Touched by an Angel touched the hearts of its audience every Sunday night on CBS from September 1994 until April 2003. The drama starred Roma Downey, Della Reese, and John Dye as the three angels who each week helped struggling individuals overcome their subsequent crises. Or, in Dye's case, who played the Angel of Death, they brought them home. Valerie Bertinelli showed up in later seasons as the angel Gloria. Each episode ended with a beautiful message that usually involved love and forgiveness. It didn't hurt that the show had a beautiful-and-now-iconic theme song performed by Reese, "Walk With You."
The same network has scooped up the new hit God Friended Me, and the comparisons have been hard to avoid. So, does God Friended Me have all the ingredients to be the Touched by an Angel of our generation? Let's take a look.
Like Touched by an Angel, God Friended Me features three to four main characters who stick with the audience each week. There are quite a few different - and some would say progressive - contrasts to reflect the current culture. Instead of an angel, the main protagonist Miles, played by Brandon Micheal Hall, is an atheist podcast host. His sister Ali, played by Javicia Leslie, is a lesbian. His best friend Rakesh (Suraj Sharma) is an Indian-American computer hacker. In the pilot Miles receives a Facebook "friend" request from an account called "the God account." His friend Cara (Violett Beane), one of his first friend requests, and Rakesh help Miles try to identify the elusive author of the account. Miles also recruits his friends each time he gets a new friend suggestion from God as they then try and solve that individual's problem. One week they are trying to reunite a husband and wife who have grown estranged, another week they are helping a mother connect with her autistic son. Along the way they help quite a few struggling strangers.
That last part sound familiar?
Also reminiscent of Touched by an Angel is how the main characters have plenty of their own drama. When we first meet him, the atheist Miles is estranged from his father, an Episcopalian pastor. The two stopped speaking after Miles's mother was killed by a drunk driver. They were unable to relate to one another as they grieved in vastly different ways - one relying on God and the other spurning him.
God Friended Me co-creators Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt admit the similarities to Touched by an Angel are there and that the connections are flattering, but they're hoping to cement their own TV legacy.
"We appreciate the comparison there," God Friended Me co-creator and writer Bryan Wynbrandt said in an interview with Townhall. "It was obviously a touchstone in this genre."
"We don’t see ourselves as Touched By an Angel," they added. "It has its place, and we’re trying to be our own."
The writers were eager to talk about their project because it has clearly hit a nerve with viewers. Despite the title, the writers insist that God Friended Me is for both religious and non-religious audiences.
"It’s about the human heart. We all have family members in trouble, friends who need our advice. We need advice ourselves."
It is, Lilien and Wynbrandt explained, a show about hope. Who wouldn't want to tune in to that?
I wondered if one of the things God Friended Me would consider replicating is Touched By an Angel's impressive list of guest stars. Phylichia Rashad, Wynonna Judd, Angela Lansbury, B.B. King, Maya Angelou, and Muhammed Ali, were just a few of the Hollywood legends to make an appearance on the 1990s show. Do the God Friended Me producers have ideas for their own A-lister cameos?
"It’s not in our plans," the writers said, only noting that in an upcoming episode a Yankee baseball player is playing himself.
But Miles getting celebrity friend requests on a regular basis? Don't count on it.
“I don’t see him ever helping Will Shatner at a Star Trek convention,” the writers quipped.
One thing the God Friended Me crew is hoping to achieve is Touched by an Angel's resounding success. The latter's robust and loyal audience kept the show around for nine seasons and 212 episodes. So far so good for God Friended Me. The show premiered this September with an impressive 10 million viewers and was then picked up for a full season. TV experts are calling it "the surprise hit of the year."
The cast doesn't seem like they're going anywhere anytime soon either, judging by how excited they were about their costars and the opportunity when I chatted with them on set back in September. Read my interview with the stars here.
The God Friended Me creators may want to currently try and distance themselves from Touched by an Angel, but they do want to see the same impact.
Hopefully, Lilien and Wynbrandt said, in years to come, they'll "start being compared in the same way."
God Friended Me airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.