Reverend Eric Camden (Stephen Collins) is tearing up, as he will do again and again throughout 7th Heaven‘s nine-seasons-and-counting run. This time, it is because his middle daughter Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), after finally getting her eagerly awaited period, has asked him to “run to the drugstore” for her. It may not be every father’s dream, but this moment in the show’s premiere episode sets up 7th Heaven‘s world perfectly—it presents ‘50s-style family togetherness updated for the ‘90s with a sensitive, “progressive” father. However, it takes more than an in-touch-with-his-emotions dad to make a show feel topical.
Though 7th Heaven deals with “issues” (alcoholism, homelessness, racism), it also has the saccharine, unreal feeling of The Brady Bunch. This is not to say that it is entirely unsatisfying. Like The Brady Bunch, 7th Heaven is at once comforting for its predictability and “niceness” and irritating for how poorly it reflects the world.
Now available on DVD, 7th Heaven: The Complete First Season introduces us to the Camden family of Glen Oaks, California: Eric, stay-at-home mom Annie (Catherine Hicks), and their five biblically named children, Matt (Barry Watson), Mary (Jessica Biel), Lucy, Simon (David Gallagher), and Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman). Throughout the season’s 22 episodes, the older kids take turns flirting with troublemaking (smoking, cutting class, scheming to get kissed), but always return to their cheerful, somewhat-righteous true selves by episode’s end. The Camden clan also takes in various people-in-need, imparting their message that (as the theme song states), “There’s no greater feeling than the love of a family.”
Though in some ways the show’s wholesomeness is charming (brothers and sisters say “I love you,” Eric breaks things so he can pay a down-on-his-luck parishioner to fix them), at times, “wholesome” reduces to “white bread.” The only significant non-white characters are introduced in the “racism episode.” In “The Color of God,” Eric’s African American “good friend from seminary” Morgan Hamilton’s (Dorian Harewood) church is burned down in a hate crime and he and his family stay with the Camdens until it is safe to return home.
Morgan’s teenagers, John (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) and Keesha (Gabrielle Union), start off haughty and distant (“you think that’s what we do after church?” John responds when Mary, a varsity player, suggests they play basketball). However, they eventually warm to the Camdens, and fall into the timeless role in racial etiquette of opening the eyes of well-meaning white kids. John helps Matt understand the pervasive effects of racism and Keesha goes so far as to educate Lucy about Rosa Parks, braid her hair, and, in one painful scene, teach her to dance. Despite the often heavy-handed treatment, 7th Heaven‘s messages (tolerance, honesty, respect, compassion) are hard to debate.
On occasion, however, its conservatism seems less generalized and more pointed and accusatory. In “America’s Most Wanted,” Eric returns from a sporting event infuriated that so few people know the National Anthem, grumbling that people should either learn the words or “leave the country.” (As all of the Camdens, save the youngest, know the lyrics it can be assumed that this is directed at the audience.) Overhearing this, five-year-old Ruthie fears that her father will send her away if she doesn’t learn (as she calls it) “The Star-Stapled Banner.” By the end of the episode, she surprises her father with a perfect rendition and the subject is closed without discussion. On another show, this might not be troubling, but 7th Heaven‘s moralizing carries extra weight because it come from a minister.
7th Heaven is undeniably preachy. Reportedly, Eric was a psychologist rather than a minister in the original pilot script and creator Brenda Hampton was asked to make the change when the WB picked up the show. Though the structure of the show as Hampton intended it might have been similar (Eric skillfully helps his children and various townspeople work through their problems), the tone would probably have been very different.
Eric’s profession defines his children (“Hey, you’re the minister’s kid”) and creates a sense of looming judgment. The kids’ every poor decision is treated as a mortal sin so that the show sometimes feels like a cautionary tale (Mary steals a glass from a diner and Matt, covering for her, nearly ends up in jail). The WB’s decision may have been wise—this sense of heightened stakes most likely contributed to 7th Heaven‘s longevity. The Camden kids’ tiny transgressions are more suspenseful because they so often lead to disproportionate consequences. When Mary joins up with a “wild girl” (Felicity‘s Keri Russell), and sneaks out to a fraternity party, she may as well be Sydney Bristow deep in enemy territory. It’s the kids’ misbehavior that elevates 7th Heaven from pure schmaltz to guilty pleasure. No matter how many times they repent, they’re repeatedly confronted with new temptations. By the end of season one, none of the kids has taken a drink, but it might be worth it to check out season two, just to see the very heavens crumble when one does.