Highway to Heaven: Season 1
In Most television series seem to dwell on the worse aspects of the human condition. Many glorify violence, indiscriminate sex and immorality as a routine part of their typical stories. Occasionally a series comes along that makes an attempt to be entertaining and uplifting; a seemingly impossible task but some producers have tried. One of the best received and most creative was a series that ran on NBC for five years; ‘Highway to Heaven’. It is notable for the way it incorporated non-denominational spirituality into a family oriented TV series. Having characters routine mention God and support the belief in divine interest in regular people may appear to be a recipe for ratings disaster and a whirlwind of controversy but this series not only managed to survive, at least for five years but it gathered a certain loyal following. Ultimately, the all important rating fell below the network’s critical level. There have been several ‘God’ oriented series; ‘Touch by an Angle’ and ‘Joan of Arcadia’ immediately come to mind buy ‘Highway to Heaven’ is generally considered the gold standard for this particular genre. The DVD season sets have been out for awhile but A&E has begun to rerelease the series again. There has been some issue with fans because the episodes in the original release where taken from the cut version used for syndication. This caused the original release sales of seasons one through three to be lackluster which resulted in the studio’s decision not to release the last two seasons. As of this writing I have not been able to ascertain whether this situation has been rectified but it appears to be a straight forward repackaging on the old mastering. Even if it’s only the syndicated cut quality family friendly shows are rare enough that you may still want to include this in your home DVD library. The quality sets this show above most of the rest and ensures an enjoyable time for all.
Michael Landon not only stared in this series but he served as a major creative force largely responsible for the enduring appeal the show has demonstrated. He wrote, directed and produced every episode on the entire run; far more than any other individual. After his success on ‘Bonanza’ followed by ‘Little House on the Prairie’ his personal commitment to wholesome family entertainment was well known and greatly respected in the industry and among his many fans. Landon was the man with the big hair and bigger heart he managed the nearly impossible, feature God in a weekly television series without offending the audience. Natural the Deity never made a personal appearance but maintained an undeniable presence. The premise of the show was the essence of simplicity. Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) is an angel on probation. It would take awhile to fully elaborate on that mater but that was one aspect of the series’ inherent charm. He was sent by ‘The Boss’ to Earth to seek out and help people in overcoming their difficulties. Frequently, these problems involved a crisis of faith. Jonathan is never preachy the way he helps his assignments reconcile themselves to a God that loves them, cares for them and forgives them. While on the road during his first assignment the angle crosses paths with Mark Gordon (Victor French), a former police officer, alcoholic and general misanthrope. When he realizes Jonathan’s true celestial nature he undergoes a personal epiphany. Mark picks up a hitchhiking Jonathan and the pair forms a partnership traveling around the county doing God’s work.
The closest thing Jonathan has to a halo is his perfectly blown out hair and there is a notable absence of harp and wings. Occasionally, actually, just about every episode, Jonathan has to go beyond the limit of human abilities and is called upon to perform a miracle. The term that is used between to two is ‘The Stuff’. One key point of the production is not to overuse this diminishing it to a gimmick. The real miracle is the changes that are instigated in the heart of the assignment. There is a gentle, steadfast sense of spirituality entirely apart from any formal religious affiliation although people with a strong commitment to such an organized religion are treated with the upmost of respect. Even the people who serve as the antagonist are typically worthy of redemption and afforded ample opportunity to change. Many of the topics considered in this first season examine problem shared by many. A theme that is revisited several times is the disposable attitude our society uses to stigmatize the elderly. In one episode Jonathan helps the residents of a nursing home while in another he comes to the aid of aging television heroes forgotten by the current generation. There is yet another where the team helps bring a grandfather in a nursing home closer to his grandson. Several characters would wind up wind roles reprised later in the series. One in Scotty a love sick successful lawyer who happens to be a quadriplegic; he would show up again when Jonathan needs a role model of a recently handicapped person.
Some episodes are obviously expertly crafted to firmly grasp the heart strings and tug. A prime example is the pretty bride who is not only pregnant but has cancer. Each episode has the rght touch of humor, easily applied and never mean spirited. Sometimes its tongue in cheek while other times the direction of the story is purely for a few laughs. This is family entertainment the way it should be.