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''Touched by an Angel'' quietly scores

”Touched by an Angel” quietly scores — After a cursed beginning, the spiritual show has become this season’s hit

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Last season, not much went right for CBS’ freshman drama Touched by an Angel. Take the Dove Incident. For one early episode, the crew of the celestial show was perched on a Salt Lake City hill, shooting its trademark ending — a fluttering dove, meant to symbolize God. But that day, when the snow-white bird of peace took flight, an unexpected guest hawk swooped down and gobbled the dove for breakfast. ”All you could see were some feathers floating down,” remembers executive producer Martha Williamson. ”It was very sad.”

Back then, life wasn’t much better on solid ground. A schmaltzy hour about two of God’s helpers (Della Reese and Roma Downey) who attend to mortals in crisis, Touched by an Angel debuted to reviews from hell. The San Francisco Examiner dismissed it as ”another example of why ’90s America is the stupidest place on Earth.” EW gave it an early obituary: ”Halo, I must be going.” And the show’s ratings were lukewarm — thanks both to ABC, which clobbered it every Wednesday night with Roseanne, and a skittish CBS, which often preempted it.

But this season, something just short of miraculous took place. Not only did Touched by an Angel slip back onto the CBS schedule, but the switch to a family-friendly hour (Saturdays at 9 p.m.) has dramatically boosted the ratings; the drama now averages 36th out of 137 shows and handily wins its time slot, making it one of the struggling Eye network’s few blessings. ”It’s an amazing phenomenon,” says CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves, ”and probably the most pleasant surprise of the year.”

It may seem like a Xerox of the ’80s halo hit Highway to Heaven, but this brainchild of then CBS Entertainment chief Jeff Sagansky was more of a reaction to the angels craze that began filling up bookstores and Oprah shows several years ago. In the series’ pilot, the actresses actually did flit about in wings and robes, but the results were deemed too cheesy to air. Williamson, hired to turn the show around, nixed the angels’ feathers, gave them 20th-century threads, and toned down the heavenly lighting (”God doesn’t use a lot of special effects,” she says). In fact, she scrapped almost everything but the stars: Reese, the 63-year-old blues singer who plays a sassy, maternal angel; and Downey, 32, an Irish-born actress who, prior to this gig, was best known for starring in the miniseries A Woman Named Jackie. (In keeping with the show’s Hallmark tone, Reese is a real-life ordained minister who performed Downey’s wedding last year.)

Williamson’s changes may have improved the show, but the buzz stayed deadly. And the network continued to have little faith in the project. ”A CBS executive took me and the writers to lunch,” recalls Williamson. ”He said, ‘When the show goes down, no one will blame you.”’

Industry pundits were thus surprised when Angel was renewed for last fall. But CBS had been touched by at least two bottom-line-pleasing facts: The show grabbed decent ratings for a pair of early 1995 episodes, and it was produced by the network, meaning profits would stay in-house. Angel‘s appeal to more finicky advertisers probably didn’t hurt either. ”People pooh-poohed Dr. Quinn at first, too,” says Marianne Ham, a Campbell Soup Co. ad exec. ”They’re both nice, pleasant shows… and yes, they’re advertiser friendly.”