Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
On a wing and a prayer. When I first spoke Martha Williamson, the respected writer/producer who brought Touched by an Angel to life for nine highly-successful seasons on CBS, her two-hour movie pilot for Signed, Sealed, Delivered was just about to air on Hallmark Channel.
That film — about a motley crew of postal investigators charged with uniting lost mail with its intended recipients — drew red letter for the network and naturally led to the current weekly series airing Sundays at 8:00 PM (ET). That, of course, is a time slot that for Williamson — and millions of TV viewers yearning for uplifting fare — has already been, well, Touched by an Angel.
The show, starring Eric Mabius (Ugly Betty) debuted strongly last Sunday with over 2.1 million viewers, making it, in terms of total viewers, the third most watched show in a very competitive time slot. The premiere episode (reviewed here) featured Valerie Harper in the colorful role of a legendary post office supervisor. In this Sunday’s episode, her character comes to a pivotal crossroad in her life.
Prior to last week’s premiere, I had the opportunity to talk again with Martha about her plans to help bring optimistic and uplifting drama back to television.
JWK: Touched by an Angel left the air in 2003. You’re two-pilot movie for Signed, Sealed, Delivered was a big success and now you’re suddenly back in the series game. How’s it feel?
MARTHA WILLIAMSON: The challenge of a weekly series, of course, is just that there is no time to take a breath. You just keep working. The farther along you get the more shows you’re juggling at one time. When I was doing Touched by an Angel, it was much more an anthology. It was sort of like writing a pilot every week because you didn’t have to grow the relationships of the angels. They weren’t going to be getting married or falling in love or having babies — all the usual twists and turns that you find. So, they were more separate entities, each episode.
Now, we have arcs for our main characters and I’ve never done that before. I think the closest I came was sort of sometimes in sitcom, when I was (writing for) Facts of Life. But I’m enjoying it because it really is an opportunity to start exploring relationships. We don’t just explore the nature of love but what is love about?…We’re building this little family of people. They are in many ways average American heroes. They don’t have exciting jobs that get everyone’s attention. They don’t make a lot of money. They’re not autopsying anything. But they are committed to doing the best work they can and doing a job well done — which is an old-fashioned concept.
JWK: These days in television, you tend to portray your cops, lawyers, doctors and people in politics and/or the media. Not too many shows depict people outside of those professions. Your heroes in this show are working for the post office which is about as unflashy as you can get. You don’t see people who would be described as “ordinary people” on television too much anymore.
MW: The extraordinary ordinary person. That combined with the challenge of bringing the best of the 20th century into the 21st century and finding something good to embrace about the newest technologies — to use them for good and not to destroy somebody but to try to encourage somebody (and) to help other people. Those are good messages. And also we try to be funny. I got started in comedy. I love to use humor in a show which is something we didn’t do quite so much on Touched.
JWK: Your dialogue is very witty.
MW: Thank you, very much. I love that. I think that’s the best time I have in the writing experience of this show is when I start laughing when I write. (It’s fun to) watch people be generous and goodhearted but also smart. I feel sometimes we hear “Hallmark” and we think it’s romantic and it’s Christmas — and to realize that there are messages to get across that have yet to be explored by Hallmark and they are open to it. (This Sunday we have) an Afghanistan episode, for example. That they (Hallmark) were willing so early in the series to start asking some difficult questions was very indicative of the fact that they are really supportive of a show that can be fun and witty and smart and heartfelt without being sappy.
JWK: So, the characters can be smart without being mean.
JWK: Do you think that given the current concerns over the NSA and email privacy, that letter writing delivered via old-fashioned snail mail is experiencing a bit of a comeback — and that your show might be more timely because of that?
MW: I’m certain of it. I find that I have started to receive more handwritten letters. When you see a handwritten envelope addressed to you in your packet of mail when you get your mail out of the mailbox — when you see a personal letter waiting for you — it’s exciting. It touches you. You say “Oh, somebody really thought of me and didn’t just slap a mailing label across an envelope. Somebody wrote something to me.”
I read the letters my parents wrote to me. I have letters from college friends and high school friends that I’ve saved over the years that I read and reread. I’ve discovered that some people now — beyond writing thank you notes — are just writing personal letters again.
And also, oddly enough, the Dead Letter Office notwithstanding, it seems to me that one of the most private things you can do anymore is to put a letter in an envelope and putting a stamp on it. The chances of anybody reading that — or “hacking” into it — are very small. It’s still a huge miracle, when you think about it, that you can put an object into another object, put a stamp on it, drop it in a box and it can show up on the other side of the world.
JWK: What was it like working with Valerie Harper on the first two episodes — particularly amid all the public concern regarding her cancer diagnosis?
