For The Someday Book

Angels on TV

Posted on: June 7, 2011

My family recently cut the cord on cable and switched to Roku (thanks to this advice from a friend). As a result, I have been watching some older drama series on Netflix. There are always shows that look intriguing, but come on at an inconvenient time. The first one that hooked me was Eli Stone, which ran for only two seasons (2008-2009). In that show, lawyer Eli Stone develops a brain aneurysm that gives him visions from God. These visions lead him to his next case, usually an unusual opportunity to help an underdog. Now I’m watching Saving Grace, which ran for three seasons (2007-2010) on TNT. Detective Grace Hanadarko is a hard-drinking, cursing, independent cop played by Holly Hunter. For the first season especially, almost every episode features a sex scene between Grace and a long list of partners, both regulars and one-night-stands. Into her life comes a “last-chance angel” named Earl, who wants to offer her redemption and enlist her help in redeeming others.

I am struck by the contrast between these angel-themed shows and the shows of my childhood, like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. Highway to Heaven ran from 1984-1989, with angel Michael Landon and his earthly partner travelling the United States to intervene in people’s lives. They would help, provoke, comfort and encourage people into the right, then move on to the next episode with a completely new set of humans. Touched by an Angel ran from 1994-2003 (alright, not my childhood), and followed the same formula, but with female angels Monica and Tessa.

Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel are notoriously heart-warming. These are the shows that the Hallmark Channel was invented for. While the angels do work with people facing hard human issues like death, divorce, abuse or evil, the angels are always agents of comfort and direction. At the end of the episode, the angels have done their best to help the humans deal with these tough issues, and everything wraps up neatly. Angels are benevolent helpers that offer insight, clarity and instruction in the right course of action. We viewers always saw things from their perspective.

Not so for Eli Stone and Grace Hanadarko. While both of those characters are broken people with broken lives, the angels (or, in Stone’s case, the visions) are anything but clear and instructive. The appearance of the divine in their lives troubles, confuses and mystifies them. Divine intervention is never a full revelation, but a labyrinthine wandering through different clues in search of the meaning of it all, which is never fully revealed. While we (the viewers) receive some gratification from the resolution of their individual police/court cases in each episode, the relationship to the Divine and the meaning of the angels/aneurysms is never fully explained or clarified. We don’t see God’s perspective, only Eli’s or Grace’s. God’s will is a disruptive and mysterious force that haunts their lives, albeit for the better. We are left to wonder about the will of God in ours.

This new perspective is much darker and more uncertain. There is no room for deus ex machina endings, and human characters wrestle with God far more than they obey. In the end, God urges their lives in a certain direction, but seems to offer little concrete aid or support. God is powerless without the partnership of human beings. In one episode of Saving Grace, Grace is held captive, and all her fellow officers are searching for her. Her angel Earl can’t find her either, and summons an “army of angels” to help him search. While there is some indication that the angels leave clues for the humans to find, it’s never clear whether Earl is effective at helping the search or if the officers would have found Grace on their own. Earl cannot protect Grace. Throughout the series, all he offers by way of support or protection is the occasional flash of comforting light from his wings.

Personally, I find this darker, more mysterious version of God’s action and intervention much more in line with my faith and spiritual experience. I’m not sure I believe in angels, and I definitely don’t think they are as benign as Michael Landon and Roma Downey. My parents always watched those older shows, but they just made me roll my eyes. If angels dwell among us, they come to trouble and provoke, not simply to guide and guard. God’s presence in our lives does not simply comfort us through life’s storms—sometimes, it causes a storm, and urges us out into it. God does not just use the gentle and devout. God is more likely to use those like Grace and Eli, wild souls more at home in the bar than the church.

I am still curious about why the shift took place between the older angel shows and the newer ones. What does it mean that popular faith no longer believes in a powerful, interceding God? What does it say about our American attitudes and culture that we believe we are just as effective as God? There is arrogance there, but there is also a recognition of responsibility, that we must engage with God. Why did this shift take place? Are we more comfortable with uncertainty, with unresolved endings? Does it speak to our desire to know God and angels, as long as they don’t impinge upon our choices (good or bad)? Who watches these shows, and what connects with them as viewers?

Addendum: When I wrote this original piece, I was at the end of the second season of Saving Grace. I am now nearing the end of the third and final season, and the show has changed dramatically. Grace seems to have “found the Lord,” and her character has lost its iconoclastic spirit. The show itself has become a lot more like Highway to Heaven in the third season, with characters appearing all over with connections to Earl, and Grace and Earl working together to help them. Real dialogue and story have been replaced by sermon-like speeches where every question has an orthodox answer. Platitudes have replaced probing faith. I’m very disappointed at the triteness of it all.  While I’ll probably go ahead and finish out the last few episodes, I’ve lost the engagement with Grace and the other characters, who are becoming two-dimensional model Christians instead of struggling human beings. (See similar critique here.)

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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