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Gregory R. Beabout on Television (Part II)
One morning while driving to work, I heard one of our local disc jockeys announce that after traffic and weather, he would interview Roma Downey, who plays Monica, the “angel” with the Irish lilt, on Touched by an Angel. The disc jockey confessed that he had never seen Touched by an Angel, and had never heard of the actress, but he knew that it had become a very popular show. A few minutes before the interview, he asked the meteorologist if he had ever seen Touched by an Angel. The weatherman said, “We watch it every week. In fact, it is the only show that our whole family sits down to watch together.” Apparently, his family is not alone. Last year, Touched by an Angel was watched regularly by more than 20 million households, and it runs strong this year.
The central characters and drama change from week to week, with the constant element being three angels who serve as divine caseworkers. Tess, played by Della Reese, is the angel in charge, while Monica is the young angel who is still earning her wings by helping human beings. John Dye plays Andrew, the angel of death. The recurring theme of each episode is that while family is the most important social institution there is, families are often tainted by sin. Since sin separates us from God and from each other, and since we can’t overcome sin on our own, we need God’s grace and redemption. (When I was explaining this television program to a theology student who had never seen it, he was surprised by my description. “You mean the characters actually get down on their knees and pray to God for forgiveness? During prime time? On one of the major networks?” They do.)
The episodes are uneven. The writers vary from week to week, and each story depicts a new situation with different actors playing the human beings, but the story almost always revolves around the tension built up in a family. For example, in “The Hero,” Monica is assigned to be the guardian angel for the sheriff of a town. To enter the action, she poses as a magazine writer doing a story on the sheriff’s heroism. He had helped capture a dangerous criminal, and he now often gives motivational speeches on civic duty. As the story progresses, we meet his son, who is soon to graduate from high school. Clearly, the son wants to live up to the high standards set by the father, but he feels overshadowed. When he cheats on his college placement exam to get a high score, he is caught. Before his father finds out, the son unsuccessfully attempts suicide. While his father waits for him in the hospital, we find out through a series of flashbacks that the father has been living a lie: his partner was the actual hero who stopped the lawbreaker. The father had frozen in the crucial moment, and his partner lost his life while shooting the criminal. The sheriff made it look like he had been the hero, and all along had been receiving the credit due his fallen partner.
A moment of truth like this occurs in each episode, during which Monica reveals herself to be an angel, a messenger from God. God’s message, it turns out, is quite traditional: repent and sin no more. God’s law is upheld as unwavering, even as his offer of loving forgiveness is communicated by the angel. In “The Hero” episode, the story continues until Monica appears to the son with the same message. The outcome of the show is that as both the father and the son are reconciled to God, they also confess their sinfulness to each other and become reconciled one to another.
Each week there is a different setting and a different family. One week we meet a daughter who is driven to prove that she is independent, even as she ignores her overprotective mother. In other episodes, it is a husband and a wife, or a grandparent guarding a long-buried secret. Each time, we find out that there are hidden faults, that several of the characters have been trying consciously to conceal their sinfulness from themselves, from others, and from God. Oftentimes, it is as someone comes close to death that the secret sin becomes disclosed. And in each episode, we see Monica, Tess, and Andrew take on the heavenly glow and reveal themselves as God’s messengers. As the episode reaches its weekly climax, Monica, surrounded by angelic light, assures sinners in her gentle Irish tone that God loves them and forgives them.
The writers seem to try hard not to be sectarian, or for that matter, even to be explicitly Christian. (The notion that we are sinful and in need of God’s loving forgiveness is as Jewish as it is Christian.) The name of Jesus is never invoked, but God is always referred to as “Our Father,” and the program ends with a white dove flying off. The stories are, in many ways, like contemporary versions of the stories of the Old Testament. Because the great gift of free will has been misused, the blessings of family life have become burdensome through sin. A messenger of God appears, calling the sinful to repentance and to a restored relationship in the family. In the history of religious drama, that central plot line has taken many forms. It is the recurring theme in the stories of the Hebrew people from Genesis through the prophets, and it is the same outline for most of the episodes of Touched by an Angel.
