posted by John W. Kennedy
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
Martha Williamson still has the touch. After reportedly testing through the roof, Signed, Sealed, Delivered has been given a full 10-episode series order by Hallmark Channel even before its movie-length pilot airs this Saturday night (10/12) at 9:00 PM ET.
The film — and soon-to-be weekly series — is created and executive produced by Martha Williamson who become a television legend on the wings of Touched by an Angel, her mega-hit which ended its nine-year CBS run in 2003. Reruns of the still-popular show can currently be seen on UP TV.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered follows a team of postal investigators as they seek to unite long-lost so-called “dead letters” with their intended recipients. The hook of the show is that while the deliveries may be arriving 20 years or late they also come, perhaps miraculously, right on time. The show promises to carry that same kindhearted spirit into a new television landscape that, in the decade since Touched by an Angel ceased production, has become ever darker in tone.
I recently spoke with Martha Williamson about how her return to a medium that, I believe, is in dire need of what she has to offer.
JWK: You used to do a blog for Beliefnet.
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: It was very successful. I had a lot of fun…I did the first video blogs for them and it was really, really a wonderful experience.
JWK: Well, as a fan, I’d love to see that revived.
MW: I like you already!
JWK: Turning to your pilot, I believe it was originally called Dead Letters, then Lost Letters and now it’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
MW: Yes, it went through a few titles but we’re all happy with Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
JWK: It’s a great idea for a show. How’d it come to you?
MW: I had finished Touched by an Angel and I took some time off. I actually had the opportunity to read a lot of the fan letters that people sent me and I was so touched by that — no pun intended. I was so moved by so many of the letters. This was when people were still writing letters and not tweeting and emailing so much. So, I could hold something in my hands that somebody else had held. Sometimes they’d include a gift or a little angel picture or something that they had made. Most often, they just talked about how they felt and I realized that the power of the written word is being forgotten. I wanted to do something to remind people that we are in danger of losing an art — and not just an art but an opportunity to really dig deeper and examine ourselves in ways that tweeting does not allow. Very few people would get into so much trouble if they wrote a letter — a thoughtful, considered letter — instead of tweeting the first thing that came to their mind.
JWK: It seems like so many celebrities are in constant apology mode because they had to get thought they believed to be so clever right out there into the world.
MW: That’s right. I remember the days when I would sit down and right an angry letter and then put it in my drawer and never mail it — but I felt better. But nobody ever had to know. Now you get into a lot of trouble reacting too quickly just because you can. So, I started thinking that a wanted to do another show that encouraged (people) and had a message to it (and) that was (also) a hopeful, inspiring, family show.
JWK: So, what is the basic message of Signed, Sealed, Delivered?
MW: I think that the basic message of this show is that we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are so many good things that we are leaving behind — civility, kindness. There is a wonderful gentleness in self discipline. The main character of the show, Oliver, is a fellow who describes himself as a gentleman. I’ve watched a few groups of people who have watched the show — and I’ve watched them watching the show — and they are all so deeply moved and they always say the same thing — “It reminds me of what we’re losing.” One lady said “It’s about the class we used to have.”
I remember my father was the sort of person who would stand if you walked into a room or hold the door for another person. Just to be considerate, he would let a car go ahead of him. He didn’t have to win…He was a man of faith. He didn’t try to make money off of it. He didn’t advertise his faith. He just simply lived it. So, I thought a lot about my father while I created the character of Oliver, the postal detective who revives dead letters and finally gets them delivered to the right place.
Also, there’s something charming, I believe, about the show in that these letter and packages may arrive late but actually arrive right on time. There may be some sort of supernatural element.
JWK: So, a little bit of Touched by an Angel carries through.
MW: You know me. I can’t avoid that too much.
JWK: You’re the first woman to actually serve as the showrunner for two network series simultaneously. In the nineties you ran both Touched by an Angel and Promised Land.
MW: That’s right…And then I did some specials all at the same time too. It was a very exciting and fun time.
JWK: What do you think happened to network television in the past decade? It seems to me that somewhere around the early to mid-2000s the whole tone of broadcast programming changed and became very dark. Whereas, the nineties TV dramas were defined by hopeful shows — like your programs and series like Quantum Leap and some others. Everybody has seemed to be obsessed with finding the next Seinfeld — with countless shows about nothing — but there seems to have been little interest in finding the next Touched by an Angel — despite its obvious enduring popularity. The best phrase I can think of to describe past dozen years or so is the dark ages because almost everything that’s on is literally so dark in tone. Why has that happened?
