The Devil is Real (Sometimes)

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[Previously in this series: Heartbeat’s Alien AbductionThe Waltons PoltergeistBaywatch Monsters & MermaidsAliens in Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPsVampires Are Real (Sometimes)]

Though October means a return to our annual tradition, Highway to Heaven doesn’t strictly adhere to the rule of ‘paranormal stuff in otherwise-grounded shows’, being its conceit is a probationary angel earning his wings with good deeds down here. The ultimate in Sunday afternoon dread, it was an hour of God’s Day spent with every mum’s choice, Little House on the Prairie‘s Michael Landon; DILFy beef stashed inside a brown leather jacket, with a lovely thick head of hair. Just imagine how firm he’d be with the manager if she got overcharged at Tesco.

I think the pilot’s worth digging into at some point, so I won’t get too deep into lore, but opening titles explain what you need to know, as Landon’s Jonathan Smith is picked up along an empty highway by a shabby guy in a trucker hat; his earthy sidekick, Mark (Victor French), a scruff-bag who looks like he stinks. It’s the classic Littlest Hobo/Incredible Hulk/Quantum Leap set-up, episodically moving from town to town, solving a problem for that week’s guest star. The Devil and Jonathan Smith is a Halloween episode from October 30th of 1985, and directed by Landon himself, the same way he’d direct a traffic warden to “lower your tone around a lady, sir” if your mum got a ticket.

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It’s a jarring switch from Highway‘s rousing theme to ominous slasher music on a thundery night, where a jack o’lantern glares at us from a window. While driving, Mark talks up how much he loves Halloween, so Jonathan offers to show him something really scary, ducking into the footwell and shape-shifting his face into Mark’s. Jonathan’s ill-defined angel powers would be worth keeping a checklist on if you’re considering a binge. Though they’re leaning into the Christian audience base, the show’s careful in rarely name-checking God, and when Jonathan hops out to start his assignment, it’s with a nudging allusion to “the boss” — which incidentally, is how Savile referred to the Almighty too. With dogsbody — and dog’s odour — Mark left to sort out accommodation, Jonathan warns him to be careful, as he’s got a bad feeling. Mark immediately ploughs into a child on a bike (played by a dummy of stuffed clothes propped up on a BMX).

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Although witnesses clear him of wrongdoing, he paces the hospital distraught, and as a doctor tells him the kid’s in “very critical condition,” Mark offers to give the boy some blood, which should probably be run through a sieve first. “He’s gonna need more than blood,” says the doc, “he’s gonna need a miracle!” At this point, the entire plot is spoiled by onscreen credits, which as a ghoulish child, I was very excited by, but I’ll save that for later. You can start figuring it out at the stroke of midnight anyway, when Mark’s approached by Dr. Stone, a specialist “in certain kinds of transplants,” who raises an eyebrow at Mark’s offer to give anything of his to the kid — “anything?

Mere moments later, the original doc says the boy’s gonna be fine, “I told you we’d need a miracle, and we got one!” which an elated Mark assumes was Jonathan’s doing. But back at his motel, ‘Doctor’ Jabez Stone’s waiting, explaining, rather unnecessarily, what with his red tie and permanently-arched brows, that his “boss” will take possession of Mark’s soul at midnight on Halloween. Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O’s! Refusing to sign a contract, Mark threatens to put his foot in Stone’s “keeshter,” but ends a phone-call to the hospital ashen-faced; the lad’s at death’s door again. He tracks Stone down to a red-lit ‘rare books and manuscripts’ store (actually the historic Cherokee Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard, as seen in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood), and with no option, signs away his stinky soul.

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Stone is tremendous value, black cat Beelzebub in his arms — his former human supervisor, trans-moggified as Satan’s punishment — and camping it up to all the fun little references to his nature. He flinches at words like Christmas and Holy, plays off his sulphuric pong as a new aftershave, and puts a Devilish twist on idioms, like “thank Hell you’re here!

