Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

“A letter can restore a relationship or change the world. Half of the New Testament is made up of letters, mostly from Paul, but also from Peter, James, John and Jude. Letters are forever.” – Signed, Sealed, Delivered creator Martha Williamson (from her website)

Special Delivery: Signed, Sealed Delivered for Christmas premieres tonight (9/23) @ 9:00 PM ET on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.

Synopsis (from the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries website):  With a duty to deliver every last letter before Christmas, the beloved quartet of post office detectives—Oliver (Eric Mabius), Shane (Kristin Booth), Rita (Crystal Lowe) and Norman (Geoff Gustafson)—are working around the clock to redirect Santa’s mail just as Oliver runs into his former Sunday school teacher (Marion Ross). When they receive an emotional last-minute plea not meant for Saint Nick, but instead written to God, they must delay their own travel plans to make sure one little girl doesn’t lose her Christmas joy—something Oliver and Shane are also struggling to find as they each face painful holiday memories. With a little guidance from a mysterious post office volunteer, Jordan (Rob Estes), the Postables are more surprised than anyone to discover they’ve been a part of more than one miracle on this Christmas Eve.

Mini-Review: I’ve been a fan of Martha Williamson’s work ever since the nineties when she was the creative force behind Touched by an Angel — a show that was underrated by critics but enthusiastically embraced by the mass audience.  After that series wrapped, she took a decade-long break to rear her family. That is until a year or so ago when her inspirational postal detective series Signed, Sealed, Delivered debuted to strong ratings on Hallmark Channel.

As my review at the time indicated, I thought the show, focusing on a team of kind heroes whose chief motivation was helping people, was a breath of fresh air in a TV environment that, in the years since Touched ended, has become cluttered self-centered protagonists with a knack for the snarky (and supposedly oh-so-clever) putdowns of people who didn’t quite agree with them.  Good people actually can be interesting and they’re certainly more pleasant to spend time with after a hard week’s work than their nastier counterparts.

After the success of the original Signed movie, Hallmark ordered it up as a weekly series which aired Sundays at 8:00 PM ET (the old Touched by an Angel slot). To my mind, the show could have –and should have — run for several years as a weekly franchise. But, alas, the powers that be at Hallmark decided that, in its second season, the show would air as a series of four two-hour movies that would serve as one of the pillars of the recently rebranded Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (fka The Hallmark Movie Channel).

While I still wish we could enjoy the series on a weekly basis, I’m pleased to report that the charm of the show and its quirky characters have survived being shipped off to the sister channel intact. You’ll still root for the foursome as they connect so-called “dead letters” with their intended recipients (with the letters, of course, simultaneously arriving but, in a larger sense, right on time). At the same time, the regular characters (“Postables” as Norman refers to them) are still poignantly dealing with their personal issues. For example, Oliver’s pining for the wife who left him while also coming to grips with his growing feelings for Shane still delivers a quiet lump in the throat.

As for tonight’s yuletide theme, unlike the Christmas episodes of nearly all broadcast network shows, it actually dares to touch on the real meaning of Christmas — while still effectively delivering a broad-based story rooted in universal human emotions. There’s also a nice nod to Touched by an Angel that fans are likely to enjoy. So, even though I truly wish Signed was still delivering weekly episodes, a series of movies is better than no Signed at all.  Signed, Sealed, Delivered at Christmas is Highly Recommended.


Martha WilliamsonPhoto from Martha Williamson’s Facebook page

Martha Williamson on the new season of Signed, Sealed, Delivered

JWK: Before we start, I understand that your good friend Valerie Harper,  who I spoke with prior to her guest starring on two Signed episodes, is still active and doing well despite her much-reported cancer diagnosis. 

MARTHA WILLIAMSON: She’s doing very well! She’s amazing!…I think she was in New York. She got off the plane yesterday afternoon and came directly to the Pepperdine screening in Malibu. I don’t know how she did it! I was exhausted. She’s just indefatigable! She came to see this episode! She’s not even in this episode! She loves the show so much and she’s such a big supporter. And then Marion Ross, who is in the episode, came too.

