THE CLOSER. 8 tonight, TNT.

SAVING GRACE. 10 tonight, TNT.

AS BROADCAST networks' schedules become more chaotic, cable continues to work in its own mysterious ways.

Tonight, that means a new, two-hour episode of TNT's summer hit, "The Closer," followed by the first of four new weekly episodes of its Holly Hunter series, "Saving Grace."

Don't ask why - just be grateful. Because, strike or no strike, December tends to be rerun country.

With "The Closer's" third-season finale having drawn more than 9 million viewers in September, I'm guessing there's some pent-up demand for Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) and her idiosyncratic approach to Los Angeles law enforcement.

And since tonight's story involves both Christmas decorations and a trip home to Georgia for Brenda, I guess you could call it a holiday special.

Though if your holiday involves this much murder and mayhem, you might not consider it so special.

Frances Sternhagen and Barry Corbin return as Brenda's parents, Clay and Willie Ray Johnson, whose roles expand beyond comic relief in an episode where they embark on an impromptu cross-country trip in an RV and end up learning more about their daughter than any parent wants to know.

And no, the revelation doesn't involve Fritz (Jon Tenney), who's along for the ride.

With all due respect to rabid "Closer" fans, parts of the plot are about as contrived as the worst made-for-TV Christmas movies the season has to offer.

But Sedgwick's the real deal, and whether she's working her magic in the interrogation room or going toe to toe with Sternhagen - whose Willie Ray gets to break caricature tonight in one particularly powerful scene - she plays Brenda like a candle burning at both ends.

Not exactly a Christmas candle, mind you. But a bright light nonetheless.

Don't expect any ringing bells, either, on tonight's "Saving Grace."

Earl (Leon Rippy), the angel there, already has his wings, but Hallmark doesn't have a card that could contain Earl.

As Season 1 continues toward a Dec. 18 finale where we'll finally get a look at the monster haunting Grace Hanadarko (Hunter), our hard-living Oklahoma City detective's out to nail the owner of a bus company whose defective equipment led to the death of several schoolchildren.

Nothing can stop her, not even a tornado.

(Did I forget to mention the tornado?)

Mary Kay Place, who's actually from Oklahoma, guest-stars.

Often over the top but never ordinary, "Grace" is one of those shows that shouldn't work but somehow does.

And sure, it's partly because of the fearless way Hunter embraces Grace's angry, joyful, stubborn spirit - boy, does that woman have a lot of sex - but it's also because of the questions creator Nancy Miller has her asking.

They're questions whose answers can only lead to more questions, which, in a medium too fond of easy answers, is the best way to keep a tricky conversation going.

Doubling up on 'Life'

Fans of NBC's "Life" should note that the network's scheduled a fresh episode of the quirky cop drama for 10 tonight in place of "Journeyman."

What's more, it's the first of two parts, with the conclusion airing in "Life's" usual 10 p.m. Wednesday slot this week. *

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