Meanwhile, in Big Ed’s Cocktail Bar, a confidence trickster in a white Southern gentleman suit hustles slack-jawed boozers with the ‘find the pea in the shell’ game, in a joyous performance by Conrad Janis from Mork and Mindy, as the rather on-the-nose biblical reference, C.J. Barabbas. Jonathan offers to stake CJ’s victim another go, so long as he never gambles again, and fixes it by magicking a pea under every shell. CJ’s Jonathan’s assignment; “I was sent to tell you you’re getting a second chance… to change your ways,” and asked who he is, Jonathan enigmatically replies “a friend… of a friend.”

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Mark wasn’t fussed signing over his soul, figuring Jonathan’s “connected” and could fix it, but by the rules of Heaven and Hell, he’s not allowed to interfere, leaving Mark with “a one-way ticket south… I can’t even take it when the air conditioner breaks in the car!” So, Jonathan enlists CJ to help win back the contract, pitching it as a chance to go down in history as the man who conned the Devil. The pair scope out the bookstore by pretending to be brothers selling a rare old bible, which Stone recoils from, and when he and Jonathan shake hands, the angel/demon connection sparks drawn-on lightning and a hand-buzzer noise.

Their plan is incredibly convoluted, utilising CJ’s grifter friends, and involving Jonathan faking a heart attack in the vault, replacing the contract with a forgery, a 911 call that’s intercepted by a lineman up a telegraph pole, and being whisked to safety by a fake ambulance. “It’s still stealing,” but it’s that, or condemn Mark to an eternity of massaging Thatcher’s back while sat in a paddling pool of cold diarrhea. To throw in more confusion, CJ decides to double-cross, talking Stone into giving him a cushy spot in Hell, if he can serve up the soul of an angel. As a stoolie, CJ brings in a cop buddy to catch Jonathan in the act of grand larceny, knowing God’s too “square” to rescue a criminal, and hoping it leaves Jonathan no choice but to offer up his soul for his friend’s.

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In the episode’s best trivia, the officer would go onto portray another character later in the series, by the name of Fatso Kessler. But to catch one guy stealing a piece of paper, the cops act like they’re stopping the next 9/11, with plain clothes officers, unmarked cars parked outside, and armed units waiting round the corner. Presumably Stone never went into specifics, as the police sure aren’t acting like the document is actual proof of the biblical God and Devil. In a last minute panic for Jonathan’s soul, Mark tries to stop the heist, but gets grabbed by the undercover boys, as Jonathan collapses in a chair clutching his chest — “my heart, my heart!

Everything’s seemingly going to plan, swiping the contract, and wheeled out by the fake paramedics; and did Only Fools and Horses nick this idea for their own fake-heart-attack/ambulance scam episode four years later? But thanks to CJ, Jonathan’s cuffed outside, while Stone bribes Officer Fatso into giving him the real contract, as “my employer can be more severe than yours.” And speaking of his boss — at midnight no less — smoke pours through Stone’s floorboards, peeling open to reveal red light and the sound of howling wolves. Then, in a tuxedo and red cape, it’s the big lad himself, in that sensational piece of casting I alluded to earlier.

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As an eight-year-old, a horned Michael Berryman was an incredibly frightening yet spellbinding sight on a Sunday afternoon, with audible moans of torture heard through the floor during their chat, in which Stone plays the Renfield role, all “oh master, my master!” Satan demands a cab to Mark’s, as he likes to look at the city on Halloween; “after all, it is my night,” and we cut to a flat-capped cabbie complimenting him on his costume. Even the Devil gets a “What’s dat smell? Smells like Smoke…” “It’s my cologne” gag, and the cab’s filled with smoke when it pulls up, like Cheech and Chong.

Jonathan interrupts the big confrontation between Mark and Satan, offering — as they’d guessed — his soul instead, but as Stone reads Mark’s contract, all it says is “trick or treat!” Yes, not a double-cross, but a triple, and when CJ bribed the cop, that’s when the switch was made — “sweetest con I ever worked!” As there’s no contract, there’s no crime (not how the legal system works; Jonathan and co broke a ton of laws), so Jonathan didn’t do any sinning. Plus the cop isn’t remotely weirded out to be in a room with the actual King of Hell, now confirmed as a real place exactly as described in the bible; Fatso just stood all schlubby with his hands in his pockets. Mark’s contract bursts into flames when the Devil touches it, beholden to Earth legal loopholes, and he storms off in a huff. “We did it,” laughs CJ, “we beat the Devil!

