largely shaped the woman that she became. (No spoilers here!) The second and third seasons continue to delve into questions of religion and God (never going so far as to call one religion any better or more true than another) but also delves more deeply into the lives of all of the cast. All of their trials. All of their joys. How each of them deals with the myriad of shit that life hands out to all of us. The third season ends with Grace trying to help Neely - someone she met through Earl's intervention and cryptic prodding. Grace and Neely are on top of a twelve story building ... and jump. The last bit of footage shows that both women are alive and well despite the fall.

Title Card for Saving Grace show

This final season begins with them being rushed to the hospital ... and then tackles the questions of belief, faith, miracles and God immediately, without reservation and without trying to sugar-coat anything.

How does Grace, a rather avowed non-believer, deal with a miracle?

As is the character's wont, she does not take it gracefully, but spends the next day rebelling, continuing behaviours she knows are excessive ... and are "naughty." It's as if she has to wash away the good of the miracle with the mud and muck of the world she knows. A world where miracles happen is an unknown that Grace cannot trust. She knows what she gets with a night of beer and tequila. It's comfortable and familiar.

And yet ... she can no longer believe in the fight she's fought for so long.

An early scene in the episode:

Grace, at the altar:
(looks out over the empty cathedral-like church. Stretches out arms in crucifixion pose) Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
(Grace takes off running. Goes to the podium area - one of the fancy versions w/ stairs up to its little cupola type spot. Grabs the fancy carved edges of the podium and lets out an almighty scream)
Okay. You've hunted me down like a spurned lover. I'm not going to take no for an answer. How can I deny you any more. You scare me.
I don't know what to trust, I don't know who you are. What you want. I mean, look at this place. This glory for you. Is it enough? Am I enough? I'm trying to hear you but I can't do it in this place. Not here.

It's the kind of breakthrough that Earl has been hoping for ... but we hear no response from God, only the footsteps which belong to a stranger rather than Earl.

In fact, it seems that Earl is with everyone around Grace ... but not really going to her. He seems nervous and in some ways, I think he is in awe of Grace - both who she was before and after the fall. Earl is afraid of the miracle he's seen because Earl is a softie ... and where there has been great light, must then fall great darkness ... and Earl hates to see anyone suffer.

The entire episode is a well-timed choreography blending darkness and light, good and evil, the sublime and the mundane and does so in such a way that you are completely captivated by the story ... and despite the overt theme and language, you do not feel preached AT. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction ... and Earl fears the backlash that will be caused by Grace's miracle fall.

As I write this, I can't help but marvel about the oppositional nature of the show - Grace falls not to her doom, Grace doesn't fall from the heavens to become a fallen, prideful being like Lucifer. Grace falls ... to gain grace/Grace.

Grace at Louie's Bar

And the effects are far-reaching. Her brother Johnny denies that he's ever seen an angel when a doctor questions him on Neely's behalf in the hospital. Later, Johnny sits next to Earl in a bar, the local hang-out.

Your boss at the Vatican might be pretty happy. A miracle for the whole world to see.
Father John:
Oh you'd be surprised. The Vatican doesn't need proof of God's existence. When unexplained occurrences are attributed to God, the process to confirm or deny, embrace or reject, causes, excuse me, a shitstorm of political and societal repercussions which frankly, the church doesn't really deal with.
So these two women saying they got an angel.
What do you think? You think they got an angel?
(instantly) No. (long pause) Yes.
Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid to die. What am I doing? Worry about being silly or ending my career.
Yes, I know those two women had an angel.
See. Until the proverbial cock has crowed, there's always time to make it right.

But intertwined with this story of a modern-day miracle, with Grace's newly burgeoning belief, is a cop story about a dog who killed a person. The mundane and the sublime. The muck and the glory.

The easy out for the writers would have been to make the character I'm calling "Dark" be the culprit of murder by dog. It would have been quite easy to say that just as Denver in Same Kind of Different As Me said that Deb's light was shining so bright that there would be a darkness coming to balance it, that there be some kind of supernatural act which precipitated the woman's death. That somehow "Dark" used a perfectly good, sweet and innocent German Shepherd and somehow forced him to kill the girl, without the owner's consent. And I was prepared to suspend disbelief and go with it. But the show is more complex and realistic. Why take a cheap and unrealistic shortcut? Blending with the storyline of Grace's discovery of grace, we have a storyline where the rest of the cops in Grace's unit uncover a man who took a sweet puppy and used him as bait. Trained him to attack. Trained the dog to attack people. At the neck. This man trained his dog, sent the dog after this woman "because she was there" and had the dog kill her. And then he took the dog out back behind a warehouse, shot him and threw him in a dumpster.

God did not kill the woman. The mysterious stranger, "Dark," did not kill the woman. It was simply man's inhumanity to man.

Likewise, God did not kill Deborah and take her from her husband, Ron (the co-author of Same Kind of Different as Me). As Dewey (one of the cops in Saving Grace) says, "shit happens."

Shit happens and how we react to it, what we choose to do with our experiences, how we allow those experiences to shape us ... that has always been the core element of Saving Grace that has kept it amazing television.

At the end of Sunday School, as we were finishing our discussion of the book, a discussion question was "how do you think Denver, who'd had such bad things happen all his life, could keep such a simple faith in God? What keeps us from having such a simple faith?"

Now, I'm not going to preach at you. I don't do that.
But I think the answer here is very simple, regardless of what god/gods/higher power you believe in.

I think it's often how we're raised. I don't mean raised with or in a religion. It's something more basic and more profound than that. I think it's with what expectations we are raised. If you are raised to believe things like "if you work hard, you'll have a great job, career, family, interior life, stuff, whatever" - then I think you come to expect those things. Most people do not believe they are doing bad ... most people think they live good lives. So why, then, if you are living a good life, do you not have whatever it is that's missing? Why don't you have kids? Why did this bad thing happen to you? Why did you lose your job, your career, your wife?

We can blame ourselves ... I didn't do enough. I wasn't good enough. But I think there are times when we discover that we really didn't do anything wrong. A friend once told a story of how she went to church every week. And then more than once a week. She was very, very into it. Tried to constantly do good, to live as God and her pastor wanted.

And as she walked home one evening, she was raped under a bridge.

How could God let such a thing happen to her, His faithful servant? She was doing GOOD ... how could God allow this to happen?

She expected, like many people, that doing good, being good, is also protection from evil.

On the other hand, Denver was raised an ignorant farmhand. He owed everything to The Man who owned the property, his clothes, his shitty window-less shotgun shack. He was taught that "this is the way things are." He was taught that God stands with you in times of trouble.

In last night's episode of Saving Grace, the writers covered this as well. Neely is coming to realize that God has not spoken directly to her as she'd thought. She's disappointed, crushed.

What's going to take me away from here, Earl? From this feeling I have right now?
We're gonna stay smack in the middle of where you are. You and me. Face the feeling.

And while that's not the ending of the episode, it is the ending of this post. Cuz we're gonna sit here, you and me, and face the feeling right here in the middle of where we are now.

Posted by Red Monkey at March 30, 2010 7:40 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


inthefastlane said:

And that is just it doing good is not protection from the evils of this world. Because we live in a flawed place with flawed human nature in and surrounding us. And faith, is believing that there is something better beyond this. And grace, is seeing that we cannot possible to enough good to "earn" our way there. We will need some grace along the way too.

March 31, 2010 9:41 AM
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