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PATTY DUKE'S 'AMAZING GRACE,' DESPITE TITLE, IS QUITE ORDINARY

Patty Duke's new NBC series, "Amazing Grace" (8 p.m. Saturday, Channel 2), is amazing, all right.

Drawing on some elements of her own chaotic life, Duke plays Hannah Miller, a newly ordained minister and mother of two with a troubled past and a curious view of right and wrong.

In the opener, she helps a friend who confesses to having fled with her own son years earlier after getting an unfavorable custody decision. The friend hid her secret by telling her son that his father was dead.

Knowing that the friend is a good mother, Hannah goes to her lawyer friend Harry (Dan Lauria of "The Wonder Years") to see if there is a legal way out of this mess.

Harry goes to the local legal office to check out the custody case. As he departs, he is met by the local cop, Dominick Corso (Joe Spano of "Hill Street Blues"). The good detective then bribes the local paper shuffler with an offer of a future date and uncovers the mystery.

Before the hour is up, the minister, the cop and the lawyer join the friend in breaking various moral codes on the apparent theory that four wrongs can make a right.

And this show is supposed to appeal to the family values crowd!

I suppose the theory behind all this is that a religious show shouldn't be too judgmental and shouldn't paint issues in black and white.

But somehow I can't see the value of having so many authority figures break the rules to save a criminal, no matter how nice she may or may not be. In a sense, this religious show condones kidnapping.

I'd almost rather see cliched moralizing. And "Grace" also has its share of that with Hannah's initial advice to her friend, "Our sons need fathers."

The only redeeming value in the opener is that Hannah has a sense of humor. Asked why a divorced former pill-popper who had a near-death experience wanted to become a minister, Hannah cracks, "I needed structure and a captive audience."

Duke certainly will need one to get anyone to endure the entire hour. It is such a graceless episode that she is fortunate Burt Reynolds guest-stars next week playing an evangelist. Viewers may flock to see Burt and give the show a second chance. Count me out.

Duke's name should bring viewers to the opener, but a miracle worker couldn't save this script.

The series has had a troubled history, with NBC rejecting the original version and giving the producers a second try.

In an interview in Los Angeles, Duke said her hope was "not to become the leader of the family values, and not to not become the leader of the family values."

"Hannah, to me, lives the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- whether that comes under religiosity, or spirituality, or just good sense, that's who she is. And I prefer to think it's good sense."

The series purposely avoids delineating what religion Hannah practices so as not to alienate people of different faiths, Duke said.

"This is an ordinary woman," said Duke. "She had this (near-death) experience. She didn't get anything from the other side over there. She didn't come back with tablets. She came back with, holy cow, it matters what we do here."

Duke was attracted to the idea of playing a female minister, partly because prime-time television has never been particularly fond of religion. And then there is her own religious background.

"I was born into a Roman Catholic family," she explained. "I was one of the best little Catholic believers. I would like to be her again one day. I have been a Christian Scientist. If there's a religious definition of a 'dabbler,' I guess that would be me. I have studied Buddhism. There was a time when I very seriously considered and studied to convert to Judaism. I mean you can see a kind of trend here.

"So it's not all that odd to me that I should wind up playing a minister on television. I'm as lost as anybody else. And I'm as 'found' as anybody else.

"And yes, I do go to church now. I go to a Unity church. I also go to Catholic church occasionally because the child in me desperately needs the bells and smells! The rituals that I was used to as a child that helped evoke that belief system in me."

She wanted Hannah "to be the same kind of seeker that I was. So in her office you will find talismans of all kinds from all religions. And I think the worst that can be said about her is that when she steals, she steals from the best."

The best that can said about "Amazing Grace" is it can only get better.

Rating: 1 1/2 stars out of 5.

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