We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In a country reluctant to discuss hard-core Christianity, CBS’s prime-time series Touched by an Angel and Promised Land seem like anomalies. Americans are embarrassed by faith, no matter how strong their own, and these showsboth spawned by Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven and executive-produced by an enigmatic Salt Lake City presence named Martha Williamsonparade theirs.
Touched by an Angel (when they import it to Brazil will it be translated as “fondled”?) looks in on the machinations of three angelsTess, played by Della Reese, who appears to be wearing two wigs at once, Monica, enacted with much fragility by Roma Downey, and Andrew, the angel of death, played by Christer hunk John Dye, the Andrew McCarthy of the ’90s. One Angel web site makes clear that they were never human; God created them to give a spiritual assist to mortals in need. They travel the country spreading kindergarten Christianity to believer and nonbeliever alikeGod loves you, God forgives you, God wants you to do the right thing. It’s a nice primer for the religiously ignorant, and converts must be dropping in its path like flies, since only the coziest, most affirmative version of the faith is on display.
There are a number of subsidiary angels who pop up as needed, as when an angel-choked airplane (no wonder fares are so high) carried a woman who was going to surprise her husband, the husband, and his pregnant mistress (surprise!). Angel Celeste (Hudson Leicke) was on board posing as a stewardess. The most fun part about the show is watching the angels try to pass as human here on skeptical Earththey’re Angels With Likely Stories.
Touched by an Angel deals mostly with single-issue plots in which everyone tidily gets his reward: Sinners of the most old-fashioned kindloose women, for exampleare rewarded with a visit from Andrew (such pretty names; are there no angels named Elmer or Drusilla?), Tess dispenses the earthy wisdom, while Monica comforts. Her eyes are filled with childlike wonderment at the glory of it all, and so is her voicewatery, youthful and faintly, ludicrously accented. The script gets by on a lot of heavy-handed metaphorical dialogue, in which faith is a code for the initiated: “Looks like you have a lot of capital left, even after all your losses,” nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Much of the soul-saving reads like gussied-up AA philosophy, but at its core are unadorned Christer edicts: prayer, God, miracles, not to mention actual helpful angels.
As attractive as the show’s message and package are, the scripts are shallow and selective enough to provide plenty of distancing roomafter all, part of the current angelmania is a craving for a kind of spiritual elitism. Who’s the next winner of celestial lotto? God may love you, but does he love you enough to touch you with an angel?
It’s harder to distance yourself from the struggles of the Promised Land flock because they’re more complicated, nervy, and true to life. Every so often a script will reach in uncomfortably deep. (Then again, I know someone who couldn’t watch Melrose Place’s most lurid season because it hit too close to home. True story.) Gerald McRaney is Russell Greene, Vietnam veteran and victim of corporate America’s whimsical restructuring, who has packed his familywife Claire (Wendy Phillips), son Joshua (Austin O’Brien), and daughter Dinah (Sara Schaub)into a trailer, and they are cruising the country, looking for citizens in need of a harsh bucking up and learning their own life lessons along the way. For some reason, they’ve decided to lug along Russell’s mother, Hattie, played by Celeste Holm, whose idea of acting like a vivacious old bird is to throw her arms about, screw up her face, and read her lines as if three sheets to the wind. She is a repository of inappropriate reactions, and of course fascinating to watch. They also pick up Russell’s no-good brother’s kid, Nathaniel (Eddie Karr), one of those smirking redheads in a bowl cut casting directors are so enamored of.
Aside from these two duds, though, the family is prickly and realistic, the kids sometimes sullen, sometimes quite childlike, sometimes showing hidden reservoirs of strength. Mom has a past (rock stars, pot) and lines on her face, and their journey across America is riddled with difficulties of their owndisasters, frustration, helplessness. Still, they’re new-age Nazis, getting by on a hardscrabble lifestyle in order to sternly disapprove of pushy yuppie parents, cowardly bureaucrats, and pathetic aging hippies. There’s more than a touch of the militant in Russell, who can’t see anything wrong with America that some faith and gumption wouldn’t fix. Gentle Claire pulls him back from the brink, but their roles aren’t as traditional as their ethos. The men make Thanksgiving dinner (in the TBaA-crossover episode that kills off Delta Burke for having abandoned Nathaniel, her son) while Hattie reels through the kitchen, slurring, “Just don’t burrrn the turkey!”
If Touched by an Angel’s precious, indistinct spirituality is irresistible, Promised Land’s stiff-necked probity is equally attractive. There’s something about McRaney that demands guilty loyaltyhe’s so pained by our little sins, so disappointed by our everyday treasons. Just watching a family try so hard week after to week to be do-right, calibrating each decision, cardinal and venal, finding lessons under every rock, is exhausting and impressive. They work so hard at being good, never mind the strain they undergo fitting everyone else into their intricate moral ledger. No wonder most people don’t have the stomach for it.
Because this country is so reluctant to discuss religion, the result is more misunderstanding, misinformation, and ignorant contempt. (Informed contempt is another thing entirely, unfortunately rare.) A couple of years ago, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohenalways girded to take on minorities, so long as he gets to characterize them by the silliest, most extreme stereotypereferred snottily to a Christian subset he called “snake worshippers.” That phrase is unintelligible to the many Pentacostals who use snakes in their servicesRichard, they worship Jesus. The result of this slipshod attitude and shame is that the powerful myths and rituals become diluted, practitioners driven further underground in order to surround themselves with people who understand, and it’s safer if we’re all up here, in the daylight, where we can see each other.
If the shows’ Christianity looks as if it goes all the way, that’s in contrast to the rest of the stuff out thereGodless but moral family fare like Seventh Heaven, Godless and immoral “quality television” like Party of Five, and coarse sitcoms like Amen and the (late, we pray) Dan Aykroyd vehicle Soul Man. Touched by an Angel’s evangelicism is of the feelgood, everybody’s welcome kinda fan at one web site called it “pre-evangelistic at best”; in fact, Promised Land, which isn’t as blatantly God-driven, is rigid and judgmental by any standard. The angels are always nattering on about forgiveness; let’s just say that Gerald McRaney isn’t.
But to have any of this openly broadcast in a country so ashamed of even its most popular religion is an amazing thing. TV likes its miracles vague, its patriotism tinged with irony. Touched by an Angel and Promised Land are having none of that. Their messages diverge slightly and come in different tones, which capitalizes on a wider market”God loves you” for the samplers-and-kittens set; “Ain’t America great?!” for the God, guts, and guns crowd. But the idea is as radical, mediawise, as it is socially conservative: Put God on TV, every week, and don’t forget that that means holding a strong moral line. The revolution is being televised, and it looks very different from what we expected.Arion Berger