MW: That’s very well put. I think a couple of things happened. First of all, things are very cyclical. I think that when things get very dark there will be a swinging back. It’s very interesting to me that, when we first did Touched by an Angel, we had tested the show and people were saying “You know, I stopped watching television there’s nothing good on television.” This was in ’94. They said “But I would come back to television to watch something like this.” And I heard those exact words spoken yesterday by a group of people who (test) watched Signed, Sealed, Delivered. We asked them some questions and they said exactly the same thing. The pendulum will always swing back. So, things will get dark but there is always a light to balance it out at some point. That’s number one.
Number two is that technology changed a lot of television — recently, clearly, with Netflix. But everybody knew even in 2000 that, sooner or later, people would be going to their computers to watch television and that the meaning of the word television would be changed. What is television? Is it a box anymore? Or is it anything on a screen? Is it a flat screen on your wall? Is it the screen in your hand on your iPhone? What is television? So, television was in the process of being redefined necessarily by technology and technological advancements.
Third and I think, perhaps, chronologically you would put this second, cable in the late nineties and the turn of the millennium made it possible for shows like The Sopranos – shows that were well written, beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and broke every barrier of language and behavior. So, now people who wanted to see adult drama were leaving the networks to watch it on Showtime and HBO and the networks said “Wait! We’ve got to get these people back!” So, now they had to start counter-programming by pushing the edge as far as they could.
Finally, I think that 9/11 happened and I think that the way we saw ourselves and the way we perceived the future changed radically. If you remember, 24 became a huge hit after 9/11. It was actually scheduled to air the pilot the week of 9/11, as I recall, and they withheld it. But, once it got on the air, people were thrilled with it because it was exciting and they changed the rules of television by killing off major characters. Nobody had ever seen that before. And the good guy really won. I mean it was the 21st century version of the greatest western ever told…I believe television will always reflect what’s going on in the American psyche as much as the American psyche will inform programming. I don’t know what comes first sometimes — the chicken or the egg. I do know that when times are uncertain and dark, as you describe them, people often take a great deal of comfort in watching NCIS and CSI and capable, competent people solving mysteries because we can’t solve them in our own lives. It’s a different time.
And the decisions that they make always come down to money. They can’t afford to lose advertising to the cable channels. So, they’re going to try to do as much as they can to keep people there.
JWK: I don’t want to editorialize too much but I think if they really wanted to make money, they’d put on more shows like yours. I think they’ve skewed the whole system in favor of darker programming. I think they use demographics to artificially promote the taste of a relatively small segment of the audience above the audience as a whole and I think that they use cable fees to prop channels that the broad market otherwise would not support.
MW: Yes, you have an excellent point, John. Once I became a mother I found myself (walking along) the back wall of Target, going up and down the rows looking for family DVDs to watch with my family because I couldn’t find anything (suitable) on TV. The so-called “children’s shows” were snarky and cynical. The so-called “family shows” were cruel and hurtful. I finally gave up and said “Well, I’m going to write something again!” It’s been a great experience.
JWK: My niece has two kids and she pulled the plug on TV for that reason.
MW: Yes! And that’s not a bad thing. We have responsibility to monitor what our children watch (but) if you can’t even find anything to monitor then you’re really (sunk).
JWK: From doing this blog and working on some other projects, it’s become obvious to me that the audience is there for your kind of programming.
MW: You’re right. We had 24 million people watching Touched by an Angel and those people have not gone away. They have just refused to give their loyalty to something that is insulting or hurtful.
JWK: Roma Downey, formerly the star of that show, and her husband Mark Burnett recently scored a big ratings hit with The Bible. What are your thoughts on that?
MW: People will often say Touched by an Angel changed the landscape of television — making it possible to explore biblical issues (and) to talk about God. It’s very dear to see Roma building on that and finding success with The Bible. I’m more gratified to see that people came to find out about The Bible.
JWK: Do you keep in touch with Roma and Della Reese?
MW: I do (though) not as often as I used to. Roma does a lot of traveling and the last time we spent a great deal of time together was, sadly, at the passing of our dear friend John Dye. That was a great loss.
JWK: Speaking of John Dye, I was researching your background and noticed that you were a producer of a show called Jack’s Place which starred Hal Linden and featured John in a supporting role.
MW: Yeah! That’s how I met John.
JWK: I remember that show. I actually liked it and thought it should have ran longer than it did.
MW: I’m so glad!
JWK: I even remember the theme music from it. It was a good show.
MW: I don’t remember the theme music! I would love to see one of those again!
JWK: I have a strange ability to remember theme songs. It’s ridiculous.