MW: It was fabulous! She has always been a good friend and an amazing, amazing professional. She did at least two episodes on Touched…I know that when we brought her on Touched by an Angel…she came on to the set and was the shining example of professionalism and positivity. I knew that’s exactly how we wanted to start (this new) series. I always wanted her to (play) the first supervisor on (Signed, Sealed, Delivered). She embraced that idea. She and Tony (her husband) both embraced the idea that this could also be used as an opportunity to encourage a lot of people to do something good. She said “I want to do something good with this.” Just to see her there, giving her all and not just giving her all but saying things that matter — protect your heart, life is beautiful, don’t waste a minute of it. Coming from Valerie Harper, standing there dressed as Glinda the Good Witch of the North (in this Sunday’s episode), you can’t ignore it. That’s an indelible image…People will lean in and listen to that and it will resonate in a way that it might not coming from another actor right now. Coming from Valerie Harper, it has additional gravitas.
JWK: It’s good to hear and see that she’s doing well.
MW: Oh, she’s doing great! She just presses on. The treatment that she’s receiving has been working and it has even encouraged and allowed other people with the same illness to seek out similar treatment. It has given people a lot of hope. Even if they don’t have what she has, it is encouraging people to say “Listen, I can’t give up! I need to keep looking for new treatment and new ways to look at this and find things to do with my life and NOT GIVE UP!”
Valerie is the shining example of living until you don’t live anymore.
JWK: You also have other guest stars lined up, including, I understand, Della Reese, Valerie Bertinelli, Marilu Henner, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett.
MW: Oh, yeah. They’re fabulous people. Wonderful. I mean we really love the idea of television icons — just start at the top. Each one of them are bringing something really special.
JWK: How about the regular cast? On screen, it seems like they’re gelling nicely together.
MW: Oh, they are! They gelled together probably the first week of the pilot — maybe even before that. We all had dinner the night before we started shooting the pilot and it was so obvious sitting at the end of that table looking at all the people involved in the show — you know, the director, the actors — they just connected. We worked very, very hard in the casting process to find the right chemistry. It took a while but it was worth it. I can’t imagine anyone else in those roles.
JWK: So, it’s a happy set?
MW: Oh, a very happy set! Oh, my goodness! And collaborative! They work so hard to make sure that everything they do is in sync with who these characters are and who they’re becoming and what they’re starting to mean to each other. They really are doing great, great work.
JWK: Speaking at the Hallmark upfront presentation, you said that you feel that the ten years you took off to be with your family and raise your kids made you a better and producer today.
MW: It was very good for my family, for me to put them absolutely, unquestionably first in everything I did. It was good for me to get my priorities straight. It’s very easy when you’re doing a television show to have priorities get skewed and very quickly. You’re under such pressure and such a time crunch. Everything suddenly becomes more important — getting that shot, making deadline, coming in on time and under budget, getting that actor on the plane, getting a script rewritten before they shoot it at eight o’clock in the morning. All those things. It’s a machine that never stops turning. You’re always one step ahead.
So, to be able to wake up in the morning and say “What do I want to do? What does my family need?” I was able to get more involved with my church. Instead of writing television episodes, I was writing the children’s sermon and delivering it on Sunday mornings…And not only that. I got back to some of my old variety roots (as a writer for The Carol Burnett Show) and wrote some musicals. I did a one-woman show. I did special presentations for the Rotary Club in Pasadena. I just had fun again. By having fun and realizing that I wasn’t waiting for network notes to come through, I could just write without any restrictions. It was fun.
I also learned, as a parent, to be far more patient and truly listen to what’s going on. It’s so easy to see people in a show as pieces on a chessboard because you’re desperately trying to get from one end of the board to the other side. You just say “Well, we’ll put these folks here and these folks there and move this around and make this happen.” Because the goal is always to get the show made.
As a parent, the goal is not to get to the other end. It’s just simply to protect the children that you’re responsible for — and protect their hearts — and, wherever they’re headed, to get (them) there safely. That involves patience, time and willingness to listen (of the kind that), when I was under the crush of television production, I didn’t always have. I learned to stop and take a deep breath and say “What’s really happening here? How are people’s hearts involved? What’s really going on in this cameraman’s life? How tired is this actor right now? They’re different things that I had to remind myself of again.
JWK: Has stepping back from the business also made you a better writer?
Oh, sure…It’s just simply getting older and becoming more mature. I was the executive producer of Touched by an Angel
and Promised Land
at the same time. Doing two shows simultaneously also creates a tremendous strain. Talk about being insulated, you start to just try to make it to the next day and creativity starts to lag.
Like Valerie says, “Life is beautiful. Look around. Don’t take anything for granted.” So, I was able to do those things again — to read books to the children in my children’s kindergarten or to help put makeup on the angels in the Christmas pageant. I didn’t miss those things and I will always be grateful — and maybe I took a gamble by saying “I might never get back into show business after I step away for so long.” But, once I had stepped away, I realized this is not what life is about. The work that I do, I am grateful to do and honored and privileged to do, but I do it for my family and, if you don’t have a family, then what does it mean?
