Monday night shows
If the concept of the 8 to 9 p.m. ”family hour” died quite a few years ago, it’s obvious no one invited writer-exec producer Brenda Hampton to the funeral. Her show 7th Heaven not only remains steadfastly family-friendly — scrubbed free of the coarse language and sexual joking that permeate both the best and the worst of TV programming — it’s also The WB’s most popular series by far. In that highly competitive Monday-night hour, 7th Heaven frequently comes in first among women and female teens, and Heaven has already helped to send its new-season NBC competition, Daddio and Tucker, to the perdition of near cancellation.
This week, the ongoing story of a minister (Stephen Collins), his wife (Catherine Hicks), and their seven children (I don’t have room) reaches a kind of apotheosis, as one of the show’s original cast members — Jessica Biel, 7th’s rangy teenager Mary — leaves the show, at least for a while. Sometimes the departure of a cast member forces a TV series to dig deeper inside itself than it normally might, and this is the case here. Written or cowritten, as have been many of this season’s episodes, by Hampton, the episode is the culmination of the past six weeks of chronicling Mary’s downward spiral.
Granted, this show being the contemporary equivalent of The Waltons, that spiral hasn’t been a particularly sordid one. Mary’s sins, in the Eminem world we now inhabit, are minor ones: She’s been fired from a couple of jobs, started hanging out with the Wrong Crowd, and got pulled over by a cop for running a stop sign (she was let off with a warning). In the TV world, these may be minor infractions, but as Hampton knows, in the real world there are many parents who would take such misdeeds seriously and deem that a child such as Mary be dealt with firmly. Amazingly, in this week’s episode, she is — in a gratifyingly hard-hearted denouement I won’t give away.
There’s a choice irony at work here for anyone who follows pop culture. Biel caused storm clouds to gather over the 7th Heaven set in February, when she appeared near-nude in one of those boyish men’s magazines. Reports had it that Biel hoped to get her Heaven contract dropped by dropping her drawers, but that strategy failed when Biel ran up against her true boss, Aaron Spelling, the paterfamilias producer who rules with a soft voice and hickory-stick-wielding lawyers.
Spelling and Hampton are giving Biel her freedom for now (still under contract, she’ll make brief appearances on a few episodes this year), but this story arc is the best thing Heaven has sent us in a long time. It’s a good thing, too, because the series has fresh competition in Boston Public, creator-writer David E. Kelley’s new workplace/family series about a batch of put-upon Boston schoolteachers. The show uses Kelley’s patented method of keeping audiences awake by goosing them with exaggerated emergencies. In the classrooms of Winslow High, a teacher shoots a gun to get his sullen students’ attention; a student reporter uses her computer skills to create obscene cartoons about the faculty, and girls doff their bras to protest… oh, Kelley doesn’t care what they’re protesting, so long as he gets a little jiggle in there and works in a little moral uplift as well: He provides Chi McBride’s long-suffering principal (the best character in a generally very well-acted show) with convincing speeches about the nobility of teaching. Boston Public is better in these quieter moments, when we see the teachers’ struggles to overcome the deadening mental effects on kids of too little parental supervision and a popular culture that tells young people it’s hip to be tough, not intellectual.
7th Heaven‘s other main competition is Yes, Dear, a dreary family sitcom that has unaccountably become one of the new season’s minor success stories. Anthony Clark and Mike O’Malley are married to sisters (Jean Louisa Kelly and Liza Snyder); the original concept suggested they were all going to clash over differing philosophies of raising their children, but the show has already settled into a more mundane formula: Clark’s a priss, O’Malley’s a slob. It’s The Not Odd Enough Couple, with the sort of depressing, husbands-are-always-horny jokes that, when combined with Boston Public‘s incessant horny-student plots, make 7th Heaven seem more than ever like a haven of rare maturity.
7th Heaven: B+
Boston Public: B-
Yes, Dear: C-