JWK: Marion Ross from Happy Days!

MW:  Yeah, she came and we did sort of a little panel about it with this auditorium full of students from Pepperdine. They were tweeting away and their tweets and their Facebook posts came up on the screen after the show was over and we read them. It was so gratifying to see that a young audience (would appreciate it). One young guy said “This is at the top of my favorite Christmas movie list!” And I went “Whoa!”…It was just great! So sweet to see.

JWK: Do you find that young audiences are responding to the series?

MW:  I really have found that the younger audience finds it interesting and fun to see the play between Norman and Rita and Oliver and Shane. They like the repartee. They like the back and forth. It’s fun and it’s sort of a relief from everything else.

JWK: Not to put words in your mouth but do you think even younger audiences are getting tired of relentlessly “edgy” TV programming?

MW:  I’ll tell you something. My daughter who is almost 13 has watched (this film) about four or five times and has practically memorized all the lines…She loves it. We’re going to be screening it Sunday for our church. We screened the pilot for our church and it was packed. We had six-year-old kids and we had a 96-year-old woman. We had everybody. That’s always been the goal, John, is to provide family entertainment that everybody can sit down and watch together and enjoy.  So far, so good.

JWK: How would you describe the plot and theme of this Christmas episode for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries?

MW:  Well, first of all, it’s a big deal to have Hallmark move us over to the cornerstone as they rebrand the Movies & Mysteries channel. I think it’s a big vote of confidence that they really like our show and have such (confidence in it). They were so happy with the Christmas movie. It was very gratifying to me because I had said to them “You want a Christmas movie? Hold on! I’m gonna do a movie about Christmas!”

JWK: The film definitely has a direct and unflinching  faith theme.

MW:  It does. It’s a movie that actually celebrates Christmas and people really loved it and Hallmark stood right behind it. I was really gratified with that. We’ve lost the meaning of Christmas. We say that again and again. Everybody talks about it. We tend to dilute the meaning of Christmas (with phrases like) “Christmas is about love and giving and it’s not about commercialism.” Well, it’s more than that. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. People don’t do that as much anymore.

JWK: Especially on television.

MW:  Yeah…It was just really nice to have the opportunity to sit back and have a chance to talk about what (Christmas) really means and what it’s about.

JWK: You, of course, did several Christmas episodes on Touched by an Angel.

MW:  We made a Christmas episode every single year on Touched. And, of course, I am the Touched by an Angel lady so you can pretty much expect something supernatural to happen in our Christmas movie. I played it as low key as I could. It certainly complements every Christmas message we ever shared on Touched but…it needs to be accessible to a brand-new audience.

JWK: Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

MW:  It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s always been my favorite. Or the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, the old, old one in black and white. It was done by the British, I think. It was absolutely brilliant and he’s amazing in it.

JWK: I noticed that the Rob Estes character in Signed, Sealed, Delivered for Christmas is named Marley — which, I guess, is a sort of tip of the hat to Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

MW:  I knew you would get that! You’re the first person to bring that up!…It’s a little wink.

JWK: You know, I love this movie but I kind of miss the idea of the weekly show. What are your thoughts on transitioning from a weekly one-hour series to a series of two-hour movies for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries?

MW:  A lot of people were sad at first it that wasn’t returning as a (weekly) series but I am actually very happy with the way it’s going to be. It gives us an opportunity, as we do in the Christmas movie, to probe more deeply into the characters and explore the relationships between them at one time. I think, particularly since we have these relationships, these sexual tensions (and) romantic chemistry going on between Norman and Rita and Oliver and Shane, how long can you keep that going over a season without the audience getting frustrated? I think we can jumpstart a lot of that by (telling stories) two hours at a time.

JWK: Including this one, you’re doing four movie this season, right?

