7th Heaven began its 10th season this fall, surpassing Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons to become the longest running family drama in television history. Consistently the WB’s highest-rated show, it hasn’t budged from its time slot since it began in 1996. Even so, most people associate the WB with The Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill or Smallville, shows with obvious teen appeal.
To some extent, 7th Heaven is addictive in the manner of reality TV: it’s so bad, you just have to watch, peppered with cheesy dialogue, atrocious acting by guest stars, and heavy-handed messages. All this adds up to melodrama: things that are commonplace in most shows (college students having premarital sex, teenagers keeping their love lives secret from their parents) are elevated here to the level of weekly crisis. The series tends to deploy cliffhangers, such as the one leading up to “Ring Around the Rosie,” the episode when college student Simon (David Gallagher) told his parents that he and his pushy girlfriend Rose (Sarah Thompson) are living together.
7th Heaven rejects the notion that adulthood means independence. Reverend Eric Camden (Stephen Collins) and wife Annie (Catherine Hicks) prefer to keep a firm grasp even on their grown children. “You are not living with Rose or any other woman before you get married,” Eric told Simon. “What if I pay for my apartment?” Simon bargained. “Doesn’t matter,” Eric responded. One imagines they’d have this same conversation even if Simon were 40 instead of 20.
The show maintains a sense of insularity. If Eric and Annie judge and second-guess their children’s every decision, there is no need for the show to splinter into spin-offs. In this season’s premiere episode, the Camdens fretted over how to tell Eric’s parents that willful daughter Mary (Jessica Biel, who left the show in 2001) is divorcing her husband. No longer around to be shepherded down the “right path,” Mary has become a symbol of what lies outside the Camden family’s sphere of protection. Eric and Annie have showed shockingly little concern for their eldest daughter’s emotional well-being. They despair that she could be “the kind of woman” who would leave her husband and son, apparently never considering that she might be unhappy or in need of support.
In 7th Heaven, there is only one “appropriate” path in life, and straying from it brings shame on the family. When high school sophomore Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman) shouted at her father that she should be allowed to date a senior, Annie consoled him: “She’s not Mary.” “And she’s not going to become Mary,” Eric insisted. Tellingly, the most approved-of Camden child, Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), is following precisely in her parents’ footsteps. She and husband Kevin (George Stults) bought a house in the neighborhood, Lucy works as an associate pastor at her father’s church, and Kevin recently decided to be a stay-at-home father to their new baby.
The show’s moralizing is occasionally offset by sensationalism, as when Eric walked in on Ruthie booty-dancing in her bedroom (prompting a rare moment of hilarity when he mimicked her movements for Annie). Another show might be accused of prurience, but on 7th Heaven, any hint of scandal is framed by disapproval: Ruthie’s dancing is an example of what not to do. It’s also related to the new season’s focus: the consequences of teen sexuality. The girl’s burgeoning awareness of her body suggested to Eric that she’s headed down a dangerous road: “She’s not old enough to even be thinking about having sex!” he declared. “And if she’s dancing like that, she’s thinking about it.” Though there are many ways the Camden kids can disappoint their parents, having sex is the most significant. Thankfully, the episode backpedaled from Eric’s fear of his daughter’s sexuality by emphasizing that teen sexuality isn’t “wrong,” but rather just one part of experience and identity (as Lucy teaches teen girls in her abstinence class).
Certainly, sex and its consequences are timeless concerns for teens and their parents. And the show does model positive (if optimistic) ways that teens and parents can talk openly about sex. (In keeping with the 1950s-style lesson-learning, characters refer to unwed pregnant women as being “in trouble.”) In another episode, a girl from Lucy’s class (Shannon Burwell) had a pregnancy scare, and discussed her decision to be sexually active with her parents. And as in earlier seasons, the episode set adopted after-school-special-like cautions. Martin (Tyler Hoechlin), who previously lived with the Camdens while his father was fighting in Iraq, lost his virginity over the summer and impregnated Simon’s friend Sandy (Haylie Duff, sister to Hilary).
Though 7th Heaven has never shied away from dealing with “issues,” it’s hard to imagine what adolescents see in these characters. The show’s teens make mistakes, but their “inner struggles” remain hidden. Martin went directly from being confident that he would wait until marriage to have sex, to losing his virginity on a whim, to regretting the decision and re-devoting himself to abstinence. For real teens, such decisions are more complex, and must be made again and again as new situations arise.
But 7th Heaven relishes its lack of realness. While other series offer escapism through intricate mythologies, fantasy fulfillment, or sheer wantonness, this one does so by nostalgia for old-fashioned family images and straightforward moral codes. Though the always looming religious judgment is chilling, it’s hard to fault the suggestion that family is as important as careers or romance. And other shows might be following suit—the bulk of the WB’s fall shows feature close relationships between parents and children or among siblings. As 7th Heaven nears the rumored end of its run, it finally seems to be fitting in.