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Amazing ‘Grace’

A fresh new TV show pairs two girls -- one Jewish, one Catholic -- in an amicable culture clash.

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 21, 2001 | 8:00 pm

(From left): Alia Shawkat as Hannah Rayburn and Mae Whitman as Grace McKee in the new TV show "State of Grace."

(From left): Alia Shawkat as Hannah Rayburn and Mae Whitman as Grace McKee in the new TV show "State of Grace."

In the pilot episode of "State of Grace," 12-year-old Grace McKee sashays out of her limousine and plucks the mezuzah off her friend Hannah Rayburn's front door.

"It was crooked," she insists. Hannah's appalled parents nail it back on with a shoe.

It's one of the best gags in "State of Grace," a kind of Jewish "Wonder Years," that premiers Mon., June 25, on the Fox Family Channel. The series, set in 1965, follows Hannah, a shy Jewish girl, (Alia Shawkat), who moves from Evanston, Ill., to a small town in North Carolina, where she enrolls in a Catholic school and meets her free-spirited new best friend, Grace (Mae Whitman).

The offscreen narrator, Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, plays an adult version of Hannah who wryly comments on the action.

At her elite new school, The Pines, Hannah is the only brunette in a sea of blondes. At home, she's forced to mind the family furniture store with her Holocaust-survivor father, anxious mother, bubbie and quirky Uncle Heschie. When she visits Grace's mansion, she loves the glamorous decor but is disconcerted by what she calls "the Dead Animal Room," filled with moose heads. McKee's alcoholic mother, Tattie, is equally shocked when she learns the Jewish Rayburns don't drink.

For "State of Grace" co-creators Hollis Rich and Brenda Lilly, the amicable culture clash is the point. They say the show is about embracing differences through friendship, a phenomenon they know a lot about. They've done it themselves.

Rich grew up Jewish in the Midwest and the Valley, the daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor who -- surprise -- owned a furniture store. Lilly grew up Catholic in Asheville, N.C., where she attended an exclusive Catholic school called The Pines. The 40-something co-executive producers have been good friends since they were the only women writers on a short-lived ABC drama in 1995.

"We brought our own chemistry to the characters in 'State of Grace,'" says Lilly, who like Grace, is brash and playful. "They're younger manifestations of ourselves."

"We wanted to create a girls' coming-of-age story, not the boy stories you always see on TV," adds Rich, who, like Hannah, is cautious and wry.

But when the women pitched the pilot last year, they found they had two strikes against them: girls and Jews. "Everyone kept saying, 'Can't you just change the characters to boys?'" Rich recalls. "We felt, 'Let's do whatever we want, because no one's going to buy it anyway.'"

The creators were shocked when Fox Family Channel bought the series, practically on the spot. Since then, the show has elicited good buzz around town. But Rich still feels nervous. "Usually, when Jews are on TV, they're ultra-assimilated, like 'Seinfeld,'" she says. "But our characters have a more complex Jewish identity. They're Northern Jews who have moved South. They observe some ritual, but they're not Orthodox. It's something I've never seen on TV."

The Rayburns' Jewish experience reflects Rich's childhood. While she never lived in the South, her family -- including an uncle and a bubbie -- moved from a Jewish neighborhood in Evanston to a then-rural, non-Jewish area of Northridge. Dairy farms were everywhere. The next-door neighbors were anti-Semites. And the people across the street, "were ... like hillbillies," Rich says. "They had a goat."

Lilly, too, felt like a bit of an outsider in her hometown, not unlike Grace in the TV show. Her friends' fathers were doctors and lawyers, but her dad was a charming professional gambler and amusement park owner who had previously worked as a bootlegger. By the time Lilly was 12, she was performing as a can-can dancer at dad's Western-themed park.

After college, she fled Asheville to avoid becoming "an aging debutante," she says. In Hollywood, she switched from acting to writing because of the nefarious casting couch. "People told me the way you get roles is to make the person sitting across from you want to have sex with you," she recalls. "Ick."

The idea for "State of Grace" came when Rich and Lilly were experiencing a career slump two years ago. "I was ready to go back to school to study psychology," Rich says. Then Lilly remembered the childhood photo of Rich she'd seen at the shiva for Rich's father in the mid-1990s. She said Rich looked just like her best friend from the Pines, a Jewish girl named Connie.

Rich, for her part, couldn't believe a Jewish girl had attended Lilly's Catholic school and thought Lilly "was telling one of her tall tales of the South," she says.

Some of Lilly's faux pas at her Jewish friend's house inspired gags for the show. At dinner one evening, young Lilly asked Connie's dad if his concentration camp tattoo was a telephone number. Then she asked for a glass of milk to go with her chicken. "There was an ominous silence," she recalls.

In future episodes of "State of Grace," Hannah will grapple with anti-Semitism, and Bubbie with whether to date the local butcher (The dilemma: He's named Bloomberg, but he's not Jewish).

Rich and Lilly say that despite the humor, the show has a serious edge. "It's not just a rosy, nostalgic view of childhood," Rich insists. "It's rawer than 'The Wonder Years.'"

Lilly adds, "Tattie is always smoking and drinking. And Hannah's parents are too preoccupied with the family business to pay her much attention. Yet the two girls do find a state of grace -- through their friendship with each other."

"State of Grace" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox Family Channel."

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