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The Devil’s so pissed, smoke comes out of his mouth when he admonishes Stone for his failure, turning him into a mouse (which sits on a piece of paper wishing us ‘trick or treat’), and we go out on a freeze frame of Beelzebub the cat licking his lips. What’s great is there’s no cute Louis Cypher or Del V’ile winking; just a proper horned Satan played by a horror movie icon, ascending directly into the plot from a flaming Hell. But for a less literal interpretation, we must turn to the Father Dowling Mysteries. What better choice of lead than Tom Bosley off Happy Days, whose jowly mug was made for discovering corpses? Dowling was based not on the Father Brown novels, but some entirely different books about a different crime-solving busybody of the cloth, for 43 episodes and a TV movie, mostly centering on Chicago-mob related murders. Dowling did occasionally veer into fantasy which turned out to have a rational explanation; a mummy’s curse at a museum, a parishioner seemingly haunted by the ghost of her dead father, and an episode where “a black man (very specific?) visits Father Dowling’s church claiming to be an angel.” They also did the Captain Mainwaring deal, where Dowling was framed for various crimes by his crooked identical twin, played by Bosley in split-screen.

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My prevailing childhood memory of the show is the suicidal urges from having to sit through it, and of thinking Steve was a funny name for a nun — Sister “Steve” Stephanie Ozkowski; played by George Costanza’s girlfriend who looked just like Jerry. Steve’s the focus in an episode from October 4th of 1990, clunkily entitled The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery. A title sequence Photoshop-filters the pair into stained glass windows, in a highlight reel of guns being pulled, Dowling unknowingly ducking out the way of a bullet, and Steve pointedly doing un-nun-like activities, such as flying a plane, pool hustling, and hiding inside a barrel. But for all its rote ecclesiastical silliness, one senses the opening scene is so off-tone that it must’ve really put the shits up its elderly audience.

In a club that’s just closed for the night, a man who looks like Andy Bell off Erasure wearing a red flower in his buttonhole tunelessly noodles on a piano, before disconcertingly turning right to camera; meeting our eye, to monologue directly to us. “You know what I love about the Catholic church? The candles, costumes, the music, the mass; they give you a miracle before breakfast every morning, they’ve got communions, confessions, processions, holidays, holy days, feast days. The smell of incense, and the roar of the crowd, now that’s entertainment!” With a click of his fingers, the screen goes black. The Devil are you, mate?

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Sister Steve’s brother, Eddie, then gets followed down a dark street by a couple of mob guys before a car runs him over. Alive, but arm in a cast like out of The Beano, he informs her this was no accident — “I’m in trouble with a hood named Harry Deal.” A classic Satan pseudonym, Deal is of course our mystery pianist, and gave a young Eddie an alibi when he was caught robbing a supermarket, even paying to put him through electronics school, but now wants him to do a job; “I told him no, he’s gonna kill me.” The goons show up to the hospital, screwing on silencers outside Eddie’s room — twins called Roland and Ronald, like the cousins from Breaking Bad, but in Dapper Laughs’ black turtle-neck of contrition. Sister Steve stands them down, demanding they take her to Harry Deal.

There’s a fusty quality to the show, like visiting a great-aunt, sat through an awkward silence on furniture soaked in old perfume in a room where the curtains haven’t been opened since the eighties. And they taking no chance with their audience, literally signposting Deal’s nightclub, Six-Sixty-Six, with a neon Devil brandishing a red fork. He somehow knows Steve’s name, wondering aloud why “a knockout like you would wanna wear an outfit like that. Put on a red dress, baby!” Not especially menacing, he’s more of a generically smug, slightly handsy, close-talking mob creep, and doesn’t stink of sulphur or owt.

