Is ''7th Heaven'' the work of a demented filmmaker? Ken Tucker almost wonders if ''Mulholland Drive'''s director, David Lynch is involved -- the WB hit is just that crazy and surreal
Phyllis Diller, MacKenzie Rosman, ...
Credit: 7th Heaven: Paul McCallum

Is ”7th Heaven” the work of a demented filmmaker?

The WB is having a very good season, what with the success of its rookie series ”Everwood,” the increase in ratings for ”Smallville” in its sophomore season, and the status of ”Gilmore Girls” as a growing crossover hit (i.e., it’s not just for girls anymore) with each succeeding week.

Yet the WB’s biggest draw remains what is also its most idiosyncratic show — a family drama that is the vision of one creator, an all-ages dramedy featuring a mixture of solid and amateurish actors, guest-stars of faded wattage, and a form of storytelling that is frequently, well, just plain bizarre.

”7th Heaven,” created and many weeks written by Brenda Hampton, tells the story of the Rev. Eric Camden (Stephen Collins), his wife Annie (Catherine Hicks), their seven children, and (in recent seasons the sorely under-utilized) family dog, Happy.

This season, Jessica Biel and Barry Watson, ”Heaven”’s two chief petulant sex symbols as well as its best two young actors, have left the series… although Watson is now one of the writers. Instead, this season has focussed on the romantic obsessions of middle-daughter Lucy, played by Beverly Mitchell, a performer who’s never met a grimace she doesn’t like.

A sourpuss brat consumed by dating, kissing, commitment, and a capacity for jealousy that would do Othello proud, Lucy has been involved for the past couple of months with Kevin, a cop played by George Stults, whose buff bod, blank looks, and inability to read a line containing more than four words without frowning, looks like a character straight out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn epic ”Boogie Nights”… and he has a brother, Geoff Stults, who’s also a ”Heaven” pop-in character!

Lucy loves Kevin, but has spent whole hours being angry at Kevin for looking at any other woman, or being angry that he hasn’t yet proposed, or being angry that he’s proposing in a manner she doesn’t like.

It is usual in ”7th Heaven” for all the regular cast members to ignore the absurd or exaggerated behavior of anyone else: Last season, for instance, Rev. Camden accepted that wife Annie was mad at him and the children for months on end without ever questioning her mental or physical wellbeing.

Speaking of Eric Camden and wellbeing: Collins had himself a dandy little showcase a few weeks back when, under anesthetic for a heart operation, he dreamed he was Elvis Presley, and Collins sang numerous Pat Boone-ish versions of Elvis hits, complete with white jumpsuit. Since the operation, he’s been just as mad as Lucy (and I mean ”mad” in both senses — angry and crazy) because his parish has hired a young minister (”Party of Five”’s Jeremy London) to conduct Sunday services while Eric recuperates. Again, there is no reason for his rage — he’s been told repeatedly that his job is safe.

”7th Heaven,” which recently featured Phyllis Diller as a special guest star, is designed to appeal to young viewers (who can identify with the Camden kids’ self-absorbed behavior) and old viewers (who might find the kids nonetheless adorable, like the show’s underlying spirituality, and know who Phyllis Diller is). The show is written like an afternoon soap opera — its pace is skin-crawlingly slow, and everyone, even good actors like comedian Richard Lewis (who’s shown up irregularly as a rabbi) are required to do elaborate double — and triple! — takes at the slightest action the script deems surprising.

On any other series, the stuff that “Heaven” actors find startling would never elicit so much as a raised eyebrow; conversely, no one on “Heaven” does a double/triple take when, say, one of the girls’ boyfriends moves into the house for a while. I have interviewed Brenda Hampton, so I know she exists; if I hadn’t, I might suspect that some eccentric filmmaker like John Waters (”Hairspray”) or David Lynch (”Mulholland Drive”) might be behind “7th Heaven” — it’s that strange, that cut off from reality. Who needs sex-fueled, “reality” fantasy shows like ”The Bachelor” when “7th Heaven” and Lucy are around to be endlessly ridiculous, hot ‘n’ bothered?

What do YOU think of “7th Heaven”?

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