Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter are both up for Emmys for their roles on the TNT dramas The Closer and Saving Grace, respectively, and their characters bear similarities on the surface: They’re both opinionated Southern cops who doff their shirts with McConaughey-esque regularity, revealing buff bellies and toned arms. They each solve mysteries with Matlock-esque ease — in this second season, Grace caught a killer thanks to an old Bananarama song. And they’re each evolving. In the case of the LAPD’s Brenda Johnson (Sedgwick), it’s a slow, small evolution — in season 4, she may finally marry her beau (Jon Tenney) and give up sweets. In the case of Hunter’s Grace Hanadarko, it’s more cosmic: The Oklahoma City detective may learn why her ”last chance” guardian angel (Leon Rippy) wants her to look into the case of a death-row inmate (Bokeem Woodbine).
Oddly, Saving Grace is by far the more genuine of the two dramas (and just to recap, it involves a novelty-T-shirt-wearing angel). Grace looks real: The bars are dirty, the cars are draped in American flags. Grace sounds real: The dialogue bumps along with profanity and wisecracks. Most importantly, Grace is real: Hunter plays her with a stunning mix of wired urgency and cackling ease. The Oscar winner dominates every scene, whether she’s guzzling a beer like it will keep her from combusting, or lustily banging her partner (The Shield‘s Kenny Johnson, in a deserved lead role) in a bathroom stall. Grace’s mystical story line is handily overshadowed by Grace herself — drinking and smoking herself to death, skirting redemption. Grace drops us right into the addict’s brain: All the detective’s boozy shenanigans look like great fun as she’s doing them — and like total blunders the morning after. It’s a clever, believable seesaw that Hunter rides brilliantly.
The Closer, an inexplicable ratings juggernaut, is nowhere near as good. No one has bothered to develop Sedgwick’s Johnson past an outline: ”a woman whose Southern ayk-sint makes everything she says either sassy or funny.” Sedgwick tries hard to fill the gaps, veering from a girlish, wide-eyed neurotic to the snip-snappy cadence of an old biddy. Her expressions are so exaggerated, she often looks like she’s trying to amuse an infant just off camera. Sedgwick has given lovely, subtle performances before (The Woodsman comes to mind), so one assumes she’s consciously playing Brenda in this bouncy manner to fit a show that wedges in wacky comedy between murders. Her Brenda is not inappropriate. She’s just not quite real. B+