“Who’s your boss?”
By Paul Mavis
Thought of as cornball melodrama by the uninitiated or cynical (or even worse: TV critics), Highway to Heaven came across as a beautifully moving, deceptively simple yet powerfully written, quietly effective spiritual drama for this non-believer. Our friends at Mill Creek Entertainment now have the releasing rights to the 1984 NBC drama from legendary TV producer/writer/director/performer Michael Landon, so what better time than now (just look out the window…) to re-watch this lovely family drama.
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The show’s premise, taken from the series’ same-named two-part pilot, is simplicity itself. Probationary angel (we’re not told why, yet) Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon), has been put back on Earth by “the Boss,” God, to help people. Not to “save” their souls, but to show these bruised and battered people how love and kindness and faith can be the most powerful tools imaginable. Wearing the clothes of a day laborer, Jonathan never knows where his next assignment is going to be (by the looks of the locales, he apparently has God’s California district), until God suddenly speaks to him (we never hear these conversations), and Jonathan knows he has to stop.
In the opening pilot, Jonathan finds himself at a nursing home, where a group of listless, dispirited residents blossom under the kind attention of caretaker Jonathan’s can-do, positive approach to living. He also manages to charm Leslie Gordon (Mary McCusker), the plain, lonely administrator at the retirement home, out of her self-imposed shell. She, too, comes alive when Jonathan shows simple kindness and warmth to her, but his preternatural goodness also arouses the suspicions of her abusive, alcoholic, unemployed ex-cop brother, Mark Gordon (Victor French), who tries to sabotage his sister’s budding relationship.
Of course, had Mark known in the beginning that Jonathan was an angel, he would have realized that “the Boss” can’t allow Jonathan to get too close to anyone; Jonathan must leave when his “assignments” are over—a state of joy in that he’s profoundly helped someone…but a state of sadness, too, that he can’t stay with his new friends. Jonathan must always endure this bittersweet moment. When Jonathan does reveal to Mark that he’s an angel (to stop Mark from ruining his assignment), Mark is transformed, and asks to join Jonathan on his future missions.
Jonathan demurs, saying it’s an impossible situation. However, as Jonathan will later often say to Mark, he doesn’t call the shots—”the Boss” does. And He sees fit to have Mark become Jonathan’s corporal helper, as they crisscross the California highways in Mark’s battered four-door gray Ford Gran Torino, looking to do nothing more, than help people.
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I’m fairly certain I never caught Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven when it debuted in 1984. If I was watching TV on Wednesday nights at 8:00pm, I was catching Lee Majors (…and hopefully Heather Thomas in a bikini) in The Fall Guy over on ABC. Heavenly angel Michael Landon, without a bikini-clad babe in sight, helping lonely old people and kids with cancer sounded like death to me.
Certainly I was aware of jack-of-all-trades Landon’s reputation for quality family programming with Little House on the Prairie. But having grown up on The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid, I had more connection with Majors than I did with Landon, since I watched The Waltons religiously rather than Little House. Finally seeing Highway to Heaven years later, it’s a pity, though, that I missed this beautifully-executed debut season when first run. It’s one of the best dramas I’ve seen from the mid-1980s.
Looking at the series that were popular back in 1984, it’s not surprising that something like Landon’s Highway to Heaven would be seen as a not-particularly promising entry in NBC’s primetime schedule (even if it did owe just a bit, structurally at least, to that previous TV hit, The Fugitive). Among 1983’s and 1984’s most popular shows with audiences were Dallas, Dynasty, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Murder, She Wrote, Knots Landing, Hotel, Cheers, TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, The Love Boat, Riptide, The Jeffersons, and Night Court—certainly glossy, often escapist entertainment…but hardly dramatically-challenging fare (I’ll give a pass to ballsy Dallas in that department).
So try to imagine a show premiering in that field of titles that debuts with an episode concerned with bored senior citizens abandoned in an old-age retirement home? How’s that for sizzling entertainment? Or how about the following week’s show, which deals with a child dying from cancer…and he does die at the end? Sound like fun to you, or promising to a network “suit” nervous about ratings?