Touched by an Angel seems to have tapped into a traditional religious framework that goes beyond the popular revival of angels. Part of its appeal is the centrality of family in its weekly dramas. Consider the difference between television families over the last five decades. Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver were, despite their 1950s family values, really more secular than religious. They had good families, with good parents and good children. Innocence abounded, and when there were problems, they could be resolved with a little education. Despite the attraction of certain elements of the religious right to the television families of the 1950s, the formula for those shows had more in common with the enlightenment dream of a happy kingdom on earth than with the traditional emphasis on original sin.
As television developed, so did the projection of television families on the small screen. Many of the television characters of the ’60s and ’70s were either cut free from their families or trapped within dysfunctional families. The characters on The Mod Squad and Room 222 were independent individualists, free from family obligations. Archie Bunker wasn’t prepared for any encounters with the transcendent, and Charlie’s Angels were angelic in the sense that they were ahistorical nymphs seemingly without parents or siblings. Following the Brady Bunch, television paraded a long series of less than traditional families where everything is happy and peachy. These endless series of families with missing or reconstituted parents offered the escape of thinking that the promise of individualism would come true, that everyone can have what he wants, and we can all get along.
Starting in the late ’80s, a long string of television families showed the inverse. Roseanne, The Simpsons, and Married with Children all featured nuclear families with mom, dad, and the kids, and in each case the whole family is mildly dysfunctional, with no one quite happy. The comic relief is for the viewer who is in on the secret: they think they can be happy in a nuclear family, but they can’t. In the next half-hour, I’ll see a family with three dads and no mom, and there, everyone is sunny and cheerful.
Amid all of this, Touched by an Angel takes a completely different approach. There is a bit of an irony in the fact that CBS started Touched by an Angel by putting it up against Roseanne in 1994. (Imagine Roseanne being visited by one of God’s messengers.) With the switch to Saturday nights, Touched by an Angel climbed steadily in the ratings, and then in its third season, it moved to Sunday nights, where it became one of the strongest shows in the CBS lineup and the most watched drama on television. Touched is still an anchor in the CBS schedule. With its success, the network increasingly has moved to take on a more family-friendly feel.
Despite the effort to market their network with the “Welcome Home” theme, it’s not clear that CBS or its writers have figured out what makes Touched by an Angel so successful. The spin-off show, Promised Land, seems similar to Touched, but theologically it is miles away. In Promised Land, the action revolves around a family that moves from town to town doing good works. Through their good works, they are working to turn America into God’s Promised Land. While there is a pro-family message and a sort of quasi-religious emphasis on good works, there is little mention of sin. Instead of the traditional claim that all of our works on earth are at most penultimate, Promised Land is about building the kingdom here. If we would just all be nice to each other and take care of each other, we could build heaven right here in America. In that sense, the show is an extension of enlightenment progressivism and an outgrowth of Kant’s religion within the limits of reason alone. In contrast, Touched by an Angel runs entirely counter to Kant’s secularized understanding of sin and his claims that we can’t experience the transcendent, as well as countering the secular assumption that we are all basically innocent and good.
Unlike the wanderers of Promised Land, Monica, Tess, and Andrew stick to their orthodox emphasis on sin, grace, and redemption. The executive producer of the show, Martha Williams, has said that she insists that it is not the angels who win; God wins, for he has already won the victory. One episode in which the writing was particularly crisp centered around a dying research scientist. The story dramatically depicted the tension between science and faith. The credits revealed the pedigree of the story: the plot had been adapted from a story by C. S. Lewis.
The tremendous popularity of one television program might not prove much, but it is a sign that network television can produce shows in which the categories of sin, grace, forgiveness, and redemption are woven into the dramatic elements of the story line. Some might complain that Touched by an Angel lacks one theological element or another—for example, it lacks an ecclesiology—or that some episodes are weaker than others. Still, for network television to make such a debate possible is preferable to enduring the media barrage of the next celebration of sexual deviance on a sitcom. Even though Ellen led in the ratings for a week, Touched by an Angel has found a formula that is theologically traditional and, for the time being, consistently rates among Nielsen’s top shows.
Gregory R. Beabout is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University and the author of Freedom and Its Misuses (Marquette, 1996).