Paramount // 1994 // 693 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // February 23rd, 2005
Monica: "You said you'd gotten a job...but a barkeeper?!"
Tess: "Well, she didn't need a stripper."
-- from "Show Me the Way Home"
If you're at all like me, you probably never gave even a thought to tuning in to Touched by an Angel.
Not that I have anything against angels, mind you; it just never seemed like the sort of thing I'd be interested in. I was far more likely to tune in to smart, funny, and compelling shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or quirky, oddball shows like Night Stand with Dick Dietrick than to what I thought of as syrupy, simplistic feel-good nonsense.
Boy, was I wrong.
How could I have known how smart, funny, and compelling this show would be? How could I know that it would be intelligent, thoughtful, mature, and quirky? By the end of the first disc, I was hooked. By the end of the second, I was hopelessly in love with the show. By the end of the third, I was singing its praises to skeptical friends as they rolled their eyes and shook their heads. I was converted, just as surely as Nicely-Nicely at the Save-a-Soul Mission. Touched by an Angel has made a believer out of me.
Monica (Roma Downey) is an angel who has just been promoted from the Search and Rescue division to caseworker. Tess (Della Reese) is a veteran caseworker assigned to guide Monica through her new duties. Together, they help a wide variety of people deal with crisis points in their lives through God's loving grace, with an occasional hand from the compassionate and affable Angel of Death, Adam (Charles Rocket).
Here's a brief rundown on the included episodes:
* "The Southbound Bus"
The pilot episode of the show introduces us to Monica and Tess. For her first assignment, Monica must deal with a young boy named David (T.J. Lowther, A Perfect World), whose mother, wracked with guilt over the death of her youngest child, has abandoned her family. Along the way, Monica learns that not even an angel should meddle in affairs that don't concern her.
* "Show Me the Way Home"
Monica's next assignment is Earl Rowley (Kevin Dobson, Knot's Landing), a failed baseball player who now coaches for the local high school. Bitter because of the war injury that ruined his chances at a professional career, and dying of an incurable disease, Earl pushes his students relentlessly, respecting no one save the star player Peter Enloe (Ivan Sergei, Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?). When Earl's bullying drives the team to a crisis point, he must confront his own mortality and learn how he can best make a difference in the life of the boy who respects him.
* "Tough Love"
Monica takes a position as assistant to legendary globe-trotting journalist Elizabeth Jessup (Phylicia Rashad, The Cosby Show). Elizabeth's alcoholism has taken its toll on her family, alienating her daughter Sydney (Erica Gimpel, Touch Me) and granddaughter Beth. But when Beth is nearly killed as a result of Elizabeth's drunkenness, the journalist must swallow her pride and find the help she desperately needs to put her life back together.
* "Fallen Angela"
Angela Evans (Nia Peeples, Poodle Springs), wife of rising young political star Carter Evans (Obba Babatundé, The Celestine Prophecy), has a secret past that could ruin her husband's career. At the worst possible moment, a man from her past uses her mistakes to blackmail her, placing her in a situation from which she cannot escape...except, maybe, by suicide.
* "Cassie's Choice"
Cassie Peters (Alyson Hannigan, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is having a baby -- one that she doesn't want, or so she thinks, until the time comes to actually give the child up for adoption. Fortunately, Monica is on hand to help Cassie make some difficult decisions that will show how good a mother she can be.
* "The Heart of the Matter"
This time, Monica assists a nervous young hypochondriac lawyer, Charles Hibbard (Peter Scolari, Bosom Buddies), when he accidentally gives an inheritance check to flighty Robin Dunwoody (Wendy Makkena, Sister Act). Soon, the trio is off on a madcap chase to recover the money before Charles loses his job -- and to see if opposites really do attract.
