Della Reese’s showdown with the devil

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 11/24/17

The primetime television lineup in 1994 included such top 10 shows as “ER,” “Friends” and “Murder, She Wrote.” Into this mix, CBS introduced a show about two angels who come to Earth to …

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Della Reese’s showdown with the devil

Posted

The primetime television lineup in 1994 included such top 10 shows as “ER,” “Friends” and “Murder, She Wrote.” Into this mix, CBS introduced a show about two angels who come to Earth to help humans experiencing a crisis.

Singer and actress Della Reese played a chain-smoking supervisor who spends eternity punishing another angel, played by Roma Downey, for a foul-up as a caseworker that caused her to suffer the wrath of God 100 years ago.

Actually, that was the first pilot for the show that became “Touched by an Angel.” Show creator John Masius later said that he was angry at God when he wrote the script because two of his children were born with disabilities.

When Martha Williamson was hired as executive producer, she rejected everything about the pilot and gave the two angels an extreme makeover.

Tess and Monica became created beings, not former humans, and their relationship transitioned from acrimonious to sisterlike.

The chemistry between Reese and Downey was real. In interviews, Reese often referred to her co-star as her daughter and officiated the wedding between Downey and her husband, TV producer Mark Burnett.

Reese, who died this week at age 86, presented Tess as a no-nonsense angel whose bark was worse than her bite.

Though she often seemed frustrated by Monica’s foibles, Tess obviously loved her young charge and was fiercely protective of her.

Whenever Monica seemed overwhelmed by human depravity, God’s mysterious ways or her own weakness, Tess was there to minister to her.

However, Monica and Tess weren’t perfect. They were capable of being headstrong, filled with doubt or overcome by anger.

Though Monica was often the one who let her emotions get the better of her, Tess slipped up in one memorable episode from the show’s second season.

“In the Name of God,” which aired in October 1995, was one of the few that explicity reminded viewers that Reese was portraying an African American angel.

(Since the debate about the lack of roles for minorities is ongoing two decades later, it is notable that “Touched by An Angel” was fairly diverse. Paul Winfield and Ossie Davis had recurring roles as angels. Jasmine Guy played a fallen angel in several memorable episodes. Maya Angelou, Phylicia Rashad, Ben Vereen and numerous other prominent black actors also had guest appearances.)

The plot of “In the Name of God” has Tess sent back to a small town where she previously worked as a nursemaid for a young boy named Timmy.

Now the adult Tim is the leader of a group of community members opposed to a hospice for AIDS patients.

After a car bomb explodes outside the hospice, Tess and Monica visit one of the group’s meetings and realize that the hospice opponents are white supremacists.

Children practicing hand-to-hand combat outside the meeting house, also known as the Hall of Patriots, catch Tess off-guard when they casually use a racial slur to refer to her.

Inside, the president of the city council is whipping the crowd into a frenzy and using the Bible to justify his hatred.

“I know who you are, you hatemonger, and I know what you’re doing. God knows what you’re doing and He doesn’t want you dragging His name through your sewer,” Tess tells the man when she confronts him. “And damn you,” she adds as she walks away.

Though the humans on “Touched By an Angel” used foul language from time to time, this is the only instance I know in which one of the angels did so.

In this context, Tess seems to be calling down actual damnation since the man will soon be revealed as Satan in a three-piece suit.

As punishment, Tess is removed from the case. From her place in the heavenly version of solitary confinement, Reese delivers an emotional rendition of “If I Can Dream” as previously skittish neighbors of the hospice find the courage to take a stand in its defense.

After she comes clean before God, Tess rejoins the team in time for the final showdown at the Hall of Patriots.

When Satan sneers at free will, Tess sums up what she learned during her chastisement: “Free will is a gift, and love is choice. Hate leaves you no choice at all.”

Another fan favorite episode featuring Reese in her natural element as a singer is “Indigo Angel,” set in a blues club and featuring a guest appearance by B.B. King.

Though some of the dialogue and storylines from “Touched By an Angel” have not aged well, the reruns are always worth a watch thanks to the performances of Reese and Downey.

The actresses were clearly women of faith who believed in the message they were delivering each week.

Since Downey often got to deliver the show’s signature line, it was always a treat when the light from above shown on Reese and with a smile on her face she reminded viewers that “God loves you, baby.”

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.