Give credit where credit is due; Landon, who owned this show and wrote and directed many of its best episodes (along with regular scripter, Dan Gordon, who also scripted many of this season’s best of the best), didn’t shy away from topics that seemed anathema to most mid-1980s network television. Episodes dealing with older parents abandoned by their children and older citizens thought no longer useful to society (the pilot, Highway to Heaven, The Return of the Masked Rider, A Divine Madness, The Right Thing), people dying from cancer (To Touch the Moon, Child of God, The Banker and the Bum, Thoroughbreds), gang violence (The Return of the Masked Rider, As Difficult as ABC), the challenges (and triumphs) of the handicapped (One Fresh Batch of Lemonade, A Match Made in Heaven), intolerance towards new immigrants (Dust Child), and the question of illegitimate children versus a rigid, orthodox interpretation of organized religion (Child of God), weren’t going to show up on Aaron Spelling‘s The Love Boat anytime soon.
And if they or something similar were alluded to on a show like Knots Landing, it was in service of soap opera histrionics (that’s not a pejorative in my book—just descriptive). Just the opposite for Highway to Heaven, Landon’s, Gordon’s and the other Highway to Heaven writers’ treatments of these themes are far from exploitative or saccharine or grotesquely melodramatic. These stories are treated, from the scripting to the directing to the acting, with a straightforward, honest, and remarkably calm tone that I found quite “real”…for a television show about an angel using supernatural powers to help people.
Written with a true ear, Highway to Heaven‘s dialogue always sounds natural and unforced, and the scripts’ messages are always down-to-earth in their consistent appeal to live one’s life without pity, without being a victim (can you freaking imagine such a message today?). A human life, in spite of challenging obstacles (or more correctly, because of them) in Highway to Heaven, is to be lived with courage and guts and faith—faith in either God, or in the innate goodness in man—with self-pitying victims given no sympathy by Jonathan.
Ironically, for a show about an angel who frequently accepts help in the form of event-changing powers from God, Highway to Heaven keeps its religiosity on the back-burner, rarely talking about God and faith and spirituality in any terms related to organized religion or a specific faith. When asked by Mark, usually after a trick has been pulled on him by God (if Mark lights up a cigarette, God creates a rainstorm…inside his Ford Gran Torino), why God does what he does, Jonathan almost invariably answers that he doesn’t know; his actions are as much a mystery to him, an angel, as they are to us.
I only remember one “detailed” explanation from Jonathan, in Dust Child, to Mark’s query about God not punishing people who hate: Jonathan says God allows humans, like children, to make their own mistakes, and that simply punishing someone doesn’t ever really change their behavior. Indeed, the only representation of a man of the cloth in this first season, is shown to be an intolerant parent, capable only of personal judgment and rigid orthodoxy—not compassion or understanding.
Landon is careful, though, to allow Highway to Heaven to be light and quietly funny at times, too, in spite of the heavy themes. Landon’s real-life best friend, Victor French, frequently helps facilitate these moments, particularly when he’s on the receiving end of some comical “reminder” from God when Mark steps outside his heavenly duties (in Song of the Wild West, every time Mark forgets and says, “Hell,” his car’s radiator bursts). We anticipate these “Stuff” moments, as Jonathan refers to the power that God sends down to alter human events, because they’re cleverly integrated into the stories, and they’re used quite sparingly—again, an indication of Landon’s taste and non-exploitative tone with a subject matter that some viewers could have found offensive.
Certainly it’s amusing when, in Dust Child, Mark complains about his back, wishing he was hanging upside down…wherein God immediately flips him upside-down over his hotel bed, or in Catch a Falling Star, where Jonathan catches a bullet in his hands from a crazed junkie (“That’s a no-no,” he says to the flipped-out thief). And in Plane Death, there’s a beautifully-choreographed (by director Landon) bar fight where a supremely calm Jonathan, standing stock-still with an impassive, scary face, wards off blow after blow with “the Stuff” as vicious thugs attack him in this super-cool action sequence. However, more often than not, Jonathan achieves his aims largely from his powers of indirect persuasion, allowing the offending (or offended) to discover how life and love are larger and more powerful than their seemingly insurmountable problems.
Since I didn’t grow up watching Little House, I can’t say I’ve ever really gauged Michael Landon’s acting chops one way or another. However, I was particularly taken with his carefully-modulated essaying of Jonathan the angel. Mostly still and watchful, Landon reaches real depth here in his scaled-back emoting, using his eyes to convey a genuine soulfulness in Jonathan that I found impressive, as was his unabashed willingness to tear-up during the episodes’ frequently moving scenes (watch Landon first come into that room of forgotten senior citizens in the opening pilot episode; his look is an artful mixture of sadness, concern, and anger at such waste. It’s a remarkable moment in the series). Add to this his skills as a scripter and as a director, and his achievement here in Highway to Heaven is particularly notable (while you’re watching the pilot, see how Landon directs that opening sequence of Jonathan ascending to Earth, and coming into contact with his first recalcitrant human…before he helps restore in him a little faith in mankind. It’s a quiet, mystical sequence, not at all overplayed by Landon, and aided by that swelling, poignant theme music from composer David Rose).
