Touched By An Angel has the distinction of being the most openly, overtly religious primetime show since the glory days of Fulton Sheen’s Life is Worth Living in the 1950s. Much like Sheen’s program, Angel makes no bones about its strong point of view, proudly announcing that there’s a God, that He created you, and that he loves you. And from the get-go, Angel has refreshingly refused to hide that message behind a lot of PC euphemisms for religion, like “spirituality,” “oneness,” or “god/goddess energy.”
Now in its eighth year on the air, Angel should be the biggest schmaltz-fest in the history of television, but, instead it has aged remarkably well. Despite a few ill-conceived cast additions and “improvements,” the program has yet to outwear its stay or exhaust its unique premise. And its premise is simple enough: each week a group of earth-bound angels encounter a new person (or group of people) who needs a little heavenly intervention.
The show certainly has an angelic leading lady, Roma Downey, whose doll-like looks (like an Effanbee doll come to life) and lilting Irish brogue are topped off by an endless variety of fashionable hats. Singer/actress Della Reese co-stars as Tess, the older, wiser angel, gruff and tough-talking. Though Tess at first may seem a little grating and not very angelic, her no-nonsense attitude repeatedly saves the show from dipping into any overripe sentimentality. The third element in this casting trinity is John Dye as Andrew, the rather drab Angel of Death. Dye joined the series in its third season: apparently the producers of Angel didn’t/don’t know the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” because Andrew’s addition, even then, seemed a little unnecessary. Perhaps he was designed to draw in male viewers, or as a heartthrob for female watchers. Either way, the show had to shift to accommodate him and a few too many episodes began to shoehorn in the subject of death as an awkward subplot.
This season, Valerie Bertinelli has joined the cast as Gloria, another angel who helps out hapless humans. And not since Cousin Oliver was thrown into the Brady Bunch in its waning days has there been a more inexplicable bit of casting. Not that there’s anything wrong with Valerie Bertinelli. She has been a beloved TV presence since her days on One Day at a Time, when her prettiness and light comic touch offered an important counter-balance to that program’s often heavy-handed melodramatics. Since then, in many made-for-TV movies and mini-series, Bertinelli has continued to be a popular television actress with an approachable acting style and a winning personal warmth.
Along the way, she has also defied common assumptions about former child stars: she’s had no off-camera meltdowns; she’s been married for 20 years to rocker Eddie Van Halen; and she has repeatedly shown herself to be charmingly free of any kid-actor bitterness.
It’s a shame (and something of a surprise) then that Bertinelli has never clicked in another sitcom or regular series since her approachable, easy-going persona is usually the type that guarantees small-screen longevity.
On Angel, Bertinelli’s Gloria seems to be an attempt to let Monica mature. Just as Monica once looked to Tess for help and assurance, now Gloria depends on Monica. Unfortunately, Gloria is not just naive about the ways of the world, but completely ignorant of them. In a recent episode, the original three Angels had to educate Gloria regarding the different types of human love (romantic, paternal, etc.). Gloria is much like a child then (or like Mork from Ork, or maybe ALF), learning the way of all flesh and human behavior. But Bertinelli is too resourceful of an actress, and frankly a little too long in the tooth, to be completely believable as such a simpleton spirit.
Gloria might be an invigorating character if she were allowed to be comic relief, but she’s not given that much latitude. She also doesn’t seem to get that much airtime, at least not thus far. With four Angels already on the show and a weekly group of guest stars (Debbie Reynolds recently, and, in previous seasons, Carol Burnett, Joel Grey, Faye Dunaway, Harry Hamlin . . . a virtual Love Boat of famous faces) who actually play out that week’s story and drama—there simply aren’t enough minutes in each hour to let everyone shine. Compare Angel to Murder, She Wrote (or any other show that depends on a rotating group of guest actors), where the focus was wisely kept on just one central character… and was better for it.
Also like Murder, She Wrote or Matlock, Angel features the same basic resolution every week: someone literally sees the light, learns to believe in angels and in God. But it shows a seriousness and resourcefulness on the show’s producers’ part that they regularly steer clear of completely cookie-cutter predictability. Just like in real life, right when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Angel throws you a curve. While an uplifting ending is always assured, sometimes that storybook conclusion comes about in a highly unlikely, unexpected way. Last week, the budding romance of a young and very cute couple (a match made in heave!) seemed to have been predetermined for a big white wedding finale. But, before anyone could get alter-bound, Angel of Death Andrew went to work and took the groom up to Heaven. No way! Hey, where’s my happy ending?! The show didn’t take the easy, predictable way out; instead, the love-sick woman who was left behind had to come to terms with missed opportunities, lingering memories and trying to make sense of the random senselessness of the universe. She also had to learn the value of having faith even in a less-than-perfect world. So, maybe it wasn’t the ending we wanted but perhaps it was more true to life in that not everything, for any of us, always ends happily or as we might have originally hoped.
Moreover, the show doesn’t shy away from some heavy theological issues. From the role of women in the church to people who use the bible as the basis for their bigotry, Angel has addressed them all.
And whether due to the dedication of their producers, cast or writers, or some sort of divine influence, Angel often soars with surprisingly touching, honestly-won human dramas. And they achieve it without the language, nudity or shock tactics employed by such “progressive,” “cutting edge,” “hip” dramas like Oz, NYPD Blue, or The Sopranos.
Touched By An Angel will probably never have the high-brow cachet that shows like Oz and NYPD Blue have, since Angel deals with the divine and not the hard-hitting, gritty, “real world.” But watching Angel (in secret if necessary) can do good for the soul in that unlike many other dramas currently on the air,Angel
ends up making you feel better, rather than worse, about the world and the human condition. Now, if the show would just stop clogging up heaven and earth with all those superfluous characters.