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TV REVIEW : 'In Search of Angels' Shows Only a Halo of Substance

August 11, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Now we're in the midst of an angel movement," says Sophy Burnham, author of the nonfiction bestsellers "A Book of Angels" and "Angel Letters." No kidding: That light flapping you hear in the air is the sound of cash being counted.

Tonight's "In Search of Angels" on KCET-TV Channel 28 is the second prime-time special in three months to address the phenomenon, following on the wing-tipped heels of NBC's "Angels" in May.

The latter major-network special was full of average citizens' tales of real-life encounters with spooky harbingers of benevolence. PBS takes a somewhat different tack, ditching the supernatural anecdotes, substituting a faintly patronizing tone for credulousness and focusing more on angels as a historical-artistic motif. Yet it's ultimately about as thin a treatment of an interesting subject as the more populist show.

Where "In Search of Angels" feels thorough in its search is in recounting cherubim and seraphim as favored subjects for paintings and movies. Clips ranging from fantasy-angel comedies--such as "Forever Darling" and "Heaven Can Wait" (both featuring James Mason as heaven's emissary!)--to the surprisingly theologically correct "Wings of Desire" and "Faraway, So Close" are glimpsed, as is a wealth of great medieval art.

Unfortunately, as the hour moves into the actual beliefs that billions hold dear, only one actual religious authority, a rabbi, is briefly interviewed, leaving other faiths unrepresented. The narration (read rather flatly by Debra Winger) delves all too easily into ecumenical over-generalizations: We're told that, although only the soul is believed by many to enter heaven, "in Christianity, both the body and soul of Mary, escorted by legions of angels, were assumed into paradise, where she was crowned the queen of heaven"--an assertion that will come as a great surprise to hundreds of millions of Protestants.

What we do get in the place of religious leaders is a good deal of speculation from New Age-oriented author Burnham and, for reasons not explained, Rickie Lee Jones, who, as a theologian, remains a great singer-songwriter.

* "In Search of Angels" airs at 7:30 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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