From 'Touched by an Angel' to 'Lucifer': TV's Heavenly Creatures Are Evolving

supernatural -shadowhunters - lucifer - Split - H - 2016
The CW; Freeform; Fox

Angels are a tricky bunch. They live among us, fearing to tread where fools just rushed in. They can sit on your shoulder and touch you. And let’s be honest … it’s difficult to know how to talk to them. Plus, rumor has it they’re always watching us. Which is ironic considering how much we watch them.

Angelic characters are as much of a primetime trope as the wacky neighbor or the wisecracking best friend. From Michael Landon’s soul-saving Jonathan on the 1980s drama Highway to Heaven to Roma Downey’s spiritual guide Monica on Touched by an Angel to the goofy denizens of the afterlife in NBC’s new comedy The Good Place, heaven seems to have been on Earth (or, at least, primetime) for ages. However, it seems like they’ve gone from being divine messengers of God to bitter, petulant teenagers.

“We all grew up with the idea that angels are God’s children looking down on us,” Todd Slavkin, executive producer on Freeform’s Shadowhunters, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Now we’re taking that archetype and turning it on its head. Now, God’s children aren’t all that cherubic. Their goals and motives are not in line at all with what we grew up with.”

Adds fellow Shadowhunters EP Darren Swimmer, who also worked with Slavkin on Syfy’s evil angel drama Dominion, “What’s interesting is that throughout the history of angels on TV, they’ve always remained somewhat elusive and ineffable. They’re not easy characters to pin down. And since you didn’t used to have darker angels on television, so people tend to want to gravitate to edgier material because it’s something different.”

Shadowhunters follows a band of angel/human hybrids who struggle to put a stake through their own inner demons while hunting down some actual demons. Throughout its 12 seasons, The CW’s Supernatural has been like a Who’s Who of religious deities gone rogue. The first season of AMC’s Preacher featured a pair of English angels who thought nothing of hacking their prey to bits. Then there’s Fox’s Lucifer, a show featuring the most notorious Biblical antihero of all time as a sympathetic figure.

However, this trend isn’t necessarily proof that primetime has literally gone to hell. Rather, it’s an indication that a new generation of TV viewers looks at angels in a much different way than the parents who made them go to Sunday School.

“I grew up on books like Sandman and Lucifer,” says Lucifer executive producer Joe Henderson. “What happened at that time was a lot of books and comics were exploring the darker side of angels. They weren’t just handsome dudes walking around helping people week to week. You started to see them more as people with issues like we all have, only blown up to the nth degree.”

He says the Lucifer writers’ room is a mix of “people of faith, atheists and agnostics. What’s interesting is I find our atheists have a tendency to pitch more of our faith-based stories.” For instance, a recent writer debate about whether the loss of a loved one inspires or destroys one’s faith ended up as the theme for an episode. And even though present-day TV angels may not be particularly warm and cuddly, Henderson explains their presence provides “more hope in believing angels exist at all.”

As a lifelong Catholic who grew up attending CCD classes every Wednesday, he isn’t exactly a devil. That’s why even though his main character is a nasty fallen angel, Henderson figures his show is actually very pro-deity because in Lucifer, there’s no doubt God exists. Not everyone sees it that way, though. Shortly before Lucifer premiered last year, the faith-based organization One Million Moms tried to organize a protest against the show.

Fox didn’t back down, however, in large part because the show depicted Satan far differently than what is taught in Sunday School. Lucifer and God, explains Lucifer executive producer Ildy Modrovich, are “just another dysfunctional family that has some serious daddy issues. Our Lucifer is hurt. He wants to be loved. We deal with plenty of dark times, which appeals to many viewers’ darker sensibility, but because we try to be light and charming in tone, we also provide some hope.”

This trend toward dark angels has not gone unnoticed by Downey. She not only played one of God’s messengers throughout the ‘90s, she and husband Mark Burnett have also launched a faith-based production company called LightWorkers Media. She completely understands the notion of the battle between Dark and Light. She just thinks that television currently seems more fascinated with spreading darkness because of a mistaken notion that that’s what viewers want.

“My mantra is that it’s much better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” she explains. “Touched by an Angel has a sweetness to it because our angels weren’t just angels. They were angels on a mission, messengers of hope. There was never an episode that didn’t have one simple message: There is a God and he loves you. I just wish we had a show like that now.”

The way she sees it, the most overused term in the TV industry is “edgy.” As in they want to grab viewers by appealing to their darker desires. Downey figures “the assumption is that’s what the audience wants,” but she quickly adds that “there is a large appetite for stories with heart so we’re pushing to create our own.”

However, just because hellish angels are a popular thing right now, that doesn’t necessarily mean their shows glorify the bad guys. Instead, according to Supernatural executive producer Andrew Dabb, they’re making the unbelievable seem relatable. He says the show’s writers “just want to subvert that traditional thinking about angels, not by treating them as being all good or all bad. They are individuals who grow over time.”

Dabb points out that the Supernatural writing staff represents a number of religions, which provides many different ideas about the nature of angels. That means the series draws from familiar sources like “the Old Testament, gnostic gospels, that sort of thing.” The show has featured such well-known deities as Gabriel, Balthazar and Uriel and at one point, even had a storyline featuring throngs of upset angels falling to Earth.

“We’ve always expected negative feedback to our version of angels, but that hasn’t happened at all,” adds fellow Supernatural executive producer Robert Singer. “There was no groundswell of people being offended, and I think it’s because we have always tried to base every one of these angels in some sort of Biblical context. Our approach is we don’t want to use the same cookie cutter for our angels. Once our angels fell from Heaven, some were pissed off and didn’t like it. So that’s great fodder for us.”

Often, their angels are homicidal monsters but on the plus side, Supernatural is still a show with hope and faith at its core. That was part of the inspiration for the character of Castiel (Misha Collins), a trench coat-wearing messenger of God who was first introduced in season four.

“He opened a new frontier for our show,” Dabb says of the character. “As dark as we’ve gone with him – and we’ve gone pretty dark – there’s always been a real noble goodness inside of him pushes him back to more traditional Touched by an Angel/Highway to Heaven characters. To completely ignore that is like ignoring a fundamental part of our lives.”

Adds Modrovich: “Faith isn’t just a black and white thing. You can be a good person and still slip up and make mistakes. Christianity is about forgiveness and at the heart of that is redemption. If God is as benevolent as we think, then he welcomes all kinds of angels and gives them all the opportunity to be good.”

That’s something even TV’s ultimate angel – Downey – can appreciate. While she is turned off by the negativity this new breed of angels represents, “as long there is a redemptive element to their story, that’s a good thing.” Meanwhile, just like old-fashioned angels who brought nothing but hope and light, Downey is convinced primetime ready to see the resurrection of angels as role models.

“Believe me, I’m working on it,” she explains. “Angels are the reminder of goodness And of the people I hear from who are lost or feeling discouraged or  unhappy, I’ve never met someone who really enjoyed sitting down in dark. I’ve never met anybody who won’t go to the light when they see it. So there’s always hope.”