HAWTHORNE. 9 p.m. tomorrow, TNT.

SAVING GRACE. 10 p.m. tomorrow, TNT.

ACTRESSES OF a certain age have been discovering TV - particularly cable TV - for the past few seasons.

Each has her reasons.

As Jada Pinkett Smith, 37, returns to series television this week for the first regular gig since "A Different World," there's more on her mind than acting.

Yes, she's enthusiastic about TNT's "HawthoRNe," in which she stars as Christina Hawthorne, the chief nursing officer of a Richmond, Va., hospital.

But what the actress, singer and wife of Overbrook's Will Smith really wants to do is direct. And write. And produce.

"I really liked the material, I really loved the world" created by executive producer John Masius ("Providence"), Pinkett Smith said in a recent phone interview.

But there was "also the fact that television would give me a place where I could really learn the mechanics of story structure, scene structure, really sharpen my producerial skills. It just seemed like the perfect place that I needed to be right now," she said, to get ready for "the next phase of my career."

That phase would seem to be well under way.

"The Human Contract," a film she wrote, directed and co-starred in, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008 and is expected to be released soon, she said.

She's also working with Smith, she said, on producing the remake of "The Karate Kid" (which reportedly will star their son, Jaden).

Though she laughingly denies having anything resembling a five-year plan, she expects to be working primarily behind the camera "in the next 10 years."

In the meantime, however, there's "HawthoRNe," the second new medical drama this month to focus on nurses rather than doctors. Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" (10:30 tonight) did well enough in last week's premiere to rate a second-season order. A third nursing series, NBC's "Mercy," has been ordered for midseason next year.

Pinkett Smith, whose own mother is a nurse, can't explain television's sudden interest in the profession, but thinks "it's about time."

"We've seen everything we can see, basically, in the medical profession as far as doctors are concerned, I would say, and hospitals are always going to be of interest to us because the two extremes live there, life and death," she said. "It's a very rich area."

"HawthoRNe," like many a medical show since the breakout success of Fox's "House," casts its star as a rebel against a rules-obsessed medical bureaucracy. And though Pinkett Smith's Christina doesn't go quite as far as Edie Falco's "Nurse Jackie" - who flushed a man's ear down a toilet in the show's pilot - her support for both patients and her nurses has her coloring outside the lines in each of the three episodes I've seen.

Masius has also given Christina a complicated backstory. Widowed for a year - her husband died of cancer and was treated in the hospital in which she works - she's the mother of a teenage daughter (Hannah Hodson) and has an uneasy relationship with her former mother-in-law (Joanna Cassidy).

Though there's a sometimes too self-conscious effort to challenge viewers' assumptions about characters they've yet to meet, the one male nurse who's a regular (David Julian Hirsh) happens also to have failed to get into medical school, a plot point that may make some in the profession wince (though perhaps not as much as when Falco flushed that ear).

"People are people and it is important not to make assumptions," Pinkett Smith said.

The actress, who spent time with a chief nursing officer at a hospital in Los Angeles, said "a lot of nurses just felt like they haven't been represented properly [on television]. They're, you know, sexualized . . . not represented in an authentic way."

Still 'Saving Grace'

The battle for the soul of Grace Hanadarko resumes tomorrow night as Oscar winner Holly Hunter returns for a third season of TNT's "Saving Grace," possibly the most out-there cop show ever.

And, yes, I'm including "Cop Rock."

There's still an angel named Earl (Leon Rippy) in Grace's life, and he'll be joined later in the season by a disgruntled competitor - played by yet another Oscar winner, F. Murray Abraham - who'll tempt Grace with just about the only thing she really cares about: closing cases.

The show's everything-is-connected theme also continues, as Grace tries to help another of Earl's charges, but Hunter's clearly having too much fun with the raucous Grace to allow her to be saved just yet. *

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