* "An Unexpected Snow"
Monica and Tess arrange an accidental meeting on a deserted mountain road for Megan (Nancy Allen, Robocop) and Susanna (Brooke Adams, The Dead Zone), two women involved with the same man: the first as lover, the other as wife. When the gentleman in question, Jack (Ed Marinaro, The Protector) shows up, the angels help these people sort through their feelings and come to understanding and decisions over Thanksgiving dinner. Adam, the angel of death, lends a hand -- but he can't quite work up the nerve to kill the turkey for dinner...
Harrison Trowbridge Archibald IV (Robin Thomas, Clockstoppers), noted pediatrician, is a very important man from a very important family. Harrison's mother, Amelia (Rue McClanahan, Golden Girls), and his wife, Barbara (Gail Edwards, It's a Living), are planning a the social event of the year in honor of the new hospital wing that will be named for the Archibald family. But an unexpected visit from a poor child named Manny (Jonathan Hernandez, Spanglish) wreaks havoc on the carefully laid plans and causes some surprising family history to come to light. What's in a name, anyway?
* "Fear Not!"
It's time for the annual Christmas pageant, and sickly little Serena (Rae' Ven Kelly, A Time to Kill) is excited about being the angel. Her best friend, the somewhat mentally handicapped Joey (Paul Wittenburg), must come to terms with Serena's impending death even as his bitter brother Wayne (popular country singer and sometime actor Randy Travis) must rediscover his faith and become the brother -- and friend -- that Joey will desperately need. One of the highest-rated episodes of the show, and a particular fan favorite.
* "There But for the Grace of God"
Monica learns a lesson in humility as she is stripped of her angelic abilities and assigned to help a homeless man named Pete Taylor (Gregory Harrison, First Daughter), who has nearly been beaten down by a run of tragedy and bad luck. Along the way, she manages to find other homeless souls in need, like the addled conspiracy theorist Sophie (Marion Ross, Happy Days) and disenfranchised Desert Storm veteran Zack (Malcom-Jamal Warner, The Cosby Show). But what can a powerless angel do to help anyone -- including herself?
* "The Hero"
Hard-nosed sheriff James Mackey (John Amos, Good Times) became a town hero by saving the lives of several hostages in a bank holdup. James's drive for excellence is breaking the back of his teenaged son Matthew (Bumper Robinson, Generation X), who feels that he must live up to his father's rigid standards...at any cost. If this father and son are to have any future, James must confront the secrets of his own past -- with a little help from Monica, of course.
* "Angels on the Air"
Radio personality Sandy Latham (Elizabeth Ashley, The Buccaneers) has become a ratings smash with her snide, insulting, and bullying talk show antics. But although the act goes over well with the public, it serves as little more than an embarrassment to her daughter Claire (Melissa Joan Hart, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch). After being humiliated on the air by one of her mother's stunts, Claire decides to run away from home. Can Monica and Tess help this family heal? Look for X-Men star James Marsden and spastic funnyman Jack Black in this episode.
* "In the Name of God"
Monica faces one of her greatest challenges ever, as she helps Dr. Joanne Glassberg (Talia Balsam, The Supernaturals) open an AIDS hospice, despite strong protest from the local residents, snooping neighbors like Jerry (Dick Van Patten, Eight Is Enough), and oily politicians like city councilman Frank Littleton (John Schneider, Smallville). Soon, Monica and Tess stumble over dark forces at work in this small town, and when Tess is suspended from the case after an uncharacteristic angry outburst, Monica must stand against the Prince of Darkness himself. Fortunately, help comes in the form of the angel Sam (Paul Winfield, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)...but will it be enough?
