The story of Save Me is incredibly depressing, but not unprecedented. The Anne Heche comedy was in the works since 2010 as a potential property of Showtime. Both the show and executive Bob Greenblatt moved to NBC when Greenblatt became NBC’s entertainment chairman. In 2012, it was the second new show greenlit after Go On. Then it was announced that it wouldn’t be on the fall schedule, but it would show up midseason. Then they hired former Friends producer Alexa Junge to executive producer and run the show. Then they re-shot the pilot. Then Alexa Junge left the show. Then Darlene Hunt from The Big C took her place. Then NBC decided to wait until just after May sweeps was over to start airing the show. Then they decided to run seven episodes, even though they ordered thirteen.
And that it would be shown over four Thursdays, to disappear before anybody ever noticed.
Last night was the fourth Thursday. There has not been an official announcement as to whether or not the show will return, but NBC.com’s description of “Holier Than Thou” doesn’t leave much hope:
Series finale! A visit from the Almighty shows Beth she can make a difference. Betty White guest stars!
The exclamation point is what really stings.
Did Save Me deserve such treatment? The ratings were, for NBC, not the worst. The quality of the actual program? Also not the worst, but wildly inconsistent, and obviously a product of behind the scenes musical chairs. The inaugural episode,”The Book of Beth,” had the feel of a pay cable, prestige show: Beth Harper (Heche) was a drunk who had knowingly driven her husband to cheat until she was miraculously saved from choking on a hoagie by God. With God now in communication with Beth, she immediately dumps all of the booze in the house and freaks everybody out by accurately predicting the near future and reading the minds of her husband and the bratty teenage daughter who hates her guts. It was all very uncomfortable, with all of Beth and Tom’s friends barely putting up with much of any conversation with Beth due to her past transgressions. It all came to a head when the mistress Carly drunkenly confronted Heche’s character outside of the Harper house during a thunderstorm. Carly was literally a day away from Tom leaving Beth to be with her until Beth renounced her sinful and embarrassing ways and possibly had severe mental damage. When Carly was struck by lightning, however, God clearly took a side, and ended any mystery of whether it was all in Beth’s head or divine intervention.
Airing immediately after “The Book of Beth” was the Darlene Hunt penned “Take It Back”, which continued to play off on the previous episode’s established strained friendships — only the religious Jenna showed any reasonable concern for her former friend. The episode’s conclusion found Pete and Jenna and Maggie and Elliot (hey Diedrich Bader!) begrudgingly having a meal with Beth and accepting some of her apologies, a step in the right direction. It was a natural follow-up, albeit still suffering from growing pains more than making anybody laugh.
And then there was “WWJD,” written by Community writer Andy Bobrow. The third episode seemingly skipped at least two months of real time, as Beth was now completely accepted by everyone in the group. Anne Heche significantly toned down the anxiety and desperation Beth exhibited in the previous episodes. The darkness of Save Me was virtually gone, replaced by legitimate jokes and running gags. There was an Amanda Bynes reference! The show was definitely funnier, but suddenly it was a sitcom with a big premise, as opposed to an intriguing “dramedy”, with the transition being too abrupt to decide whether or not the change was welcome. Whenever Beth would inadvertently quote Santa, Yoda, or Willy Wonka instead of the Lord, the characters were too excited to try to guess the identity of the author of the quotes, instead of just ignoring her and/or wince. They were funny jokes by Bobrow and company, but the character inconsistencies weren’t earned. Of course, if I hadn’t bothered to watch the initial two episodes I wouldn’t have been thinking any of those things; a brief conversation between daughter Emily and Beth about the existence of God kept that philosophical dialogue going, and the final joke of the episode was sneakily clever and ballsy1.
The ultimate sin (pun intended in retrospect) occurred in “Heal Thee,” which addressed the whole “Carly in a coma” issue by having her wake up to memory loss. In just one scene, Alexandra Breckenridge was written off the show when she explained from her hospital bed that she had forgotten the past six months entirely. The cop out was unnecessary since Tom showed no indication of leaving a sober and loving Beth since the end of the pilot, which means that even if she remembered anything it would have only added a possibly fun, villainous character to the proceedings. Instead, Carly was all too transparently a character the writers no longer felt a use for.
The finale, “Holier Than Thou,” was written with very little faith in any sort of renewal. For one thing, Save Me managed to get in the one The Wire joke that every comedy has to write at some point2. For another, Beth met God. Thankfully, even though Betty White did play God, she explained she was using a “Betty White outfit,” which saved us all a lot of time where I would point out that apparently God has her own show on NBC where she deceives people for other people’s entertainment. It did get a little ridiculous, and closer to the point of no return, when God Betty White revealed that she had taken the form of different people to help Beth in key moments of her life, including when she first met her husband. Later, Beth was shown the future she had helped create by listening to God’s demands, where all of her friends became more altruistic, loving citizens. Then she was shown a scene from the distant future where a grown up Emily accepted a Humanitarian of the Year award. It had no business to, but it actually made me a little emotional, a testament to the acting job of Madison Davenport to give the character some dimensionality over seven episodes where she seemed to mostly earn her paycheck with eye rolling and pouting. In voiceover, Beth wondered if it was all a fever dream in a failed attempt of another cop out, as if everyone involved hoped it played off more as a hypothetical future, when it was seriously implied to be canonical.
If Save Me had as much time as they initially assumed they did and more, and a steadier vision, and played with the ambiguity of whether it was God or someone else talked to Anne Heche, and if Betty White watched over it as it traversed through every industry sharp turn, it would have definitely had a chance to become a solid, humorous comedy. As it were, they only had seven episodes to establish characters and the guidelines to its universe’s rules while trying to be funny all at once. God knows that’s bullshit.
1 This is a very spoiler-y piece, but I figured I’d save the best joke of the series for the annotations, in case you wanted to see and hear it for yourself. The plot of the episode: an old widow is going to get evicted from her house until God keeps insisting to Beth that she help her fix up the place. Her friends hate this idea because they’vs all dreamed of a gay couple moving in. The house is saved, and in the final moments of the episode the old woman admits that she had hung onto her residence after her beloved husband died just to “keep the gays from moving in.” Beth’s facial expression made it unclear if she was simply considering the irony of that statement based on what her and her friends wanted for the future of Honey Suckle Lane, or if she was realizing why God might have really wanted the tenant next door not to change.
2 It was one of the better ones: Sweet, kind Jenna: “I’m too polite to say some of the words I want to say…but it involves some words from The Wire.”