There was a time, not too long ago, when self-absorbed cynics ruled the television airwaves. The thirtysomethings and L.A. Laws of the dial represented the "Me Generation" as well as any therapy session or vanity plate, and the supersoaps such as Dynasty and Dallas displayed the collective greed and materialism that so defined the 1980s.
During that time, quieter series with nobler aims languished. I'll Fly Away died, in two seasons. Highway to Heaven changed lanes and timeslots before fading in 1989.
Now, in the midst of an undefinable period of TV _ a comedy about "nothing" tops the ratings _ comes a benevolent revival. Spurred by Touched by an Angel, CBS's unexpected feel-good spiritual hit, competing networks are lining up to do good.
This fall, NBC offers The Pretender, about a brilliant man who, after a lifetime of having his intelligence tapped for evil against his will, escapes on a journey to right wrongs in the world. Call it Touched by a Genius.
CBS has Promised Land, about a homeless family discovering and inspiring patriotism, and Early Edition, about a newspaper delivering the power to change tragic events before they happen. And on the upstart Warner Brothers network, Aaron Spelling _ of Dynasty and Melrose Place fame _ has created 7th Heaven, a family drama with a good-hearted minister as the star.
Mention the competition to Martha Williamson, and she grins. Not a vindicated, I-told-you-so smirk, but a genuine I-wish-them-well-because it's-the-right-thing-to-do smile. If Williamson wasn't so sincere each week as the executive producer of Touched by an Angel, you'd never believe she means it.
"There's room for all sorts of programing on television, but television hasn't been making it. If Touched is becoming the standard, it's thrilling," said Williamson, promoting her own spinoff, Promised Land.
"I hope (the competitors) get that there are good things, right and wrong things, in this world, that (television) needs to take a stand on. I hope they don't make compromises. Because that is what I credit our success on: We don't have situational ethics. It's not okay to steal sometimes. It's wrong."
Just what has caused the feel-good revolution is anyone's guess, especially since it's happening at a time when TV is under great political fire for violence and foul language. There's always the copycat theory _ remember the Friends frenzy? But there's also speculation that it's what people haven't been seeing on TV that is leading this new wave in positive programing. Broadcast viewership, after all, has been slipping every year.
"The public is looking for a kinder, gentler television," notes Happy Days legend Marion Ross, who'll do a guest role on Promised Land this fall. "But the networks hadn't been interested in staying with the quiet and thoughtful."
Linda Gray is among the last actors who would come to mind as a TV do-gooder. As the scheming Sue Ellen Ewing in Dallas and later a witchy mogul in Models, Inc., Gray helped define self-importance in modern TV. Yet she reveled in the chance to play against type on Touched by an Angel last season.
"We're in a time where people are questioning "Where am I going, How am I getting there?' These feel-good shows are a reflection of what's going on in a society."
That's exactly what Steven Long Mitchell had in mind when he created The Pretender, a stylish NBC thriller with a mastermind who slips in and out of professions to help those who've been victimized.
"We live in a world where there's really no justice, where no one takes responsibility for anything," says Mitchell, who was inspired to write the series after reading of several medical mishaps at University Community Hospital in Tampa last year.
"We all probably sat there and read the paper and said, "Well, somebody should do something about that,' and then we turned the page," Mitchell recalls. "But what if we had a hero who didn't turn the page?"
On CBS' Early Edition, the lead character can't. This tale of unexpected, unwelcome psychic powers asks: What would you do if you could see the newspaper a day in advance? Would you use it to make millions on the stock market, or try to change history before it happens?
That's the dilemma faced by Gary Hobson (played by actor Kyle Chandler), a puzzled Chicagoan who starts receiving a mysterious advance copy of the Sun-Times each morning at 6:30 a.m. Aided by a blind friend who feels the weight of the challenge, and a wisecracking pal who wants to cash in on it, Hobson follows the paper's lead reluctantly.
"We're not saying Kyle's character is some kind of angel from heaven who has all the right instincts. . . . We're not trying to set up some kind of a paradigm for saintliness on Earth," insists executive producer Bob Brush (The Wonder Years).
"In a sense, it's a curse," adds Chandler. "It's a tremendous responsibility. He's going to make mistakes."
Williamson, the Touched by an Angel shepherd, makes no excuses for her latest twist on the trend: Promised Land will show viewers a positive portrait of America and the people within it.
"Patriotism _ the word "patriot' _ has been perverted," Williamson scowls. "When you hear it now, I don't know if you're talking about Nathan Hale or Timothy McVeigh."
Through Promised Land, Williamson will take a suddenly homeless family, led by Gerald McRaney (Major Dad), on a journey into the American spirit, wherever and whatever that may be.
It's a lofty ambition at a time when high-concept series often suffocate themselves. What if Williamson's own shows get snuffed out by their homegrown competition? Again, she smiles earnestly, and vows to continue fighting the good fight:
"The best will always rise to the top. If there's a show out there that's better than ours, God bless it. I'll be back next year."