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Remote Patrol

Brett Butler’s ”Grace Under Fire” is back from the brink

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Turns out rumors of Grace Under Fire‘s demise were greatly exaggerated. When Brett Butler’s series wasn’t announced as part of ABC’s fall lineup, some assumed it had been sent to the sitcom scrap heap. In fact, ABC has ordered 25 more episodes of Grace and is now bringing it back as a mid-season replacement (Tuesdays, 8-8:30 p.m., starting Nov. 25) in an effort to shore up its sagging ”family-comedy” lineup (hasta la vista, Over the Top!).

Not that you could’ve blamed ABC for giving Grace the ax after its disastrous last season. The show plunged from 14th to 49th in the annual Nielsen rankings and fell to pieces creatively. Attempting to make the show more sophisticated, Butler had Grace quit her job at a Missouri oil refinery and put herself through college by making money as a cocktail waitress.

Two problems quickly arose: When Grace bid goodbye to her coworkers, the series lost some of its sturdiest supporting players (including Breaking Away‘s Paul Dooley as her short-tempered boss). And by setting so many of its scenes in a bar, Grace started to feel like almost every other sitcom currently on the air.

Now fresh from rehab and with a new brunet ‘do, Butler seems determined to return Grace to its own dark roots. Judging from the new season’s first three episodes, she’s on the right track.

Exhausted by her 230-mile commute to St. Louis, Grace ditches her fancy ad-agency job and starts to work as an administrative assistant at a local construction company. Grace’s African-American boss, D.C. (Don ”D.C.” Curry), and her new Asian-American hairdresser pal, Dot (Friends‘ Lauren Tom), come off as a bit stereotypical at first, but both performers soon prove appealing in their own ways.

Fresh blood was badly needed after the departure of Julie White, who played Grace’s sardonic next-door neighbor, Nadine. Her absence is explained via a sudden divorce from her Vietnam-vet husband, Wade (Casey Sander), who’s given unwanted moral support by his pharmacist pal Russell (Dave Thomas, who resembles Bob Hope — one of his old SCTV imitations — more and more every year).

Smartly, the series has held on to its comedic secret weapon: Grace’s ex-husband’s mom, Jean (the great Peggy Rea). Now living in the house and helping to take care of Grace’s three children (played by Sam Horrigan, Kaitlin Cullum, and Dylan and Cole Sprouse), Rea’s nagging, know-it-all Jean is more than just a walking mother-in-law joke; she’s a fully fleshed-out character and a perfect foil for Butler.

Yet Grace‘s greatest asset continues to be Butler herself. When her show debuted in 1993, she seemed like just another stand-up comic trying to shoehorn her act into a sitcom format. Over the past four seasons, she’s matured into a surprisingly subtle actress. Butler has learned how to modulate her molassesy voice, which once seemed to limit her range, to express a myriad of emotions.