* "I Will Walk with You" (parts 1 and 2): The series finale (from Season Nine) kicks off with Monica and Tess meeting at the same remote desert bus stop that opened the very first show. Monica is due for a promotion, and she is about to embark on her final mission as a caseworker. As she boards the bus, she meets Zack (Scott Bairstow, Tuck Everlasting), a wandering jack-of-all-trades, and strikes up a conversation with him. It seems that they are both headed for the same destination, a small town called Ascension. In town, Monica is reunited with several people from past assignments, such as Joey and Wayne (from "Show Me the Way Home"), Sophie (from "There But for the Grace of God"), and the town's mayor (Patrick Duffy, Dallas), a man whose life she saved when she was still in Search and Rescue. But the reunion is not entirely a happy one; a terrible tragedy two years earlier took the lives of nearly every child and teacher in the town, Wayne's wife among them. The entire town was traumatized, and since the incident, grief and anger have conspired to choke the life out of what was once a thriving and friendly community. The unhealed emotion comes to a head when Zack is accused of having caused the disaster, and Monica -- with the help of Gloria (another angel, played by series regular Valerie Bertinelli) -- must contend not only with the mob mentality sweeping through the town but with the scheming of Satan himself, who has a very personal interest in the outcome of this situation. Meanwhile, Monica's peers offer their insights as to why they feel she is fit to become a supervisor, but it may be a moot point: In order to complete this assignment, Monica may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. Also guest-starring Patty Duke, Cloris Leachman, and David Ogden Stiers.
Before I opened this boxed set, the only real experience I'd had with Touched by an Angel was that brutally funny bit from The Family Guy ("Now tell us, where did the angel touch you?"). Honestly, I didn't know what to expect; I thought that it might be sugary fluff at best or endless proselytizing at worst. I put it aside and turned my attention to other things, but every now and then I'd glance over and look at the box and wonder about it. Finally curiosity got the better of me, so I sat down one night with a bowl of popcorn and tore open the package and had myself a Touched by an Angel marathon.
Four hours later, I was dumbfounded. I hadn't known what to expect, but I certainly hadn't expected this. This wasn't fluff; these shows were sometimes hard-edged, generally compelling, tackling difficult issues with an uncompromising eye, but at the same time never becoming too sordid or cheap. It's a fine line to walk, and Touched by an Angel walks that line with grace, class, and not a small bit of humor. Although Christianity is obviously a major element of the show, Touched by an Angel chooses wisely not to spend time arguing tenets of faith or attempting to make a case for conversion. Indeed, the issue of converting a nonbeliever never once came up in all the episodes presented here, and even the angels themselves go through moments of doubt and question their faith from time to time. The angels are, according to the show's interpretation, here to offer strength and guidance, but never to force decisions or supplant judgment. They don't have all the answers. They take the rather optimistic view that a person -- regardless of faith or lack of it -- when confronted with truth and given the freedom to make a choice, will choose to do the right thing. Romanticism? Yes, it is -- and what's wrong with romanticism? If you ask me, we could do with a bit more romanticism in the world, even wrapped in the cloak of religious family drama. Certainly, fans of the show thought so; even though it was, in fact, cancelled in the first season, a vigorous letter-writing campaign spurred CBS to resurrect it. Before long, Touched by an Angel was one of the highest-rated dramas on television, second only to E.R., and the only religiously oriented show to ever break into Neilson's Top Ten (Highway to Heaven and the Sherman Helmsley sitcom Amen! only managed to break into the top twenty).
Honestly, though, Touched by an Angel is really no more religious than that other great long-running religious family drama, Highway to Heaven. Neither one of these shows will ever be mistaken for a comprehensive discourse on matters theological. At the same time, the show is rooted very firmly in the premise that God exists, that he loves everyone, and that he will always be there for you, as long as you are willing to accept him into your life at some point. That's great, you might argue, for people of faith, but it's hard stuff to swallow for those who don't believe. Well, I'm not so sure. After all, if you can, for instance, willingly accept for an hour the premise that there is a Slayer born every generation to defend the world from evil, or that a child sent by rocket from a dying planet can be raised on Earth and develop fantastic powers, then the premise of an omnipotent, loving being whose agents walk the earth to bring comfort to those in need shouldn't be too much of a stretch. After all, you don't actually have to believe in the existence of the Slayer or of Superman to enjoy stories about them; why should angels really be any different?
