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Are you there, God? TV characters turn to the Lord for answers, from Benjamin Bratt of A&E's "The Cleaner" to Holly Hunter of TNT's "Saving Grace."

Published July 13, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

In these trying times, more and more TV characters are turning to God for help, but the rest of us seek salvation where we've always found it: At the bottom of a cold bottle of beer, in between the lines of a Gillian Welch song, in the shade of a big oak tree, in the creases of the Sunday New York Times, in the musty corners of our pot drawer, in YouTube footage of hopeless drunks, in an icy jug of water on a walk in 100-degree heat, in the first bite of an Egg McMuffin, in an afternoon double-espresso break, in the summer breezes blowing in the window at dusk.

This is why TV will never provide a true salve for bad moods or existential angst or recessionary doldrums. Because TV rarely takes on the heart-rending dimensions of great fiction. On TV, there aren't enough quiet moments or spaces in between the action where a character searches for something to keep himself swimming against the tide. We don't taste the escapism of a cold sip of sake at lunchtime like we do in the pages of Haruki Murakami, we don't encounter the poolside country club ennui of John Updike or the fickle desires and bleak regrets of Mary Gaitskill. Occasionally a TV writer like Alan Ball or David Milch or David Chase tries to capture these gaps in our experience, these divine lapses and lulls that tear us from our day-to-day lives.

But most TV shows serve up the obvious: characters in crisis, talking to God. And when characters roll their eyes skyward and plead with their makers, the divine is rendered mundane. Why wrestle with a world that holds no easy answers, why look for salvation in odd places, when you can discuss your next move directly with the man upstairs?

Dope on a rope
Nowhere is the limited promise of heavenly dialogue more clear than on A&E's new drama "The Cleaner" (premieres 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 15). It's not that we blame William Banks (Benjamin Bratt), a former hard-living druggie, for turning his eyes to the skies and asking for help. We just don't gain anything from these one-way conversations.

"I don't think I ever ask for anything for myself. You run your numbers and let me know, but I keep a tight book."

"You know, I get the whole 'Give me strength' part, but you're really painting a bull's-eye on my ass right now."

This is God not as savior but as personal buddy, replete with teasing, bitter complaints and incredulous looks. William addresses his pal up above to let off a little steam (and to show us his true feelings -- no small order, we're meant to understand, for a manly man like him). But while William's imaginary God is just a slob like one of us, William himself is a veritable saint, a self-sacrificing public servant who has dedicated his life to saving addicts from annihilation. Not content to work as a counselor or volunteer at a drug treatment center, William has become a recovery renegade who's hired by families to kidnap loved ones on the street and drive them to rehab. He's assisted in these sticky endeavors by a badly paid freelance support staff who nonetheless function as smoothly and professionally as a team of ultra-sophisticated, high-end criminals.

Lest we view William as nothing more than a glorified social worker, his personal outreach program is shrouded in such mystery that new members of his flock practically cross themselves as they approach. Take Aaron, a kid who comes to the surf shop where William works looking for help with his cousin.

Aaron: You know that you're near impossible to find?

William: Yeah, well, that's sort of the point.

Aaron: (showing a photo) Here's my cousin Zach. Like I told you on the phone, he's in a bad way. I could pay you half now -- if you think it's a bust, then you can walk. But if you think you can help, help. I mean, that's what you do, right?

William: Yeah. That's what I do.

Gruff, macho William gets on the phone to his project manager and best friend (played by Gil Bellows): "Mick, get the team together. We've got a kid in trouble!" And so "The A-Team" of drug counselors is mobilized, from scrappy ne'er-do-well Arnie (Esteban Powell) to sexy troublemaker Akani (Grace Park, aka Boomer from "Battlestar Galactica"). How many movies and TV shows have we already seen where the superhumanly cool team leader gets on the phone to various team members as they're on the move, each armed with his or her particular skill or specialty?

But if these dorky team-on-the-move scenes look like something out of "Charlie's Angels," the shiftless-druggie scenes in the show's premiere look like they were pulled straight from an "Afterschool Special" about the dangers of snorting heroin: Kid walks down street, looking adrift and scrappy. School bus drives by -- his old basketball team! A cheerleader waves at him sadly from the back window. Kid cringes in pain and shame, stumbles onward, and then begs a bully dealer for a fix.

But the plot thickens, and so does the cheese: Akani drives up to William's house with our shiftless druggie's unconscious, OD'ing girlfriend in the back seat of her car. Bringing an addict here is against the rules, so as Akani, Arnie and William try to save the girl with various smoothly administered EMS techniques, William lectures them both on their attitude, unrealistically spewing forth back story as he works. "Every one of you, you came to me. I pulled you out of your miserable, dead-end lives. We're not listed! We don't advertise! People find us because they need us. We have a 75 percent relapse rate, 27 percent rate of mortality. Twenty-seven percent! Those are shit odds. You make a mistake here, people die. You call that fun, huh?"

