Sunday, April 27, 2003

'Touched by an Angel' truly effected change



Buffy could kick butt, but nothing like Monica and Tess.

Lots will be written about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer finale between now and the May 20 finale. But the show that really changed TV - and touched viewers - was Touched By an Angel.

The CBS drama, which ends nine years today (8 p.m., Channels 12, 7), was a Top 10 show in the 1990s, and the No. 2 drama behind ER. It had millions more viewers than Buffy, or any WB or UPN show.

Sure, Buffy's heroics have empowered young girls. But Angel Tess (Roma Downey) inspired millions of viewers with her simple, powerful message: "God loves you."

Where else did you hear that in prime-time? Certainly not on NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, CSI, 24, Alias. Buffy or the Law & Orders.

TV executives have explained the popularity of TV's current crime wave by saying detective shows deal with the ultimate jeopardy, life or death. Who are they kidding? They deal with death - bloody, brutal, gruesome deaths for our entertainment - while the angels (Downey, Della Reese, John Dye, Valerie Bertinelli) have dealt with life.

These angels have given people - not just characters on a TV show, but the viewers, too - encouragement to cope and move on after tragedy and hardships. This show made a difference in people's lives.

"We have thousands and thousands of letters from people who said, 'Your show changed my life. I saw your show, and I reconciled with my husband'... 'I saw your show, and I decided not to commit suicide yesterday'... 'I saw your show and I called up my mother and invited her to live with us, instead of putting her in a nursing home,' " says executive producer Martha Williamson, the guardian angel who rewrote the pilot on short notice in 1994 and guided all nine seasons.

How many life lessons have been gleaned from Tony Soprano or Buffy Summers? Forgive us our trespasses? Never!

The angels' nondenominational spirituality struck a nerve. It reminded viewers of those basic lessons they heard as children from their parents and grandparents.

One man told Williamson: "I wanted to say those same things to my kids, and I forgot how to say them. I miss being reminded that goodness matters. That truth matters. That honesty in the best policy. I'd forgotten about all of that in the rat race, and it makes me feel good to hear those things again." (Amen!)

That we ever heard these things said on TV was nothing short of a miracle. If there was ever divine intervention in a TV series, it was Touched By an Angel.

CBS trashed the original pilot (which never aired) by John Masius, a former St. Elsewhere writer. In the beginning, Monica flew through the air, and ineptly crashed into the Pacific Ocean, because Masius' God was a "practical joker." And Monica performed a miracle by bringing a dead dog back to life.

The show languished at CBS for years, until the network offered it to Williamson, a former Facts of Life writer and (unknown to CBS) a born-again Christian. She threw out Masius' genesis for the show - except for the two stars, Downey and Reese, and their names.

In Williamson's vision, Monica wouldn't resurrect a dead dog - but instead help its owners deal with the passing of a beloved pet. Her angels didn't perform miracles; they empowered people at a crossroads to make their own decisions.

Before the show premiered in 1994, Williamson told TV critics: "We're offering people a way, not to just look at angels and to look at God, but to look at their world, and notice the miracles around them... that are happening every single day."

CBS showed little faith in the show, banishing it to TV hell (Saturdays, the least-watched night). It drew enough converts in two seasons to be moved to 8 p.m. Sunday, following 60 Minutes. There it quickly ascended into the Top 10, and attracted an eclectic mix of guest stars: Colin Powell, Randy Travis, Richard Gere, Rosa Parks, Celine Dion and Muhammad Ali among others.

Travis, Patty Duke and Marion Ross reprise their roles today when Monica tries to restore hope to small-town residents whose children died in a school fire. In an unusual twist, she confronts Satan (David Ogden Stiers) and meets God (I won't give it away).

For years, the positive Touched By an Angel messages convinced CBS to produce uplifting Sunday night movies, giving the network a solid night of programming. But the show's impact reached beyond CBS.

"I do believe with all my heart that Touched by an Angel helped change the way television handles spiritual issues, and particularly the way television characterizes people of faith," says Williamson, who wants to produce Touched By an Angel Christmas reunion movies for CBS.

Before her show, people on TV "who believed in God were fanatics who were the parents of mass murderers and disturbed children," she says. "And now everywhere you look - on JAG, or on ER - how many shows feel comfortable discussing spiritual issues on television?"

Two years ago, in the quest for younger viewers, Touched By an Angel was sent back to Saturday. Too few viewers followed. (The tone of CBS' Sunday movies changed too, and ratings dropped.)

"Nobody is really watching on Saturday night, and I understand that. I think the timing is right (to end), and God's timing is always perfect," she says.

"Television shows can come and go, but nobody can ever cancel the impact of Touched By an Angel," she adds.

In the final scene, Tess hugs Monica and says, "Well, baby, we have more to look forward to... We have eternity."

Yes, we'll have an eternity of Touched By an Angel on DVDs, VHS and Hallmark Channel reruns (8 p.m. weekdays). Thank God.


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