Saving Grace (Monday, 9 p.m., TNT) starts great, with Holly Hunter leaping off the screen as an unapologetically randy detective. She's introduced buck naked, having gleeful sex with an otherwise worthless stud. She smokes, drinks, drives too fast, punches out sexual harassers and wears bad-girl sunglasses, all with panache. The first 15 minutes of Saving Grace are as enjoyable as any TV I've see this year.
Then the angel (Leon Rippy) shows up. And he does what angels usually do: puts a stop to all the fun. "You're headed for hell, Grace," he tells her. "But God's giving you one last chance."
At this point, Saving Grace itself goes to hell. What had been a lusty detective show starring one of America's most unappreciated actresses becomes a pious Sunday school class. Grace asks the angel about the nature of good and evil, and he lectures her about sin. When she gets too sassy, he asks, "Do you want God's help or not?"
I probably ruined my own chance for salvation when I hollered at the TV screen: "NO!"
Set for Life
Friday, 7 pm (ABC)
In this new game show, contestants have the chance to win a monthly paycheck for up to 40 years. They must choose from among 15 light sticks to progress up or down a Time Ladder. A white light allows them to go up a step, increasing the amount of time they'd receive the paycheck. A red light forces them to go down a step, decreasing the amount of time they'd receive the paycheck. Meanwhile, a "guardian angel" in an isolation booth can push a button at any time to stop the game - a blind decision that could lead to either fortune or disaster.
ABC emphasizes that the show requires no skills whatsoever. That makes me think I'd be a perfect contestant, since, as a TV blurb writer, I have no skills whatsoever.
The Kill Point
Sunday, 8 pm (Spike)
This new series draws you into a bank robbery gone wrong. Armed men burst into the lobby and take off with the money, only to be forced back into the building by police gunfire. Suddenly it's a hostage situation.
These men seem different from your average bank robbers. They're extremely loyal to one another, as if they've served together in some other capacity. They have unconventional skills, even giving a shooting victim an impromptu tracheotomy. And they refer to each other by animal names, with a weird formality: Mr. Wolf, Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Piggy.
A tough hostage negotiator (Donnie Wahlberg) arrives to communicate with the gang's leader (John Leguizamo). And all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the tense game of cat-and-mouse. (Make that Mr. Cat and Mr. Mouse.)
Simon Schama's Power of Art
Monday, 9 pm (WHA)
This week's episode opens at the annual exhibition of London's Royal Academy in 1840. The critics all agree that the exhibition's masterpiece is a painting called "Laying Down the Law," which portrays a poodle as a judge. The critics also agree about the exhibition's worst painting: J.M.W. Turner's "Slave Ship." They compare its image of a storm-tossed ship to the contents of a spittoon.
According to host Simon Schama, "Slave Ship" is now considered the greatest English painting of the 19th century. Where Turner's peers focused on the pretty and the charming, gently stroking Regency England's self-satisfaction, he was after something more profound: art that explored the suffering of victims. In "Slave Ship," Turner evokes a shameful historical incident in which a British slave driver threw 132 fettered Africans into the sea.
"Turner has drowned you in this moment," Schama says, "pulled you into this terrifying chasm in the ocean, drenched you in his bloody light."
And not a poodle in sight.
Thursday, 9 pm (AMC)
This series was created by Matt Weiner, writer and executive producer of The Sopranos. And like The Sopranos, it wants to burrow into the dark heart of America by portraying a creepy microcosm in our midst. This time, it's the Madison Avenue advertising world circa 1960. The conflicted Tony Soprano-like antihero is ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who manipulates the public by day and feels twinges of guilt at night. He's surrounded by a Sopranos-style crew of villains, from a cynical boss to scheming underlings to sex-obsessed secretaries.
But I'm sorry to report that Mad Men isn't The Sopranos. In Tony's world, the stakes were high. Family tensions, business dealings and public personas were matters of life and death. The characters were capable of evil, but they were portrayed with complexity, humor and insight into the human heart. They were both exotic monsters and people like us.
In Mad Men, the stakes are low. Can Don come up with a campaign for a cigarette company? Can the office lothario seduce the new secretary? The attempts at tragic grandeur fall flat when the characters are unpleasant weasels with no compensatory humanity to speak of.
And the 1960 setting seems merely an excuse to put racist and sexist dialogue in people's mouths. Weiner may think he's being critical of old-time attitudes, but the effect is simply distasteful. As the pilot ended, I was relieved to be back in good old 2007.