Nine years ago, a television program that had no chance in the world of succeeding premiered on CBS. It never won an Emmy, but it caught the attention of many because the theme is not of this world. It is called "Touched by an Angel." The show ends its run this weekend with a two-part finale airing Saturday and Sunday (April 26-27, 8 p.m. ET/PT each night).
TBAA, as those who love the show affectionately call it, has been a favorite of mine since I discovered it in its second season. It has been an antidote to the cultural pollution for which there are no EPA regulations.
Mostly it has told the story of how people caught up in difficult circumstances find the message "God loves you" has inspired and strengthened them. In the aftermath of 9/11, TBAA offered a special program about lost lives and renewed hope that CBS boldly aired when other networks either had nothing to offer or feared addressing the subject.
At its peak, TBAA was in the top 10, and sometimes in the top five, of broadcast television's highest rated shows. That reflected a hunger for substantive things beyond the titillation and low humor characteristic of most TV "entertainment."
In the finale, several characters from previous programs make return appearances, including Randy Travis, the country singer turned actor. Satan (played chillingly by "M-A-S-H's" David Ogden Stiers) also comes back. As he has previously, Satan deceives, misrepresents and lies, but what he means for evil, God clearly has meant for good.
There are so many wonderful lines in the finale, written by executive producer Martha Williamson, whose baby the show has been since she was brought in to rescue it in its second season.
Speaking of life's circumstances, the angel Gloria (played by latecomer to the show, Valerie Bertinelli) says, "If you give good luck the credit, or bad luck the blame, then you're not giving God the chance to give it meaning."
The last episodes are about Monica, who is played by the lovely and exceedingly Irish Roma Downey (Della Reese and John Dye round out the wonderful regular cast), and her "final exam" before she is "promoted" to supervising angel. She is assigned to a young man falsely accused of multiple homicides in a school full of children. Do not read further if this will spoil the ending.
Monica is willing to throw away her promotion in order to minister to the young man, whom she believes is innocent but will not speak in his own defense. He is convicted (Satan is the prosecuting lawyer, which may be the ultimate in typecasting) and sentenced to multiple life terms. Monica pledges to stay with him no matter what.
When the sheriff (Travis) comes to take him away to the state prison, the cell door is open and the man is gone.
Later, in what Christians may find to be the most thrilling part of the drama, Monica learns that the one she has been ministering to is no less than Jesus Himself. His name isn't used, but when she bows to Him it is obvious to whom she is speaking.
Just in case you miss the point, there is this exchange between Monica and the Jesus figure known in the show as "Zack":
Monica: "Why didn't I recognize you?"
Zack: "Because you would have done anything for me, but look what you did for a stranger."
Monica: "Forgive me for not recognizing you."
Zack: "There are few who do. Greater love hath no person than to lay down his life for a stranger. Well done, good and faithful servant."
Needless to say, Monica gets her "promotion."
I'm not sure we will ever see a show like this again. The network hostility toward religion, the quest for high ratings and the pandering to the 18-49-year-old demographic might prevent a nervous broadcast executive from backing a show with a similar theme (and kudos to CBS President Les Moonves for supporting this one over the years). But in "fly-over country" the people responded to TBAA and made it a hit.
Few shows last nine seasons. The good messages in this show literally stopped suicides and put lives and marriages back together. The show has the fan mail to prove it.
TBAA has been a miracle from the start. Its "touch" will not only continue in reruns, but in the hearts of many who have been affected by its principal and unchanging message: "God loves you."