Michael Landon's 'Highway to Heaven': sentimental, but sincere

In a combination of sacrilege and cynicism - with perhaps some measure of accuracy - caustic media people are calling Michael Landon's new series ''Jesus of Malibu.''

But Highway to Heaven (ABC, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 8-10, thereafter Wednesdays, 8-9 p.m.) deserves more than a condescending sneer. True, it is a feel-good, do-good show. But it is also something seldom ventured in commercial television - a ''try good'' show.

''Highway'' really tries to portray a world in which bad people are not irretrievably bad, in which cruelty can be overcome by kindness, in which good often triumphs over evil.

The concept is a simple one: God has assigned His assistant to Earth. And make no mistake about that. The series says that it is God and his angel in the form of Michael Landon - a.k.a. Jonathan Smith, who constantly looks upward and gives thanks. His mission? ''I'm sent to various places by my Boss to help people,'' angel Smith explains. That's it.

Angel Smith is constantly restating his philosophy. Perhaps more skillful writers could have stated it with more subtlety - it sounds a bit naive, simplistic, and corny. But it is meant to echo the philosophy to be found in Angel Smith's ''Big Book.''

''If it's a cold world, it is because people make it that way,'' he says. ''There are an awful lot of good people in the world and I'm here to help them.

''It always amazes me how people so lonely, so devoid of love in their lives, still consider themselves successful.''

If you must be caustic about the series, call it ''Mr. Smith Goes to Malibu.'' Under Michael Landon's direction (he is star and executive producer and probably responsible for most of the writing and rewriting), Jonathan helps people wherever he finds them, in whatever way he can manage. In the premiere sequence, he rescues Helen Hayes and a charming bunch of old folks from the poorhouse and finds a romance for a woman who becomes infatuated with him. And he even finds himself an assistant, a previously evil man who, after contact with Mr. Smith, discovers that ''the world doesn't stink; there's more than the 6 o'clock news.''

The show begins with hitchhiking angel Smith thumbing a ride on a California road. When a truck stops, the driver demands money to take Smith to town, even though he's headed that way anyhow. ''Nothing in life is free,'' he tells Smith, who refuses to accept that philosophy.

''Kindness is,'' the blue-jeaned angel responds as the truck drives off.

A moment later, the engine of the truck expires. But a kind and forgiving God sends his angel to help repair it.

''Highway to Heaven'' is all the things its critics will say it is: simplistic, saccharine, gushy, sentimental, ingenuous, unsophisticated. But it is also unique in contemporary television. It is a warm and loving and compassionate show for the whole family. Be kind to it.

'It's Your Move'

If, by some chance, you sacrificed Sunday's opening session of ''60 Minutes'' to sample the premiere of ''Punky Brewster'' (NBC, Sundays, 7:30-8 p.m.), I have an antidote for your overdose of artificial sweetener:

It's Your Move (NBC, Wednesdays, 9:30-10 p.m., starting Sept. 26) stars the least ingratiating youngster on TV: Jason Bateman as Matt Burton, a 14-year-old wheeler-dealing con man who is convinced of his own charm. The character Jason portrays is as thoroughly distasteful as the whole show, which revolves about Matt's attempts to keep his patient Mom from being a good mother.

Matt schemes, lies, tricks, and manipulates to get his way. Other than his mother's dates - she's a single parent - the foil for his nastiness is most often his best friend, an overweight youngster, constantly eating and the butt of a never-ending series of tasteless fat-boy jokes.

Soleil Moon Frye, the star of ''Punky Brewster,'' is a charmer in her role as an abandoned child who moves in on an aging widower. But she is directed to be so persistently precocious, so calculatedly cute, that a viewer begins to yearn for the hard-edged, ambush questioning going on simultaneously on CBS's ''60 Minutes.''

Jason Bateman, however, in ''It's Your Move'' is a smarmy character right from the start, just about as cute as a pet marmoset.

So, Punky, meet Matt. If perhaps there were electronic cross-pollination, perhaps CBS and NBC could combine the characters of the two kids. Then we might end up with one honest-to-goodness youngster recognizable as a real human being.

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