Fun for the Whole Family

The WB network’s hit family series 7th Heaven has been celebrated for its uncommon pleasantness and normalcy by publications as disparate as The New Yorker, Spin, and TV Guide. Now, you can indulge the show in that fashion if you’ve seen it once or twice, but after repeated viewing you can’t help suspecting that its niceness is the punch line to a dark joke. The show revolves around the Camden family: a genial Christian minister, his tightly wound wife, their seven children (seven children?), and a big house in a small town in California. The children bring home the social diseases of the day–sex and drugs, mainly–and the parents dispel them with the dreamlike reasonableness of a ministerial counseling session. The 18-year-old son is grounded for coming in late? Just when you expect him to clutch his head and moan, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, “You’re tearing me apart!,” he smiles cheerfully at his punishment and trots off to his room. A bottle of over-the-counter speed is discovered in the 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom? She didn’t know it contained the dangerous but not yet outlawed substance ephedrine. Once she finds out, father and daughter join forces in proselytizing against it.

The dark joke here, of course, is the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the social disorder we are alleged to have inherited from that period. Set in the present, 7th Heaven is nonetheless a revisionist view of the past–what that era of cultural upheaval might have looked like if the Weekly Standard had had its way with it. (It is not a coincidence that when the show flagged in its second season, the network hired a publicist to flack it to Christian groups, or that reruns are shown on Pax TV.)  Never has a show so skillfully exploited contemporary retro-chic to rewrite our visual image of history. Everything in its universe is ‘70s revival, from the sartorial style–tight button-down shirts, clingy pants, long straight hair for girls, floppy mops for boys–to the lighting design, which is warm and dim in the manner of Family and The Brady Bunch , to the static camerawork, as deftly evocative of early ‘70s television as anything Quentin Tarantino has filmed. (I hadn’t grasped how square and stolid the framing was until last night, when, while filming a concert by the pathetic dregs of a real ‘70s band, the camera tilted sardonically, just for an instant.) Even the casting functions as a form of allusion. Barry Watson as eldest son Matt has the soulful eyes, clean-cut yet girlish features, and long dark shag of Keith Partridge. Jessica Biel as eldest sister Mary has the center part and symmetrical eyes and mouth of a Marcia Brady. The middle daughter, Lucy, is the reincarnation of Jan. And on it goes, the show doing battle against our dour memories of those so-called anni horribili with a self-referential perkiness that would do Disney proud.

The difference between then and now, though, is that while family life in those real ‘70s shows was unrealistically goofy, in this fake ‘70s show it’s strangely isolated and defensive–a little too warm on the inside, a little too besieged by countercultural horrors on the outside. Consider the absurdly anachronistic flower-power band that visited its old buddy, Dad, in last night’s episode, for instance, and how afraid he was that they’d bring marijuana into his home. Or how the children’s friends are always turning up with strange addictions, illegitimate babies, or the need to slice themselves–cautionary examples of family disintegration for the Camden kids to steer clear of, or at least try to staunch. The Camdens aren’t raising a family; they’re fighting a culture war, no matter how gentle the father’s Christianity may seem, and underneath the pop-cultural giddiness there’s a missionary zeal that comes off as more High School Confidential than BradyBunch. What do you imagine happens to Mary’s friend when she ignores the warnings issued by the good reverend to her father and the preaching of Mary herself and defiantly keeps popping ephedrine? She nearly drops dead of a heart attack.

The most troubling character of all, however, is the mother, Annie, played by Catherine Hicks with a not-quite-comic tension that never seems to achieve release. Wielding her Windex bottle like a weapon, smashing Kleenexes into the 9-year-old’s mouth to retrieve illicit pieces of chewing gum, Annie is a counterfactual from hell–what American housewives would probably be like if Betty Friedan had never published The Feminine Mystique . Annie’s mothering is loving but grim, and she’s prone to irrational outbursts the rest of the family has to tiptoe around. There’s the time her widower father showed up with his new girlfriend, and Annie refused to speak to her. The theme that episode was: How can we get Mom to behave? Her husband couldn’t have been more understanding, but his wife’s emotionalism was so impervious to logic it became disturbing. In fact, Annie is always slightly more disturbing than any other character is allowed to be, a sense of inexpressible rage hovering somewhere in the vicinity of her brightly upturned mouth. She makes you realize with gratitude that not even the show’s creator, Brenda Hampton, can force the American family back into its box without having a little female frustration leak out.

Judith Shulevitz