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Steve offers to take Eddie’s role, suggesting nuns can get in places he can’t, and as a sign of faith, Deal has her hand over the cross she’s never taken off since completing her vows, which is removed to dramatic music. “You’ve got a deal,” he tells her, “me!” Definitely the Devil’s worst quality; his love of puns. Weirdly, there’s no subterfuge; no double cross or sting operation; she’s just a nun casually working with the mob, casing the security system of a rich guy so Deal can nick a valuable painting of Christ. Dowling’s suspicious, with Steve not sleeping at the convent last night, and there’s comic relief with a younger, balding priest bending Dowling’s ear over jealousy of another priest who’s better at theology, which plays like an unfunny Father Ted, and could do with, say, a Monkey-Priest, swinging off the light-fitting to liven it up.

Dowling meets with Deal, begging he leave Steve alone, where Deal’s true nature becomes apparent, telling Dowling “our paths have crossed, but we’ve never met,” in a spooky echoing voice. Dowling’s enraged when Deal scoffs the Eucharist — “That’s blasphemy! Deliberate blasphemy!” — and he refuses to let Sister Steve go. It leads to a kerfuffle at the robbery, with Steve and Dowling almost getting shot multiple times, and the assassin twins arrested after causing Steve to crash her car. Dowling wakes in hospital with a concussion, which the doctor (possibly Chris Benoit’s physician) describes as “nothing a good night’s rest won’t cure!” while Steve’s in a mysterious coma. Asked if she’ll ever wake up, all the doctor can do is look at his shoes.

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Comatose in bed with just a pulse monitor on her finger, Dowling places a rosary in Steve’s hand while keeping bedside vigil, but as he starts to nod off, he notices a figure in the corner. “Come on now, father, you know me. Listen to my voice, you’ve heard it many times, whispering to you in the night…” For slow viewers, Dowling points out that Deal is the Scottish name for the Devil, and he’s here to collect Steve, whose soul is his after breaking her bargain. “Every American has the right to a fair trial!” says Dowling, as Satan whips back the bed curtain with an actual-genuine “showtime, father!” revealing they’re now in Club 666. It’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, albeit crammed into the last ten minutes, and if Satan wins, he gets Dowling’s soul too.

Having insisted on a jury of peers for the ex-juvenile delinquent nun, Dowling does an open-mouthed roll-call as an eclectic twelve shamble in; slow-walking, pale-faced ghosts of Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Babyface Nelson, Lizzie Borden, serial killer Charles Starkweather, Frank and Jessie James, Leopold and Loeb, and Barbara Graham; all presided over by stern Old West ‘hanging judge’ Roy Bean. In the show’s historical lore, each of these crims are in Hell as they too cut deals with the Devil, which Dowling’s impassioned testimony plays on — “this is your chance to do for someone what no-one ever did for you!” – and that Steve would help and pray for each of them, if she could.

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As the jury announces their decision, sleepy Dowling starts to fade, waking up in hospital and pulling back the curtains to reveal an empty bed — that’s it, she’s dead. No, of course not. “Sleepin’ in late this morning, huh, Frank?” She was just off for a piss, and despite recently awaking from a potentially-fatal coma, is walking round all chipper, apart from “just a little headache… I had a couple of really weird dreams.” Frank tells her he took care of Harry Deal; “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” confirming he thinks it all really happened, while the police tell him Harry skipped down. But when Balding Priest comes out of the lift, a voice calls to him, “hiya, Phil!” It’s old Deal, perhaps about to offer some luscious hair if he whacks Tom Bosley. Almost. “I’m a facilitator. I make things happen, for a price. If you have a young priest trying to edge you out, gimme a call.” His business card magics into Baldy’s pocket, and we end on Deal’s sinister, plotting gaze, before — always startling — breaking the forth wall and turning to us with an evil laugh. But these are just two examples of the many appearances Old Scratch has made on television over the years, including a run hosting every single episode of Strike It Lucky.

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~ by Stuart on November 8, 2022.

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