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The buoyant promise of 'Grace' ran aground on sappy premise

How I wish I really cared about Monday's series finale of "Saving Grace" (TNT, 9 p.m.)

I'll watch, to be sure, but it will be mostly out of idle curiosity to see how many tortuous gymnastics the show will go through in its prime-time version of "spirituality."

In theory, I admire the show for wanting its audience to care so much about the state of Grace Hanadarko's immortal soul. But it was her chaotic and decidedly profane struggles with her reckless, restless corporeal self that made her so watchable for so long.

The trouble with "Saving Grace" as the show has winnowed down to its final two hours is saving grace, sans pun, is exactly what the show has turned out to be about. Will Grace Hanadarko be saved? Will she, in fact, achieve true grace?

Which, however high-minded it may be, is a long way away from the reason many of us liked the show in the first place. And that was because Holly Hunter, a tiny, sexy, Tinker Bell of an actress with outsized talent played a hard-drinking, sleep-around cop with the morals of an alley cat but a heart noble and true and straight as an arrow.

She was human fallibility incarnate.

The only reason the show's strained premise worked (that Oklahoma City cop Grace had an angel protector named Earl who was sent down to earth to make a believer of her) is because that angel was played by Leon Rippy, a big, beefy 60-year-old actor with a low-slung bourbon voice and the Southern drawl of a country singer. In any scene, Rippy sounded like the manager of a trailer park having his morning's first cigarette.

He wasn't actually having that cigarette, mind you, but his voice sounded as if he were. Somehow, then, he belonged on the same television screen with Holly Hunter playing a drawling and large-hearted mini-slut and whiskey-soaked good old girl.

Grace, bless her, wasn't much like other TV cops, male or female. She was an utter mess. I have no doubt that all that TV spirituality is how they thought they could get away with a woman living such a slippery life on weekly TV, but it was the show's construction of an Oklahoma Police station AROUND her that gave the show a unique flavor worth returning to.

Once they started delving deeply into matters of guilt and innocence and religious belief, the show's spirit got heavier, not lighter. By the time we tune in Monday, viewers will be dealing with how Grace will handle the latest tragic mess in her all-too-slovenly life -- her accidentally running over a girl named Esperanza with her Porsche while she was changing radio stations.

I'll be there -- in part to find out how they end the show but mostly to send silent but heartfelt condolences to the Grace that used to be -- the one we watched who had a lopsided grin and all that tousled hair and pure energy in a body the size of a brioche.

On the very next night (Tuesday at 10 p.m.), TNT descends to a lower but much lighter and more instantly likable level with "Memphis Beat," starring TV's most famous fictional Earl, Jason Lee of the late sitcom "My Name is Earl." So on the day after we lose the most charismatic cop on the Oklahoma City force, we get a soulful investigator in the Memphis police who spends his weekends covering Elvis songs at the local gin mill.

Lee, bless him, is not exactly a Hunter-like theater actor with a serious pedigree, he's a cum laude graduate of the Kevin Smith school of Puerile Cinematic Raunch who is now trying to get away with telling us that his big doofus grin conceals a world of soul and almost as much heart as Grace Hanadarko.

I think it's going to take a few weeks of "Memphis Beat" -- as the Southern saying goes -- to get that dog to hunt, but the debut you'll see on Tuesday is nothing if not likable. The best thing about it is that Memphis, like New Orleans in HBO's "Treme" or Las Vegas in the original first season of "CSI", is a great city in which to set a TV cop show. It's about time.

And that, no doubt, is why George Clooney is one of "Memphis Beat's" executive producers. I loved the fact that they tried hard to soak the show in Memphis flavor -- the great Beale Street music every time a radio is turned on or when a scene needs soundtrack music, whether it's Booker T. and the MG's "Green Onions," or Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" or Otis Redding's version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

The very plot of the pilot sends our intuitive Memphis cop after the mistreaters of a now elderly old fictional radio legend. Her name is Dottie Collins and she was, we're told, a mainstay of Sam Phillips' very real all-girl radio station WHER. As our hero advises his fellow cops, Dottie may be the reason they were born. After all, if it weren't for Dottie playing Sam Cooke on that afternoon, your daddy might not have given your mama that look and .

For a little offsetting dignity to Lee in the cast, the great Alfre Woodard plays our hero's stick-in-the-mud overly dignified superior who tells him that being the mother of five children is what entitled her to supervise the cops in her station (obviously that notion stands for TV's version of narrative correction at the close).

A very promising new show. If they keep on injecting all that classic Memphis music into it every week, who could resist it?

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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