Just as in medieval times, when morality plays were staged to dramatize in simple terms the precepts of the Christian faith, so Touched by an Angel offers rudimentary Scripture in action — with contemporary but no less catechismal dialogue, plus a peppy gospel theme song warbled by Della Reese. On the off chance you’ve missed CBS’ Sunday-night ratings savior, Reese plays Tess, an angel with an unfortunate hairdo (white frizz on top, black shag below) that all by itself throws into doubt the infallibility of Someone Up Above. Tess’ task is to oversee novice angel Monica, played by Roma Downey, who curls her lilting Irish accent around such bromides as ”Riches can’t always be measured in dollars.” The two roam America helping people in spiritual crisis, often aided by still another minion of the Lord, Andrew (John Dye), a doe-eyed, ponytailed fellow who says he’s an ”angel of death” but is just as exhaustingly cheerful and life-affirming as everyone else on this show.
And so in one episode, Monica and Tess intercede when a young amateur gymnast is being pushed too hard by her manager mom; mother and daughter must be taught what a real winner is — someone ”trying to be the best they can be.” Another time, Monica assumes the identity of a counselor to help a marriage that faltered when the wife was raped by an intruder, played by Law & Order’s Chris Noth. (Andrew pretended to be Noth’s parole officer; his eyes lit up when the ex-con showed him his tattoo — an angel on his shoulder.)
Then there’s the striking episode that energetically attacks the profession of psychiatry, in which a little girl claims to hear voices. A child shrink (Dwight Schultz — ”Howling Mad” Murdock on The A-Team!) thinks the girl is, to use the technical term, wacky, but Monica convinces him she’s just listening to God. Turns out the doc was in denial: He too had been receiving unearthly messages, but all his pointy-headed education was getting in the way of his soul’s redemption.
Like its angel antecedent, Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven (1984-88), and contemporary series like 7th Heaven, Soul Man, and the Touched spin-off Promised Land, this show seeks to leave viewers uplifted. (So will, one presumes, such fall offerings as the ABC drama Nothing Sacred and the UPN comedy Good News.) To its credit, Touched conveys the idea that leading a truly spiritual life is one tough goal. But given the stilted dialogue and the fact that, by definition, the lead characters must always be goody-goody, the quality of the acting is irrelevant. Downey is effective primarily because she can maintain a perpetual glow, while Reese is so likable, she can take the writers’ stereotype — a wise, clucking mother-figure to Downey’s innocent girl-woman — and make you feel sinful for sensing the condescension to both characters.
Nevertheless, it is somewhat startling to hear ceaseless God talk on a major-network entertainment show. And I’m all for it — anything that disturbs the vagueness of prime-time blather is a good thing. The invocation of the Supreme Being really gets a workout on Touched: Sometimes it seems as if there’s a little competition going on, with an extra-fluffy cloud in Heaven awaiting the person who can mention Him the most in one speech. Typically, Monica will dispense a well-meaning line like ”God sent us here to help you achieve your precious dreams, through God’s love.” Then guest star Bill Cosby (playing an irritatingly self-righteous ”angel with an attitude”) tops her with ”God doesn’t cause pain, God heals; God doesn’t hate, God loves.”
The purpose of this series — from executive producer Martha Williamson and creator-with-a-small-c John Masius — is, as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, to ”justify the ways of God to men.” But Milton made the bad guys a lot more interestingly foul than any of the sinners depicted on Touched. And such essential timidity dovetails conveniently with general TV standards. Think you’ll ever see a show that celebrates Judaism or Buddhism (or, hell — atheism) as forthrightly as this series does Christianity? Touched by a Satanist would have a better chance of making the fall schedule. C+