There are guilty pleasures, and then there is 7 th Heaven. The venerable WB network drama, which chronicles a minister, his wife, and their seven—get it?—children, serves up weekly doses of family values so retro and heavy-handed that professing a love for the show doesn’t even pass as ironically hip.
But despite its blatant cheesiness, the show has become the longest-running family drama in TV history (221 episodes over 10 seasons). Perhaps more incredibly, 7th Heaven was created by Aaron Spelling. It’s counterintuitive that the king of trashy nighttime soaps (from Charlie’s Angels to Melrose Place) was suddenly offering a family drama whose ethos is best stated in its theme song, which asks, “Where can you go/ When the world won’t treat you right?/ The answer is home/ That’s the one place that you’ll find seventh heaven.” But Spelling knew what he was doing. The show’s combination of socially conservative values with a dash of melodrama has proved to be an unlikely—and lasting—hit, following in the wake of successful Christian-flavored shows such as Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel, as well as teen dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210 (another Spelling creation). Now at the end of its final season, the series will be going off the air as the WB network is reborn as the CW television network this September.
The series finale will be tonight, but it’s never too late to catch up on the Camden clan, led by Eric (played with a knowing smirk by the actor Stephen Collins, who writes erotic thrillers with names like Eye Contact on the side), who is a reverend at a nondenominational Christian church (the writers are careful to rarely mention Jesus) in fictional Glen Oak, Calif. The show deliberately recalls Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver and hearkens back to 1950s values in other ways: Eric’s wife, Annie, is a content, albeit meddling, stay-at-home mom to their brood of seven kids and dog named Happy. Matt, the oldest, is in medical school in New York; Mary is the bad girl, played by Jessica Biel, who famously posed for Gear magazine and got fired from the show, so her character has been exiled to Chicago; Lucy is the good girl who’s an associate pastor at her dad’s church, a wife, and a mom; Simon is the rebel, who was the sole child to engage in premarital sex; Ruthie, as the family’s only teenager, exudes hormones and high-school traumarama; Sam and David are the monosyllabic twin moppets whose birth episode holds the record for the WB’s most watched hour ever.
Every single show is a Very Special Episode, ranging over topics as diverse as sickle-cell anemia, cigarette smoking, the Lost Boys of Sudan, alcoholism, cystic fibrosis, racism, homelessness, ephedrine, and the dangers of chewing too much gum. Each episode deals with issues Camden-style, which is to say that there is usually some combination of miscommunication, argument, and resolution in under an hour, with ample time given to hug it out in the end.
7th Heaven has the power to make anyone feel deliciously bad because no matter how squeaky clean you might fancy yourself, the Camdens are better. They don’t swear, everybody talks about their feelings, and they always remember to say “I love you” before going to bed. The show exists in a world where the relatively quotidian issues of teen dating or buying on credit are portrayed as life-altering crises. Yet circumstances that seem like the stuff of fantasy happen on a regular basis, such as longtime estranged parents reuniting or a family of five adolescent children easily finding a couple to adopt them.
The last few seasons have focused on the consequences of sex. In 7th Heaven, premarital sex is always a very bad idea that leads unwaveringly to getting pregnant or fearing unnamed STDs (but never ever going through with an abortion). Consider just one of this season’s story arcs, where Martin, a series regular who used to live with the Camdens, loses his virginity during a one-night stand with Simon’s friend Sandy while visiting her college. Sandy gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby despite having zero financial stability or the semblance of a relationship with Martin. In turn, Martin gives up his chance at becoming a pro baseball player and moves away to join Sandy and the baby, never to be heard from again.
At the same time, for all its conservative sexual mores, 7th Heaven is one of the most sexually frank shows on television. The parents, Annie and Eric, constantly reference their own sexual desire—their kids even know to let them “sleep in” on Saturday mornings and don’t seem at all grossed out by Mom and Dad’s sex life. 7th Heaven’s genius is how it works on two levels. Parents think their kids are getting good values from the show’s wholesome worldview. Plus, the show’s parade of hot topics gives parents a starting point for some uncomfortable discussions. On the other hand, 7th Heaven goes down easy—kids get a satisfying dose of melodrama and a brief visit to a world in which they can be guaranteed to feel cooler than every single character.
The Camdens exist in a televised vacuum where Wayne Newton is an A-list star, where they just got computers and cell phones a few episodes ago, and Paris Hilton does not exist. Who doesn’t want to fantasize about living in that world for at least an hour each week? What the show may lack in grit or reality, it makes up for in its underlying message of being open-minded, telling the truth, and helping one another. Being a Camden actually seems kind of fun. Home is the one place you can go when the world won’t treat you right, and it’s also where the good gossip is. And if rumors are to be believed, the cast has been approached recently for one more season on the new CW network. Here’s to hoping that the Camdens will be coming home once again.