Make no mistake about it, however: Although you might not subscribe to the idea of the Christian God, Touched by an Angel is absolutely convinced. As such, it is a kaleidoscope of contradictions. Although the show deals with some very dark and poignant subject matter, it also manages to stay relatively upbeat. Faith isn't the answer, according to the show; it's the way to find an answer. While very serious, very earnest about the concept of God, the show can also be quite tongue-in-cheek about it, with sly jokes and quirky characterizations that make even the supporting characters and cameos linger in your memory. It doesn't hurt that you can witness a literal galaxy of guest stars (and future stars) parade by on the show: Allyson Hannigan, Dick Van Patten, Randy Travis, Jack Black, Nancy Allen, John Amos, Paul Winfield, Melissa Joan Hart, Rue McClanahan, and Phylicia Rashad are only a few of the famous names featured in the first season. Another wonderful aspect of the show is the incredible range of it; in this handful of episodes, we are treated to soapy tearjerkers, tense dramas, edgy social commentary, a flat-out battle with Satan, and a charmingly sweet romantic comedy.
Part of the show's appeal for me is the intelligent manner in which complex issues are handled. Given the necessity for wrapping up a story within the limits of the hour-long drama format, there are some incredibly intense stories done with sensitivity, maturity, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. A prime example is the episode called "An Unexpected Snow," a story of two women who are involved with the same man, one as wife, the other as mistress. Monica and Tess arrange an "accidental" meeting between the two in an isolated spot on Thanksgiving, and it isn't long before the husband joins the merry party. But there is no screaming confrontation; no one is made out to be the villain. No one is saddled with guilt or self-righteously castigated. The angels are not concerned with conferring guilt; that would run contrary to their mission. Rather, they provide a quiet place for these three people to work through their feelings, confront the truth about each other, and engage in some healthy self-examination. Before long, these people are talking to one another. Honestly. Openly. As I watched this episode, I was confounded. I'd seen this scenario, the cheating husband confronted with the two women in his life, played out on a hundred TV shows, from soapy dramas to tawdry sitcoms, and this time it had more emotional impact than it had ever held for me before. I couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me: These people were acting the way that adults were supposed to act. Remarkable. This was something I'd rarely seen anywhere on television.
It's refreshing; it's powerful stuff. Above all, it is comforting. Touched by an Angel has such a warm, forgiving, and optimistic view of humanity that it is hard not to get swept up in that feeling. As executive producer Martha Williamson points out, "If you look at it, we are dealing with the same issues on Touched by an Angel or Promised Land that NYPD Blue or Law and Order deal with. We just come from a very different point of view, which is God's point of view. And we have a message: 'God loves you. God exists.' Which is pretty darned revolutionary for network prime-time television." Williamson is sincere about her beliefs, quite earnest about them, and it shines through in the show. It also comes through in the included commentaries and the enlightening 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley, and Williamson's unabashed enthusiasm for the concept of her show is delightful in the brief "Martha Williamson Talks About Touched by an Angel" feature. The real miracle is that, as earnest as she is, the show never once crosses over into that off-putting realm of smug self-righteousness.
Another part of the show's appeal for me is the interplay between Monica and Tess. The decision was wisely made early on to discard the majority of John Masius's original script -- a darkly ironic story about bitter, chain-smoking angels who were constantly at each other's throats -- but the team of Roma Downey and Della Reese remained constant. Although there is still a bit of bickering between the two, it is the friendliest sort of loving bickering, and the angels, along with Adam, seem like nothing so much as a close-knit family. Roma Downey presents Monica with a charming blend of otherworldly wisdom and earthly naïveté, and Della Reese is brash, motherly, and earthy as Tess. Charles Rocket rounds out the cast with his gentle, compassionate, slightly effeminate reading of Adam, sending a message that Death, far from being an unknowable and frightening experience, is instead a warm and glorious homecoming.
