Ken Tucker
August 08, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

7th Heaven

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Jessica Biel, Stephen Collins, David Gallagher, Brenda Hampton, Catherine Hicks, Beverley Mitchell, MacKenzie Rosman, Barry Watson, Richard Lewis, Laraine Newman
Aaron Spelling
Comedy, Drama

We gave it a B+

Hey, thanks for all the letters and e-mail about two recent pieces concerning Michael Landon and Touched by an Angel. For the record, I’m not a ”God hater,” as two of you wrote and a few of you implied, unless your standard of religious tolerance holds a youth raised Episcopalian to be one step away from militant atheism (and I just know some of you little rascals do). It’s been challenging to think about the connections between religion, family, and television — so much so that I’m going to do it one last time, while urging you to watch one of television’s least-watched good family shows, 7th Heaven.

This is the ongoing tale of the Camdens — a minister (Stephen Collins); his wife, Annie (Catherine Hicks); teenage son Matt (Barry Watson); teen daughters Mary (Jessica Biel) and Lucy (Beverley Mitchell); preteens Simon (David Gallagher) and Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman); plus Happy, the family dog. As conceived by executive producer-writer Brenda Hampton, Collins’ Rev. Eric Camden is a mannerly minister of indeterminate denomination — though given the stripped-down decoration of his church and the fuzzy liberalism of his good works, I’m guessing Methodist. Unitarian, maybe?

Anyway, Eric and Annie are sensible, loving parents facing the usual parental battles: Simon wants a dog (Mom and Dad say yes); Mary wants a tattoo (Mom and Dad say no, so she gets a wash-off-able one); Matt finds himself attracted to a flirty middle-aged friend of his mother’s (Mom and Dad say no, in thunder!). It’s all very contemporary Waltons — usually huggy at the end of the hour but with enough quirks to keep you intrigued. For one thing, the kids’ rooms are more realistically messy than any other TV kids’; for another, as Mary says, ”Mom’s a lot tougher than Dad.” It’s true: Hicks, who has the sort of sweet-sad smile that always has her looking as if she’s about to burst into gentle tears, does a fine job of making Annie a stubbornly principled housewife, and there were a few excellent story lines last season about the death of her mother and her feisty relationship with her own father, played by Mary Hartman’s Graham Jarvis.

On 7th, moral lessons are taught regularly but without self-righteousness or cant; this is one of the rare shows in which religious beliefs are shown to be part of a family’s everyday approach to life rather than a set of self-imposed rules. No matter what the plot, a recurring theme is trust: You raise your kids as best you can, and then you have to give them the chance to cut loose and make mistakes rather than instill the threat that they’ll burn in perdition if they screw up.

To its credit, The WB has spent the summer promoting 7th heavily, hoping viewers will catch the show in reruns and build on its audience for next season. To its discredit, the hapless network is going about it the wrong way, trying to reposition 7th as the latest variation on Party of Five by playing up the pouty good looks of Watson and Biel. Maybe you’ve seen the ads (some on bus kiosks and telephone booths) featuring soulful pictures of the two actors (his tag line: ”When you’re the minister’s son, people talk”). What’s up with that? Trying to lure people to 7th by touting it as something it’s not (i.e., a breeding farm for teen idols) is a good way to alienate everybody.

Next season, there’ll be two new shows that will overlap with 7th‘s concerns in different ways. ABC’s outstanding-looking Nothing Sacred features a liberal priest who could have been Rev. Eric Camden’s unruly student; The WB’s Dawson’s Creek really is the latest variation on Party of Five, though more daringly written. Given the competition, I doubt things will get any easier for 7th Heaven during its sophomore season, but who knows? The show could catch on. As the reverend Camden might say, viewers work in mysterious ways, their motives known to few. B

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