An angel comes to Earth, circa 1984, and does all sorts of aw-shucks, ain't-that-sweet, my-grandparents-really-love-this-show good deeds. From saving people from cancer to helping the elderly throw down their walkers and appreciate their few final moments on the planet ... good ol' Jonathan Smith sure does spend his time in wise and saintly fashion. Talent shows, used car salesmen, runaway kids, college scholarships, Vietnam vets, hostile corporate takeovers ... nothing's too topical for this ethereal emissary of niceness!
OK, I kid, mainly because Highway to Heaven is so soapy and schmaltzy and slobber-laden that it's almost impossible not not poke some fun at. But it's also a quaintly endearing old artifact, and Highway to Heaven gives you ample opportunity to spend some time with the kindly old soul of Mr. Michael Landon. He'll always be "Pa Ingalls" to me, but there's little denying that Mike Landon was a really tough guy to dislike.
The ongoing "plot" of Highway to Heaven simply could not be more one-dimensional. A "probationary" angel is sent to earth in an effort to spread the word re: love, patience, humility, loyalty, friendship, and big, bushy perms. "Jonathan" makes fast friends with an ex-cop named Mark (as played by Victor French), and each week the duo would commit a few random acts of overwhelming sweetness. But just when the gooey goodness of Highway to Heaven threatened to engulf me in a river of saccharine (which was often), I just reminded myself that I, a 30+ year-old Jewish male cynic of the snarkiest order, am not nearly the intended demographic for a program such as this.
Highway to Heaven was, and I don't mean this as a knock or an insult, made for Christian-value families, doe-eyed little kids, and grandparents who eventually moved on to devour stuff like Murder She Wrote and Matlock. If Highway to Heaven existed in Springfield, you can bet that Grampa Simpson would be watching the show with the Flanders clan.
On a technical level, Highway to Heaven is so entirely a product of its times -- it's almost like stepping into a time machine. Writer / producer / director / star / guardian angel / saint / Mr. Perfect Michael Landon frames his stories with all the creativity of a cement-locked tripod. "Dramatic" close-ups take on all the sincerity of a Leslie Nielsen farce, and the dialogue ranges from mildly maudlin to overflowing with treacle.
But, again, Highway to Heaven is an easy show to mock and a tough show to savage. It's just that lovably NICE -- plus I bet it's a big-time favorite of the man upstairs, and I certainly wouldn't want to piss him off.
All 24 episodes from Highway to Heaven's inaugural season are included in this collection from A & E Home Entertainment:
(Note: Episode synopses are from the back of the DVD cases, and some of them are fairly full of spoilers, so if you're new to this series, you might not want to read them!)
Highway to Heaven - Part 1 - Working as the new handyman at a retirement home, Jonathan brings pep and vigor into the dreary lives of its residents. However, a nurse's brother, Mark Gordon, doesn't trust the newcomer. (Original airdate: 9/19/84)
Highway to Heaven - Part 2 - With the retirement home on the verge of ruin, Jonathan reveals his true identity to Mark. It will take some heavenly high jinks to save the day. (9/19/84)
To Touch the Moon - By bringing together a juvenile delinquent and a child prodigy with leukemia, Jonathan shows that a little love can go a long way toward easing the pain of death. (9/26/84)
The Return of the Masked Rider - A local gang is pressuring a young boxer to throw a fight. Luckily, Mark and Jonathan are working in his corner. Jonathan enlists the aid of some old-time actors to set things straight. (10/3/84)
Song of the Wild West - A young girl's vocal talents are suppressed by her parents, until her real mother, a former singing star, comes to town. (10/17/84)
One Fresh Batch of Lemonade - Part 1 - A promising high school athlete loses his legs in a horrific accident and is understandably defeated by his misfortune. Jonathan finds a way to begin the healing process. (10/24/84)
One Fresh Batch of Lemonade - Part 2 - After he witnesses his injured son participate in a high school gymnastics competition, the boy's father, also a former athlete, comes to terms with his own unfulfilled dreams. (10/31/84)
A Divine Madness - A former construction tycoon has lost his grip on reality and thinks he's King Arthur. His son wants to have him committed, but Jonathan shows him the goodness in his father's madness. (11/7/84)
