On the rare occasion when television addresses serious subjects, it usually plays it safe, using well-tested themes to draw the largest possible audience. That's not the case on the season premiere of CBS's Touched by an Angel. The subject is slavery in the Sudan. According to estimates from several human-rights groups, tens of thousands of children and adults have been forcibly taken from their homes in the southern region of the country (these are primarily Christians and animists) and brought to the north by suspected members of the northern government militia known as the Popular Defense Force (who are Muslims). This civil war and a related famine have killed more than 2 million people since the mid-1980s and produced 4.5 million refugees. News reports have related how a small number of those kidnapped and held as slaves have been redeemed for $50 each. More than 5,000 slaves have been set free through this process since 1995, but many more remain. Former Sudanese slaves appear on the television show. At a packed Capitol Hill news conference and screening of the season premiere, several members of Congress announced a bipartisan and bicameral effort to increase pressure to end human-rights abuses in the region. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who co-authored the Sudan Peace Act and has backed humanitarian aid to the southern Sudanese, was an adviser on the television episode. On a June trip to the Sudan, Sen. Brownback found the "Sudanese people are victims of extreme human-rights abuses during the course of this civil war. Where else in the world has a people been subjected, simultaneously, to all of these crimes against humanity, including genocide, continuous civilian bombing, government-manufactured famine, forced religious conversions and slavery?" According to the American Anti-Slavery Group, the practice exists in some form from India to the Dominican Republic, with an estimated 200 million people worldwide subject to some sort of bondage. In a brilliant fusion of facts, creative writing, and acting, Angel executive producer Martha Williamson has written a script that revolves around a U.S. senator, credibly played by Lindsay Crouse, and her family. (For fans of the Broadway theater, Ms. Crouse is the daughter of the great librettist Russell Crouse.) The senator is torn when she discovers that her young son has taken up the cause of the slaves as a school project, but her biggest campaign contributor doesn't want her involved, because he is getting gum material from the Sudan which he uses in his candy company. It is a classic Washington dilemma. It didn't hurt the turnout and press interest that one of the "angels," actress Roma Downey, who plays "Monica," attended the screening. But there is something special about this show, now entering its sixth season and consistently in the ratings top 10. Touched by an Angel has touched something deep in the American psyche. It is a hunger for something good after a decades-long long period of bad. While the rest of television is immersed in sex and sleaze, Touched by an Angel continues to prove that a show committed to virtue that encourages people to seek higher and better things cannot only survive in the vast video wasteland but prevail. Even Paxnet chairman Bud Paxson has sold his "family values" network to NBC, which will officially take it over in 2004 and show reruns of some of its family-unfriendly shows. But Touched by an Angelremains uncompromising and uncompromised. At a time when presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is urging retrenchment and disengagement from the world unless "vital" U.S. interests are at stake, the "For Such a Time as This" premiere episode of Touched by an Angel suggests that helping fellow human beings where and when we can is a vital interest, because to whom much is given, much is also required.
© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate