Angels are embedded deeply in Mormon theology; they accompanied the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and were present when Jesus was born. They are both joyous and forceful in declaring truth. In both religion and literature, they are our guides and protectors, standing with us through our mortal journeys. The TV series, Angel from Hell premiered this week, extending what has been a long string of angel depictions in popular culture, Touched by an Angel, Angels in America, and Michael. Angel from Hell, however, may be the first series where the angel has more problems than those she serves.
Amy (Jane Lynch) is the angel sent to watch over Allison Fuller (Maggie Lawson), a dermatologist with a frenetic lifestyle forever in search of the optimal life. In the vein of shows such as The Book of Daniel, where the Jesus figure (Aidan Quinn) is an Episcopal priest hooked on prescription drugs, and Joan of Arcadia, where God can be anyone around us, and the more recent Hand of God, where the main character is encouraged by God to pursue vigilante justice, Angel from Hell depicts a heavenly being that’s the typical person you’d meet on the street. All three shows insist that God or angels are entities we should identify with. Those in denominational religion are too distant, and difficult to relate to.
What makes Angel from Hell so amusing, if not peculiar, is that many of her values fall below Allison’s, her assigned mortal. Yes, Allison is uptight and needs “a quirky friend,” but Angel Amy smokes and hangs out in bars. But, she’s got Allison’s back in terms of the big picture. She stands for honesty, persistence, and bombards her with questions designed to elevate her maturity. She exhorts “lighten up,” repetitively, and tells Allison: “What is your sole purpose is to be happy, and I’m the one to take you on that journey.” “What?” Allison responds incredulously. “I’m your guardian angel.”
Amy is a secular version of “angel.” She’s aggressive with a machine-gun speaking style. The show is likely aimed at the expanding group the “Unaffiliateds,” that believe in God, but are not in the rosters of an organized church. The show equates more with friendship, than with religious concepts of angels. To the show’s credit, it succeeds in slowing us down to appreciate the important things. It is certainly “religious lite,” with no reference to church attendance, prayer, or significant rituals.
I started to enjoy it when I decided it was a comedy, and not a religious show. At that level, Allison is fun to watch as someone out of the blue challenges her choices in life. Nothing heavy here, but audiences may give it a try for a season. Will Amy end up saying anything of real value? It’s probably too early to tell.
Then there is the “pop culture leap” phenomenon. Some may watch and become intrigued by the angel idea, and seek out institutions for deeper understanding. Touched by an Angel was certainly successful in this way. Finally, there is the question that there might really be angels like Amy. That’s a tougher one for Latter-day Saints. We expect something more sacred, and most are uneasy with the topic handled in such a light, off-handed way. We’ll no doubt preserve our concept of angels within the walls of our churches. But, for Millenials, cultural categories are breaking down, and in the same way that news is now entertainment, angels are now “quirky friends.”
To read about the LDS concept of “Angels,” see:
Paintings of Angels common in Mormon museums and buildings.