However, this is the show's first season, and as such, not all episodes are inspired. .If the show has a consistent problem, it's the way that the writers seem to write themselves into a corner, creating complex situations that simply cannot be resolved within the time allotted. The first episode, "The Southbound Bus," tries to tell a story that really needed two hours in only one. Thus, for every interesting choice they make, others are cut short. Some subplots are introduced only to go nowhere and be left dangling at the end of the episode, and indeed, the entire episode races by at an absurd pace. There seems to be such a drive to keep the shows episodic that plotlines are resolved hurriedly in a few episodes, and not at all in others. "The Southbound Bus" is a good example of this, but you can also see it in the series finale, "I Will Walk with You," which tries to cover so much ground in two hours that it seems rushed in places, detracting greatly from the dramatic impact. Does the entire series suffer from this handicap in places? I hope not. The very best episodes in this collection (and there are quite a few good ones) neatly avoid this trap by confining themselves to manageable tales that may reflect larger issues but never get too far out of hand storywise. "Cassie's Choice," for instance, is a heartrending melodrama about a young girl who has decided to give up her unwanted child for adoption -- but who has second thoughts after she gives birth. Betrayed by her less-than-mature boyfriend, in hiding from the couple who has agreed to adopt the child, alone and penniless, Cassie is forced to make some difficult decisions rather quickly. The resolution to this story rather surprised me; it is both bittersweet and heartwarming, and not at all outside the realm of possibility.
Nothing too super-special has been done for this DVD release as far as the sound and picture are concerned; still, the set features a rocking sound mix that blew my socks off. It's definitely better than most. The picture is pretty nice, very clear, no noise or anything distracting, although some episodes are noticeably better than others. The entire set adds up to a great release that should please both veteran viewers and newcomers alike. I was a bit confused by the inclusion of the two-part series finale, as I didn't understand certain aspects of the characters, being a new viewer; but the show was nevertheless enjoyable.
Touched by an Angel isn't going to convince anybody to go out and get baptized...well, I suppose I shouldn't say that, because it presumes a lot, and who knows what somebody will be moved to do? Suffice it to say that it didn't get me into a pew last Sunday, and I'm probably not going to leave on a mission trip to Zimbabwe any time soon (although I'd give serious thought to going on a mission trip to the Bahamas). But darn it, it did get me to thinking -- not specifically about religion, but about a lot of things. It got some gears turning. In an age of largely disposable entertainment, finding a fiction TV show that can do that is a rare thing indeed.
I realize that a certain number of you will never be convinced that Touched by an Angel is worth your time -- and that is truly a shame. While the writing (at least during the first season) is not all that it could be, it is one of the most intelligent and mature television shows that I have ever seen, showing that a program can be funny without being vulgar, engaging without being sordid, and suspenseful without being overly violent. I'm only sorry that it took me this long to discover it, and I urge anyone who even thinks they might have a glimmer of interest in seeing the show to at least rent it from the local video store and give it a try. You might be surprised; I know I was.
Above all, this is a show for sentimentalists and romantics, and I proudly count myself among their number. What sealed the deal for me, ultimately, was the show's outright rejection of organized religion (which, in my humble and perhaps meaningless opinion, has done more to drive people away from God than anything else) and emphasis on spirituality -- according to this show, God is there and accessible for anyone who needs him, believes in him, and wants his help, regardless of race, color, creed, or sexuality...and that's a comforting message, indeed.
Absolutely, 100% not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 Maurice Cobbs; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 693 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Version of Executive Producer Martha Williamson's 60 Minutes Interview with Ed Bradley
* Martha Williamson Talks About Touched by an Angel
* Touched by an Angel Says Farewell
* Audio Commentaries by Cast and Crew on "The Southbound Bus," "Tough Love," "Fear Not!" and "There, But for the Grace of God"
* Official Site