JWK: People think of the Hallmark Channel as just appealing to women but you say that you’ve found that Signed, Sealed, Delivered also appeals to men who like its presentation of the lead character Oliver (Eric Mabius) as an ordinary guy trying to do the right thing. DO you find that it’s not only children who need role models? That adults — both men and women — are also are attracted to positive examples of how to approach life?
MW: Yes, that’s exactly right.
I watched Grey’s Anatomy the other night and there was a fabulous moral in it where Derek was basically going to leave one of his colleagues in the dust because he had a better offer. And they called him on it and said “You feel bad about because you’re a good person and you know it’s wrong, because you’re a good person and you know you’re doing the wrong thing.” I thought if that isn’t exactly what we’re trying to do! Not to just say you need to be a good person — but, better, find the good that you already have in yourself and don’t deny that, don’t let the world talk you out of the good things because it’s not hip or cool. Sooner or later, you have to live with yourself.
I think I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to go back and…perhaps do some of the things that I’d like to have done better a little better now.
JWK: Where you do see the characters on Signed, Sealed, Delivered going? There’s obviously some romantic attraction between Oliver and Shane (Kristin Booth) as well as between fellow team members Norman (Geoff Gustafson and Rita (Crystal Lowe).
MW: Yes, I think that the romantic chemistry between these two couples will take us a long way. I think what’s very interesting is that Oliver is a good man who has been left behind by his wife. I like to explore the idea that here’s a man who is a man of faith. He goes to church, he sings in the choir and that doesn’t make him immune from sad things that happen. It’s not what happens but how you deal with it and how you face it. He’s trying very hard to do the right thing.
JWK: How long do you see this show going? Is this another nine-season show, like Touched by an Angel?
MW: You know, it’s funny because I remember Della Reese said with Touched that she knew from the very beginning it was going to go for at least nine years and that’s exactly what happened. I see this show (having) absolutely as many stories as there are letters at the Dead Letter Office. And Hallmark seems to be very, very excited about its future.
Who knows? (laughs) This show could go longer than the Post Office at this point. I hope not because it’s a unique American institution that I hope we can, in some way, support.
JWK: Has the Post Office been supportive of this show?
MW: We’ve spoken with people with the Post Office and they absolutely recognize that we are out to send out a good message. They’ve been there to answer questions for us. Of course, they can’t formally be involved but they’ve been very, very encouraging.
JWK: I do find the off-beat Post Office premise to be fascinating in that this isn’t just another cop or hospital drama. You have to figure out stories that pertain to the unique premise.
MW: It is harder than it looks — particularly now. If this show had taken place in the fifties, sixties, eighties or nineties, it would be much easier show to write but now that we have all these technological opportunities to Google, Skype and whatever, it’s harder to keep the tension going in the plot. That’s why we realize it’s the personal that…really count.
JWK: Yeah. I guess you have to make it plausible that people wouldn’t have just emailed their messages.
MW: That’s right. That’s why often times were doing things where objects have been put in the envelope because then you couldn’t have sent if over the internet. You have a key or a button or something like that.
JWK: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Signed, Sealed, Delivered?
MW: Thank you. With Beliefnet I think the important message, of course, is that (this show) is being written by somebody who is a person of faith. I try very hard. I think we had one opportunity to write about angels and I took it very, very seriously. I always tried to be as Biblically sound as I could when we were doing Touched. This is a different show but the messages of faith and hope and doing the right thing and just being kind are still there. I’m actually writing an episode right now where Oliver is trying to explain his faith to Shane who is skeptical. There will be more opportunities for that as well and I am grateful to Hallmark for allowing me to explore those.
JWK: I think I’m supposed to interview Eric Mabius at some point.
MW: What a lovely man. He’s really so much more like Oliver than I would have imagined. He really is a gentleman and he is a family man. He really does embrace the simpler life. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s so perfect for the role. He really is also a great leader on the set. He really does set the tone.
JWK: The onscreen rapport between him and Kristin Booth (Shane) reminds me a little bit of the screen chemistry between Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist had on Remington Steele. While not exactly the same, it has a similar sophistication and humor.
MW: Oh, yeah! Thank you. That’s a great honor!…He could be very, very sexy and never cross a line. As a matter of fact, I think that’s what makes things far more intriguing and charming. I love that…It’s a lot more challenging to write, I’ll tell you that.
JWK: As I’ve said, I think this show’s going to be a hit and that the increasing ratings of Hallmark in general will, in the end, pull even the broadcast networks away from their obsession with edginess back in your direction.
MW: That is a bold statement, John! ‘m gonna hold you to it!
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11