After a night of heavy drinking, Grace plows her Porsche into a lamppost—but not before hitting a pedestrian. Stumbling out of her car, Grace gazes helplessly at a man lying motionless in the middle of the street. Desperate, she cries out for God’s help. At that moment, Earl (Leon Rippy), more reminiscent of a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd than an angel—with his long gray hair, flannel shirt and down-home twang—appears to Grace. He explains that she’s headed for hell; he’s there to steer her on the right path, if she’s ready to accept the God she’s repeatedly rejected. Skeptical and dazed, Grace wakes a moment later to find her Porsche undamaged and all other signs of an accident, including the man she hit, gone.
In the light of day, only mildly shaken by the incident, Grace forgets Earl’s warning. She resumes her destructive lifestyle—binge-drinking, one-night stands and an affair with her married partner, Ham (Kenny Johnson). But Earl proves tenacious, visiting Grace often to remind her of her spiritual obligations. Their rapport is charming, amusing, even sly, as Earl chastises Grace like a disapproving father with a wayward teen.
Grace is initially resistant, but over the course of the series begins to accept Earl as a part of her life. She turns to him for guidance, while still grappling with her ambivalence about religion. The show, which is in its third season, struggled early on with heavy-handed storytelling, but it has found redemption in the cast’s talent and chemistry. Holly Hunter brings intelligence, strength and charm to her role as Grace; she has created a character who is resilient but retains an underlying vulnerability, which appears only when she’s assigned to a difficult case, like the rape and murder of a young woman.
The series has seen Grace confront both the wrongs she has committed and the wrongs committed against her. While Earl encourages her to change her ways, he also wants her to cope with the childhood abuse she experienced at the hands of the local parish priest—the root of her self-imposed exile from religion. The revelation of Grace’s past casts a new light on her behavior, including her caustic attitude toward her brother Johnny (Tom Irwin), a Catholic priest, whose love for Grace is matched only by his frustration with her. Such Sturm und Drang is typical of Grace’s relationships. Earl works to help Grace reach a better understanding of herself by encouraging her to look closer at her personal relationships—with her siblings, co-workers, her nephew Clay (Dylan Minnette) and her best friend, Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo).
Earl passionately wants Grace to see her own goodness. Through dreams and symbols, Earl spends most of the first and second seasons inspiring Grace’s compassion for a death-row inmate, Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine), someone for whom Grace would normally have little sympathy. Grace is at her best when she sheds her tough exterior in the service of others, revealing, unsurprisingly, that the real saving grace is love and compassion.