There’s isn’t a “bad” episode in this first season of Highway to Heaven, so it’s difficult to choose stand-out stories: they’re all worthwhile. The two-hour pilot sets the quiet, thoughtful tone for the rest of the series, and features a wonderful set of performances from Helen Hayes and John Bleifer as an elderly couple reaching towards love. To Touch the Moon deals with the difficult theme of a child dying from cancer, but writer/director Landon handles it beautifully, with one of the most touching evocations of death I’ve ever seen in a TV show: when the little boy, played naturally by Barret Oliver, lays dying in his hospital bed, he wishes only to touch the moon, a wish granted by God as the moon outside his window comes in closer and closer. The boy exclaims, “I touched it, Mr. Smith! I touched the moon!”, as the camera cuts away, the boy now dead, as Jonathan, in tears, says, “You’re home, son,” (I can’t remember the last time I choked up watching TV…but I did there).
James Troesh (who’s excellent) makes his first appearance on the show as quadriplegic law student Scotty, in One Fresh Batch of Lemonade, an unflinching, unsentimental look at the challenges facing the handicapped. Oliver!‘s Ron Moody plays King Arthur again in the touching A Divine Madness, while scripter Landon perhaps hits close to home in the beautifully-written Catch a Falling Star where Lance Gaylord is effective as a distant movie star estranged from his lonely children. Victor French gets a chance to really emote in Help Wanted: Angel, where he marries no less than Stella Stevens in a sad story about love found too late (Stevens is, as always, terrific).
Dust Child is a hard-hitting look at the prejudices visited upon Vietnamese-American offspring who emigrated to the U.S., while Another Song for Christmas changes tone entirely for a good reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Landon in particular favors moving scenes between grandchildren and loving, sacrificing grandparents, as in a lovely flashback scene here for our Scrooge, Geoffrey Lewis). One Winged Angels finds Jonathan struggling with his own identity after he “breaks the rules” and falls in love with one of his assignments: a lonely single mother with a problem child, while Going Home, Going Home, written by Dan Gordon, is a tender, well- constructed memory piece where Mark gets a second chance to tell his grandfather he loves him (John McLiam is excellent as the grandfather). The Banker and the Bum has a final fade-out worthy of Ikiru, when bum Ned Beatty gets his final wish while laying down to die on a park bench: a warm blanket of falling, out-of-season blossoms from his favorite tree, covers him (again: choked up). And finally, The Right Thing features another great performance from old pro Lew Ayres as a grandfather caught in the middle of a family about to break up (Landon doesn’t shy away from showing the indignities of advanced old age, when Ayres cries after wetting his bed, fearful he’ll finally be thrown out of the house by his daughter-in-law).
Apparently, Landon had as much confidence and faith in his own work as Jonathan had in the Lord, because despite NBC’s worries and critics’ disinterest, Highway to Heaven proved an effective counter-programming move to the bubble-gum competition it faced. Occupying the 8:00pm lead-in spot for NBC’s Wednesday night schedule, Highway to Heaven was followed by the yo-yoing The Facts of Life (in and out of the Nielsen Top Thirty with regularity), the still-born Jason Bateman-starrer It’s Your Move, and the well-regarded (but low-rated) St. Elsewhere.
Highway to Heaven‘s direct competition at 8:00pm over on CBS was weak, with Scott Baio’s lone season of Charles in Charge as a network series (before it came back in syndication two years later) and the John Stamos/Jami Gertz Flashdance rip-off Dreams offering no threat. As for The Fall Guy on ABC, it had the benefit of lead-outs Dynasty (the number one-rated show of the 1984-1985 season), and Hotel (12th for the year)…but that still wasn’t enough to stop Highway to Heaven from besting it in the ratings, knocking the stunt-filled action comedy down from 16th the previous season to 24th this year, while Highway to Heaven landed at a quite impressive 19th for the year. For its upcoming 1985-1986 season, Highway to Heaven would garner an even more impressive showing with its family audiences….
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.
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One thought on “‘Highway to Heaven’ (Season 1): A powerful, spiritual drama for the 80s”
This show: Highway to Heaven was key in helping me get through my deep depression after my wonderful son was killed falling off a bridge at age 45 leaving 2daughters, a wonderful Pit dog, & me alone.
I needed that connection & found it in an unknown place of a TV show.