I wouldn't call that fun, but apparently a lot of TV writers would. And as authentic and gritty as a direct transcript of your local AA meeting might be, shouldn't we think twice about romanticizing the plight of the recovering addict more than we already do? Just watch "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew" to see how often the addict's favorite subject is just how totally sick and twisted he or she had become right before he or she hit rock bottom. If you're never really free from telling the same melodramatic narrative, are you ever really on the wagon? Because you can only hope that eventually that wagon rolls on to far more fertile territory than suspenseful tales about sadistic dealers and kids who steal their parents' jewelry to score some dope.

Although William fits the half-crazy fallen hero to a T, just how lovable is a hero who tells his school-age kids that he was pushing dope in a room next door as his daughter was being born? Are we supposed to think he's being courageous and honest by making his daughter feel crappy about the first day of her life, or that he's disturbed but still plucky and lovable?

It's so hard to tell sometimes. Either way, the grandiose dialogue doesn't begin and end with William. His son Ben (Brett DelBuono), who is justifiably suspicious of his dad's habit of addressing God loudly at every turn, tells him, "I just want to make sure you're not banking this family's future on the idea of someone who doesn't even exist."

Did you hear that, God? That teenage boy actually referred to his family's future. Lord, why can't you send us all such wise and sophisticated teenagers, to replace these squirming, perpetually texting goons who would rather eat live maggots than consider either their families or their futures for more than a millisecond?

Sadly, there's no relief from William's wife, Melissa (Amy Price-Francis), who reprises the same old "Your obsessive devotion to this cause is driving us apart!" routine that Teri Garr mastered 30 years ago.

At the end of the (long, cliché-riddled) day, "The Cleaner" is another variation on the same summer-cable-drama formula that we've seen handled better elsewhere. We start with a kooky, daring lead played by a high-profile actor or actress ("The Closer," "Damages," "Burn Notice"), throw in episodic story lines, a gimmick (He speaks out loud to God!) and a central problem (He might lose his family!). Unfortunately, the writing choices here are easy and obvious. By the time William forgets to take his daughter to dance practice and gives the rookie cop a hot tip, it's clear that outside of Boomer prancing around in hot pants, there's nothing new to see here.

Angles on angels
Of course, even stories as old as the hills can feel fresh and interesting when the writing is smart enough. Just look at our buddy Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) of "Saving Grace" (second season premieres 10 p.m. Monday, July 14, on TNT). Here's a devil-may-care renegade character played by a high-profile actress in a summer cable drama who nonetheless continues to charm our stinky socks right off.

And look, Grace doesn't just talk to God, she actually interacts with a guardian angel, Earl (Leon Rippy of "Deadwood"). That alone should make this show downright suspect, if not utterly intolerable. She's a self-sacrificing public servant and a bold, courageous hero in the Oklahoma City police department with a dark past: Her sister died in the Oklahoma City bombing, and she was molested by a priest when she was 9 years old. How many ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines can you cram into one character's back story anyway?

But Hunter is just so good and the writing is subtle enough that we're willing to go along for the ride, from those looming-tornado opening credits to the last scene of each episode, in which a new heartstrings-plucking tragedy is neatly and satisfyingly resolved. Even when Grace puts on a red cape and is carried through her office on the backs of her adoring fellow detectives, even when she swills whiskey and dances around with a loaded gun in the second season premiere, she has our full attention. This woman serves up a tough but fragile heroine whom you can't help but care about.

I've thoroughly enjoyed every episode I've ever watched of this show, whether it concerned Grace's adulterous affair with Ham (Kenneth Johnson, best known as Lem from "The Shield") or yet another sad case that Grace ended up getting way too emotionally invested in. Even when the overarching story is a little much, with its clear villains and melodramatic scenarios (the school-bus company that skimps on maintenance, causing the death of a bunch of children, for example), Hunter sells it all with her scratchy-voiced, understated rage and sadness.

Best of all, not every aspect of the story is spelled out in the broad, obvious strokes you'd find in a lesser drama like "The Cleaner." We're left to draw our own conclusions, whether they concern the motivations of criminals or of Grace's mother. When Grace tells her mother (played by Jessica Walter of "Arrested Development") that Father Murphy, a trusted member of her church when she was growing up, molested her when she was 9, and that Murphy's now in jail for the crime, her mother stares at her blankly, then says, with feeling, "Please be careful, honey. The church has been through so much." We're not supposed to think that her mother is completely insane or evil, she just has big blind spots in her perspective -- you know, like most parents.

Sweet, elusive parental empathy! Isn't that why we turn to the notion of guardian angels to begin with? But despite this guardian angel gimmick, the God of "Saving Grace" remains mysterious and enigmatic, even to his right-hand man, Earl. God seems to have very little to say to Grace or anyone else. He isn't a personal buddy or a scapegoat; he's an emotionally remote, confusing boss.

Ah, yes. Now that's the God we know so well! We turn to him in our darkest hours ... and when he doesn't answer us, we find a cold bottle of beer, listen to a Gillian Welch song, and sit by the window to feel the summer breezes blow in at dusk.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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