Catch a Falling Star - Film star Lance Gaylord doesn't know how to communicate with his children. When he hires Jonathan and Mark to baby-sit, the two help him become reacquainted with his kids. (11/14/84)
Help Wanted: Angel - A screenwriter needs an angel for his movie. Life imitates the script and Mark falls in love with his leading lady. (11/21/84)
Dust Child - A Vietnam vet brings his Eurasian daughter to America, but his son doesn't take to having a new sister. Jonathan has a plan to bring harmony to this divided home. (11/28/84)
Hotel Dreams - A seemingly hapless young man running his father's hotel finds true love and a new vocation with a little help from his new bellhops, Jonathan and Mark. (12/12/84)
Another Song for Christmas - "Honest" Eddy celebrates Christmas Eve in a decidedly dishonest fashion. Later that night, his dreams take a Scrooge-like turn. (12/19/84)
Plane Death - An old friend of Mark's has mysteriously disappeared. Jonathan and Mark's investigation leads to a gang of drug smugglers -- and the body of Mark's friend. (1/9/85)
One Winged Angels - Arriving at a beautiful lake resort, Jonathan's efforts to fan the flames of love between a woman and her ex-husband's best friend inadvertently backfire. (1/16/85)
Going Home, Going Home - Mark is critically injured in an automobile accident. In a state somewhere between life and death, he revisits the summer his grandfather died. (1/23/85)
As Difficult as ABC - A promising basketball player's dreams are sidelined by a heart condition. He thinks all is lost, until an angelic influence helps him overcome illiteracy and brighten his future. (1/30/85)
A Child of God - A single mother discovers she only has a short time to live and tries to reconcile with her estranged father, an unforgiving minister. (2/6/85)
A Match Made in Heaven - Jonathan and Mark drop in on an old friend, a lovelorn quadriplegic with a successful law practice. Can angels play cupid, too? (2/20/85)
The Banker and the Bum - Jonathan helps a good-hearted bum and a greedy banker trade places. When the bum dies, the banker finds his life infused with a new sense of love and generosity. (2/27/85)
The Brightest Star - Jonathan and Mark stumble onto a child star whose fame has spoiled her spirit. Jonathan and Mark think they can help her rediscover her inner angel.(3/6/85)
An Investment in Caring - Jonathan inspires the residents of a neighborhood to band together against a corrupt developer. Along the way, two key participants find it's never too late for love. (3/13/85)
The Right Thing - A man places his recently widowed father in a nursing home. Jonathan inspires the grandson to get his grandpa back on his feet, and to finally make travel plans he's out off for far too long. (3/27/85)
Thoroughbreds - Part 1 - A privileged young man discovers that he's in love with his horse trainer's daughter, and although he's promised to another woman, the two lovers elope. (5/1/85)
Thoroughbreds - Part 2 - The new bride discovers she has cancer -- and that she's pregnant. While she thinks her marriage is a mistake, Jonathan shows everyone that a little faith can cure any affliction. (5/8/85)
Video: Full-frame, which is to be expected, but the transfers are kinda bleached, a little bit fuzzy & flat, and somewhat underwhelming on the whole. Certainly better than you'd find on the late-night reruns (by a wide margin) but not exactly pristine either.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is balanced enough, but you'll probably have to crank your volume level up to get a consistent delivery.
Extras: The big goodie is a 100-minute documentary entitled Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love, which is hosted by Melissa Gilbert and tells the Landon tale pretty much from beginning to end. Fans of the beloved TV actor will undoubtedly adore this warm-hearted love-fest. There's also a brief-but-amusing collection of outtakes and a few text bios of Michael Landon and Victor French.
Be careful not to watch more than three consecutive episodes of Highway to Heaven in one sitting, as you might just overdose on sugar shock. But while this sort of ultra-fuzzy lovey-dovey TV programming is not even remotely my normal cup of tea, I understand that there's a quaint and kooky charm to the series that fans still adore. And to those fans, I can say that this collection is pretty darn solid. The visual presentation certainly leaves something to be desired, but the Heaven devotees will adore this 7-disc set all the same. Plus the Landon doco is a sweet addition for the fans.