PREMIERING IN SEPTEMBER 1994, Touched by an Angel, CBS's hour-long drama starring Roma Downey and Delia Reese as heavenly creatures sent by God to minister to aching human souls, was dismissed by critics as the dumbest show of the season, a lazy knockoff of Highway to Heaven that would soon be called home to the heavenly fold. But here it is, February '96, and not only has the show survived in its Saturday 9 p.m. (ET) slot, but lately it has started to rise up that golden ladder called the Nielsen ratings. Two weeks ago the series, which by this time last season averaged a No. 81 ranking, reached as high as No. 14.

One reason suggested for Angel's new strength is that it offers a green pasture of repose to viewers sick of the urbane, coffee-drinking Friends and its 127 youth-oriented clones. You can bet there'll never be a crossover Angel episode pitting Downey, a limpid Irish beauty, against the down-to-earth Reese in a debate over whether Marcel the monkey has a soul. Angel, in which the gals insinuate themselves into the lives of troubled families by assuming such guises as decorator, limo driver and vet, doesn't have a cynical thought in its cloud-puff brain.

These angels seem to have extensive grief-therapy training. Reese, strolling through a cemetery, observes that such suffering "is something you should go through, not something you should hold on to." Downey urges a boy, angry at his mother's death, to write a letter to God. There's also an angel of death, Andrew, who cheerfully but firmly readies the dying for that low-swinging chariot. He's like a flight attendant explaining takeoff.

What makes this peculiar show work is the sincerity radiating through the silliness. On one recent episode, an old man on his deathbed was given a momentary reprieve so he could crawl downstairs and bring together his disputatious children by banging out one last tune on the old piano. But then he stood up and rasped out a genuinely touching speech, telling them what a privilege it had been to be their father. And no one does angelic sweetness better than Downey. Even when she speaks industrial-strength psychobabble ("You've been caught in this family cycle of escape and hate!"), her beautiful lilt transforms the words into music. Who needs a harp?

ABC (Fri, March 1, 9:30 p.m. ET)

B+

This live-action fantasy aimed at kids premieres in prime time, then moves the next day to its Saturday slot at 10 a.m. Three teenage space cadets, sent out to retrieve a disabled satellite, accidentally blast into a far corner of the cosmos. It's the sort of show in which a female alien with the complexion of a spotted toad explains to the stalwart youngsters the intricacies of something called the sphere of interception. The computer-animated space hardware is fun. That's all I care about.

TNT (Sun., March 3, 8 p.m. ET)

C+

John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) directs a two-night, 4-hour epic about the infamous Confederate prison camp, where almost 13,000 Union soldiers died of exposure, starvation and disease. The story, one of potentially overwhelming power, merely sprawls. One minute it's about a breakout; then it's about Captain Wirz, the barbarian who ran the place; then it's about riots. This is gruel, not history.

ABC (Sun., March 3, 9 p.m. ET)

B

The title sounds like a painkiller but is in fact the name of a Nebraska ranch heiress (Farrah Fawcett) longing for the son she gave up for adoption. She's also tangled up with two lovers, Peter Coyote and Powers Boothe, and a mystery involving her grandfather (Rod Steiger, largely recumbent) and the Lakota Indians. Beyond that, there's no way to explain adequately the strange pleasures of this inane movie, which lopes along for 2 hours like a buffalo tripping in a field of poppies.

>TUBE: Farrah Fawcett makes hay as a ranch heiress in Dalva; Hypernauts is kiddie sci-fi with cool gizmos

SCREEN: Adam Sandler behaves like the missing link in Happy Gilmore; get your kicks at Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx 17

SONG: The Gin Blossoms deserve Congratulations; 16 Horsepower revs its engines; Bobby Darin rocks on 23

PAGES: Christine Brennan gets the Inside Edge on figure skating; actor Evan Handler beats cancer in Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors 29

BYTES: Virtual Mardi Gras is the next best thing to being there 35

>Lee Grant

THE UNTOUCHABLE

Like many of the stars featured in the Turner Classic Movies series Films from the Blacklist (Feb. 28 and 29 at 7 p.m. ET), Lee Grant took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to name the names of suspected Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the '50s. As a result, says Grant, now 68, no one in Hollywood would hire her from 1952 to 1964. We asked the Oscar-winning actress (for Shampoo in 1975), who appears in the American Movie Classics documentary Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial (Feb. 27, 10 p.m. ET), what being blacklisted was like.

How was your career affected at the time of the hearings?

I had gone from 19-year-old obscurity to sudden prominence. My first film, Detective Story, was nominated for a few Academy Awards in 1951, and I won an award for it at the Cannes Film Festival. But by then, I was blacklisted. It was a time when I grew and learned about morality, about good and evil. I taught acting, and except for making enough money to raise my daughter, Dinah [Manoff], the war against HUAC became my life, and I became good at it.

What has been the most lasting effect of the HUAC ordeal for you?

The fear that you could open your mouth and destroy somebody was so unbearable, I still get blocked on names. I'll see someone that I've known all my life, and I won't know the person's name. I have such a problem that when I'm in a play, I have to write characters' names on my hands so I can remember them.

  • Contributors:
  • Anthony Duignan-Cabrera.