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updated 02/26/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

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?

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