“Bring It On Earl”, the pilot episode of Saving Grace, written by Nancy Miller, aired last night on Showcase. Last time I posted about it, I talked about the character of Grace Hanadarko. Turns out Grace’s character is a theme tonight too.
Instead of breaking down the whole episode, I’m going to focus on the way the show opens right up to the first act curtain. We’ll also get into a little scene structure.
This premist pilot follows a pattern we know. We’ve seen more or less the same shape in Veronica Mars, Burn Notice and Blood Ties. Mystery of the week plus the story that sets the series arc in motion.
In the arcing story (A), Grace meets an angel named Earl who has been sent by God to save Grace. By comparison to the B dyoty, the A story is filled with emotional jolts and interesting story turns.
The mystery of the week (B), on the other hand, has almost no emotional content despite the fact that it’s about a kidnapped child. We don’t meet the victim or her franctic parents, Grace isn’t in the interview room with the suspect nor do we hear what Grace’s friend the coach has to say about him. It does have a nice long action sequence in the first act.
The third thread that runs strongly through this pilot is Grace’s character (C ). In pilots, we often see scenes devoted entirely to character that don’t drive the story forward at all. This isn’t what’s going on here. With the exception of the very first scene of the teaser, there isn’t a single scene that’s just there to inform us about Grace. Instead, the scenes that are strongly about Grace also have story beats, often from both of the other story lines.
That is the notable thing about Miller’s scenes, all the story threads seem to be woven into them at once.
Take the four minute teaser. Miller introduces both storylines and gives us a great dose of Grace’s character.
The show opens with Grace banging her married partner (C) . Next, between popping pills, boozing, burping and flashing the geezer next door (C ), Grace turns on the the tv and gets the first bits of information about the crime she’s going to investigate (B).
The curtain introduces the A story; the man watching her is reflected in a car window, he has angel wings.
The act is made up of five sequences. Investigation, nephew, bar, manslaughter, Earl.
Almost every scene, touches on the three main threads of the episode: Grace’s character (C ), the mystery of the week (B) and the whole God question (A).
In the first few scenes of the first sequence, the action services the B story. Grace meets fellow cops at the stockyards to flush out the suspect. The dialogue is all about Grace’s character (C) . Then someone points out that one of the cows being auctioned-off have markings that look just like Jesus, which of course keeps God squarely in our minds (A).
Now put a pause on all the story stuff for a moment. At the 7 minute mark, Grace decks a lecherous cowboy and her partners engage in a good ol’ chase scene that lasts to 7:45.
But Miller buttons it with Grace being Grace, hooting and hollering as she watches her partners get all muddy (C ).
The nephew sequence which follows services Grace’s character (C ). Or does it move the mystery along (B)? We go in on the phone conversation with partner Ham, who updates her on the case and ends with Grace arranging to meet up with an ex-boyfriend who may know the suspect. In between, we learn that Grace just might be redeemable, but that she’s certainly out of control when she takes her nephew and the girl he likes on the joy ride (C ). In other words, B beats bookend a C scene.
The bar scene continues the discussion about the case (B), but segues momentarily into a question of ethics (A) and then back to the case, even though Grace is very drunk(C).
From then on, it’s all A story.
The final sequence opens with action; Grace driving drunk, hitting a guy and then realizing he’s dead.
You could go out there. That would be a respectable curtain.
But Miller takes us further into her story with another jolt; Grace says “God help me” and the angel, Earl appears to say God sent him. Another respectable curtain.
Earl spreads his wings and transports Grace to a mountain top. It’s a spectacular shot and a funny original scene that takes two sudden, emotional turns — when Earl wraps Grace in his arms and she loves it and then again when he wants to know whether she’s ready to turn her life over to God and then suddenly she’s jolted back to into the darkness at the side of the highway.
That’s one jam packed first act, that leaves you holding your breath for Act Two