MW:  That’s right…I don’t know all the details but it’s my understanding that if  we had come back as a weekly series we would have had to wait almost a year…I love that we’re back much sooner. Our next movie will probably air in the summertime if not earlier.

JWK: It’s weird that you would to wait a whole year to return. That’s not the way it used to be in television but it seems to be increasingly the case with shows like Mad Men and what have you going on some extremely long hiatuses.

MW:  I think it’s the way of television now. Of course, Hallmark is new to series and they’ve kind of established this revolving door of series. They’ll have one and then they’ll have another and then they’ll have another. So, our turn wouldn’t come up again for a while.

JWK: How does the two-hour, four episode or so a season format affect the pacing of your writing? Does it change the way you tell the stories?

MW:  Yes. That’s a great question. It changes the pacing I think in that…we have to end and resolve (our stories) and not leave things until next week. The other thing is, because it’s a mystery — every letter is inherently a mystery — we want to emphasize a little bit more of  the twists and turns and surprises of the “A” story of whatever dead letter they’ve discovered and are in the process of delivering.

It also means that anybody that might stumble on the show — you know, four months from now — who hasn’t been following the series, you want to bring them up to date and make sure that they get the general franchise without feeling repetitious (to the fans). We have to find new ways to (show) who these people are and what their relationships are.

JWK: The cast has a lot chemistry.

These actors are so fabulous. I was thinking about this the other day. There’s some kind of an ad that says “A Christmas gift from Martha Williamson!”…I thought my Christmas gift has been these actors. They are amazing! They are so easy and fun to write for. You can throw anything at them. They never blink and they really turn it into something lovely. That last act (in Signed, Sealed, Delivered for Christmas), we go halfway through that act before anybody says a word. Eric Mabius  carries that last act so beautifully in hanging the tree and walking down the street. I cry every time I watch this guy walk through the snow by himself. The (whole cast) is terrific. They have great chemistry.

JWK: So, what’s ahead for these characters — that you can reveal?

MW:  Before the Christmas movie (at the end of last season), we left Oliver and Shane in the rain as Oliver finally decided to send the letter to his wife. Not knowing at that time if we were coming back at all, we had to kind of do the Christmas movie and figure out how we would resolve that if we needed to. How could we still keep it a question mark if we came back. So, I think we walked that line carefully. I think the audience will definitely get their money’s worth between Oliver and Shane. And, yet, we’ve got a leftover wife hanging out in Paris that we have to deal with.

JWK: At some point, are we going to meet Oliver’s wife?

MW:  Yes, we are.

JWK: How soon?

MW:  (laughs) I can’t tell you that! I can’t give it all away!

JWK: Sunday’s film has Marion Ross and Rob Estes as guest stars. Do you have anyone lined up for the three upcoming films?

MW:  Not yet. I am actually writing the upcoming episode now. It’s a very challenging episode. You talk about the rythms of the show. I find that we’re going back to the original premise of the series (which is) that they don’t find the letters that need to be delivered. The letters come to them. So, more often than not, the letter will come at a time when something similar is going on in the lives of our Postables — so there’s action that mirrors the A story and the B story and there are a lot of parallel situations.

JWK: What’s ahead for you and your production company?

MW:  I’m going to be so busy making these movies. I can absolutely tell you that I’m busier than I’ve been in ten years. I never thought that I’d take ten years off and then come back and be so busy that I’d have to schedule dinners with my family again.

JWK: Do you feel the pendulum has started to swing back a bit toward the kinder sort of television that you’re so well known for? I feel like I’ve noticed the beginnings of such a shift.

MW:  I think you’re right. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s hard to articulate. It’s not that things are getting softer but they’re a little less snarky, a little less hateful. I think people are getting worn out from the ugliness. With what’s going on in the news, it’s been a hard year on our spirits and I don’t think we automatically turn on the TV and say “Boy, do I want more bad news!”

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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