Review: In NBC's 'Save Me,' Anne Heche talks to God
Bob Greenblatt was hired as NBC's latest would-be savior because of the success he had at Showtime, which went from HBO's ignored rival to a buzz and awards magnet under his leadership, which yielded "Dexter," "Nurse Jackie" and other success stories. Other than a brief window back in the fall, his tenure at NBC hasn't been any more successful than the last bunch of entertainment presidents — and in some ways has been worse — but what's interesting is how little connection his programming taste has had between his old job and his new one.
Showtime is a niche pay cable outfit. NBC is allegedly still a mass-appeal broadcaster — though many of its shows routinely bring in cable-level ratings — and Greenblatt has gone after concepts and stars with pre-existing appeal: familiar brand names (next season will include adaptations of "About a Boy" and "Dracula") or pre-existing stars (Matthew Perry this season, Michael J. Fox next season). Virtually none of it has worked, but there's at least a philosophy behind the decisions.
Every now and then, though, Greenblatt will order a leftover from his Showtime days that doesn't seem to have a place on even the remains of the once-proud Peacock. Last spring, it was "Smash," which he had taken with him from his previous gig, and which he was briefly fooled into thinking was a hit because it aired after "The Voice." Perhaps there would be a sustainable network audience for a non-terrible backstage musical drama, but "Smash" is instead limping to its final curtain call on Sunday night.
And now comes "Save Me," which debuts tomorrow night at 8 and 8:30. It's another carryover from Greenblatt's Showtime tenure, and it's easy to see it fitting into a lineup that at the time had "Jackie," "Weeds" and "The Big C," as it offers yet another dissatisfied woman of a certain age, here played by Anne Heche, with an unexpected quirk: she claims to be communicating with God.
Greenblatt ordered "Save Me" to series at NBC a year ago, but never actually bothered to find a spot for it on the fall or midseason schedules. Instead, episodes were produced in anonymity — even the Hollywood trade press could barely care when one showrunner with a Showtime pedigree (Alexa Junge from "United States of Tara") was replaced with another ("Big C" creator Darlene Hunt) after a few episodes had been shot — and eventually NBC decided to just air the episodes in the summer in hopes of recouping some fraction of a multi-million dollar investment.
And having seen the "Save Me" pilot — despite them all being completed, and despite NBC airing two episodes a week to get it on and off the air as quickly as possible, critics were only shown the first episode — I can understand why NBC might have sat on this one. It's a horrible tonal fit with anything else on the network. While Heche's Midwestern prophet Beth Harper might have looked more comfortable slotted alongside Nancy Botwin or Kathy Jamison, she's a terrible fit next to Leslie Knope, Jeff Winger or whatever the future of NBC comedy might look like.
But even in the Greenblatt era at Showtime, I'm not sure "Save Me" particularly works. Based on the pilot (which, again, may not represent what the show looked like once Hunt took over), it's an unpleasant series full of hostile caricatures in need of fixing by Beth's heaven-sent advice. And though the gimmick is supposed to be that you can't tell if Beth is crazy or genuinely conversing with the Almighty, there's a gag in the pilot that gives up the game at a much too early point.
If it wasn't for Heche, it would be entirely unwatchable. But she has a loopy energy — one that previous shows like "Men in Trees" have tried to harness, with mixed success — that's a good match for a character who's been transformed by either madness or divine intervention. She also executes the pilot's one successful bit of comedy, in which a drunk Beth, angry at learning that her husband (Michael Landes) is cheating on her, begins scarfing down a hoagie she finds in the fridge before choking and having her encounter with God. It's not complex, but Heche goes to town on that sandwich with enough gusto to make the bit work.
A couple of days ago, FOX gave us their own Summer Burn-Off Theatre entry with "The Goodwin Games," which was likable but not especially funny, and unlikely to realize its potential in the handful of episodes produced before FOX gave up on it. "Save Me" is a stranger and much less appealing show, yet it's so weird — and has had such a bumpy route to appearing on your television set — that it feels like it would be the more interesting summer viewing experience. It's not good, yet it's a case study for what happens when the wrong show ends up at the wrong network at the wrong time. Had Greenblatt stayed at his old job, perhaps in time "Save Me" could have evolved into something that would have succeeded next to the other female-led dramedies. But I'm not sure even a much better version of it would have ever had a shot at NBC.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org