MW: I think that’s a gift.
JWK: I wanted to ask you about some of the show business legends you’ve worked with over the years — some even before Touched by an Angel. Besides Hal Linden, you worked with Carol Burnett on The Carol Burnett Show.
MW: I got my first break working for Carol Burnett’s producer. I finally got my first opportunity to write for Carol and so many of those who worked with Carol. I got started in variety so I got a chance to write for all kinds of people. And, talk about music, you remember there was so much music on Touched by an Angel because I love music and I love variety. There were major, major names that come to mind again and again. I had the opportunity to work with — omigosh! — I don’t even know where to start! — Dolly Parton, Peter Allen, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr. I feel like I was the last kid in variety before they closed the door. So, I carried a lot of that into a lot of the work (I did later). Do you remember in Jack’s Place where Hal Linden is kind of skipping down the street singing Singin’ in the Rain or something like that. I can’t remember (the song) but that was something that I did because I just wanted to put some music in the show.
We had Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou…subsequently on Touched. The advantage of (working with actors like James Earl Jones) is not (that) you get to meet a star. It’s that you get to be with a pro and you see what the real professionals do as actors and how they work…You see that the bigger they are, truly 95% of the time, the nicer they really are because they all so recognize the tremendous amount of grace that got them there, got them this far. They’ve also been gifted with a talent that they didn’t create but they were able to use. You often see the biggest people are often the most humbled. They realize the odds (against) being successful are so high…I think the amazing thing about Touched by an Angel was that we had people come to us who wanted to be on that show because they loved the message that we were putting out there. And I think that that will happen again (with Signed, Sealed, Delivered).
JWK: Do you have a favorite episode of Touched by an Angel?
MW: Oh, my goodness! I always think of the episode of the slavery in the Sudan because we worked with members of Congress on that. We screened on Capitol Hill…and after it was screened senators and congressmen that afternoon passed the Sudan Peace Act. It was one of those moments where you realize you didn’t just entertain, you actually helped to make a difference. Those are the moments where you see television still matters.
JWK: I think what makes Touched by an Angel such an enduring show is that running through it is a sense of kindness that’s mostly missing from television now. In too many cases that kindness has been shoved aside by anger.
MW: Oh, it’s nasty! It’s pretty easy to write a nasty show. It’s very hard to write a quality show that is funny and entertaining and kind. By the way, I never ever got a letter from somebody who said “Why don’t you swear more in your television shows?” Nobody ever misses it if it’s not there, let me tell you.
JWK: I also think that angry fiction leads to an angry culture at large. They call it “edgy” television for a reason. It really has the effect of making people edgier — and I don’t think that makes life more pleasant for any of us.
MW: You’re absolutely right! Why do people want to do that? Well, because it seems exciting and groundbreaking and risky but Touched by an Angel was groundbreaking and risky, believe me. We had 24 million people watching the show. That’s more than American Idol is getting right now. So, we forget that there were an awful lot of people who liked that kind of entertainment and who miss it.
JWK: Now that you’re back on television, where would you like to be in five years. Would you like to have two or three shows on the air? Would you like to be doing movies?
MW: I’m working on a movie now. I just did a rewrite for a family film and I’m working on another movie and I love that because, as a mother, I think it will be easier for me to make movies now that I’ve got teenaged girls.
JWK: How many children do you have?
MW: I have two girls. An eleven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old which is another which is probably the main reason I stepped away from the business for almost ten years. I wanted put as much energy into being a mother as I did into making a hit show.
JWK: Well, I think you’re timing is great — because those were a dark ten years for television and I think we need you now to help turn on the light.
MW: Oh, God bless you!
JWK: Any final words about Signed, Sealed, Delivered?
MW: Just that…everyone who sees it loves it and the two main characters are gonna be a lot of fun to watch. It’s a comedy and it’s romantic but it’s a mystery. It’s a lot things they haven’t seen since Touched by an Angel but it still has the heart and the quality.
JWK: I think you’re gonna have another hit on your hands here.
MW: Oh, great!
JWK: I honestly believe that. I’ve been doing this blog for some years now and I just get an overwhelming sense from talking with people that they seeking material that lifts them up. People are tired of being dragged down.
MW: That’s the truth.
Note: Signed, Sealed, Delivered pilot airs this Saturday night (10/12) at 9:00 PM ET. The series is set to launch in second quarter of 2014 with 10 one-hour episodes. I’ll have a review tomorrow.
Till then, I leave with one of TV’s great opening themes — which, BTW, has also become a lost art in recent seasons.