There's a strange show on television that subverts American values on a weekly basis. It spoofs such all-American ideals as religion, family, friendship, scholarship, work-ethic and romance with wicked caricature and snide sarcasm, made all the more alarming by the fact that most of the characters are children.
Of course, I'm not talking about South Park but rather 7th Heaven, Aaron Spelling's bizarre attempt to get right with God after years of sleaze peddling on shows like Melrose Place and Dynasty. The irony of 7th Heaven is that for all its proselytizing about values, the show is steeped in sexual tension and virtually every plotline involves some young tyke trying to sneak a dangerous liaison by their parents.
The nice thing about the first season is that the show is still relatively innocent. In recent years (the show is now entering its ninth season) 7th Heaven has added (in addition to sub-Ed Wood quality dialog and acting) bash-you-over-the-head pro-war politics and rah-rah pro-Bush simplemindedness. But back in the first season the stories revolved around topics closer to the show's family.
That family, the Camdens, has got to be one of the most dysfunctional clans on TV. Parents Eric and Annie (played by a couple of Star Trek alumns, Stephen Collins and Catherine Hicks) usually seem to barely be grasping onto any semblance of control or sanity with their fingertips. On top of being a super-dad Eric is also a Reverend at the Glen Oak Community Church, an institution of vague denomination that serves mostly to dispense cliche advice and patronizing homilies. His holier-than-thou position also affords the rev the justification to aim his eyes at the ceiling whenever something odd, good or bad, is happening. I assume that Collins has memorized the placement of every lighting rig on the set by now since the script has him looking heavenward so often. This obvious ploy is perfect 7th Heaven: Taking something that should subtly inform the sensibility of the show and repeatedly shoving it down the audience's throat.
The kids, from oldest to youngest, are hunky Matt (Barry Watson), athletic Mary (Jessica Biel), awkward Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), precocious Simon (David Gallagher), and strangely dark-skinned Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman). The show starts obviously by introducing each child in a too-cute parade through the parents' bedroom but much of the rest of the show concerns some kid complaining about one of the others in an endless stream of whining.
Of the Camden children the best character and actor is Watson as Matt. While he's no Olivier, there's an actual friendliness and realness to Watson's performance. He's the person you can most imagine identifying with. He deals with having friends that the ultra-judgmental Camdens don't start out respecting and even smokes. (Dear lord!) And Watson's floppy-haired affability makes it possible to actually care a little.
Biel has some of that quality here as well. It's fun seeing her as the slightly tomboyish Mary, before the notorious Gear magazine photo spread and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She's pretty convincing as a girl whose body has outpaced her emotional development. There's something funny about the way she just wants to find a boy to kiss her. (It's a little less believable that an older boy doesn't want to go out with her because he's afraid of that kiss. Yeah right!)
In fact, Biel and Watson have more chemistry than Collins and Hicks. It's too bad they play brother and sister because they're charming enough that they could have probably taken ho-hum rom-com material and made it interesting. They do a lot with a weird scene early on where Mary tries to get Matt to teach her how to make out. That a show that purports to be as wholesome as apple pie starts with a near incest scenario (with father looking on, no less) already tells you that there's something afoot.
Of the younger kids it's a more mixed bag. Gallagher is pretty good, if a little too eager to overact (as a teen he grows to seemingly hate the show while appearing on it. Delicious.) while Mitchell is shrill and histrionic. As a tyke she blows out eardrums with her constant complaining and later on she grows into a full-blown harpy. It's no wonder that as actors younger than Mitchell grow up and leave the show her Lucy is still living above the Camden garage. At the bottom of the Camden totem pole, Rosman is too young to truly be called a bad actress. Here she recites her lines robotically and literally barks like a dog on command. I guess her acting could have been misconstrued as cute but it's hard to look back at it now that she's nearly a decade older and still utilizes the same technique: Stare directly into the camera with cold, dead eyes and drone out her smarmy dialog. Brrr... At least in the first season she's got curly hair and occasionally goes for Shirley Temple cutesiness.
When your cast is this good you don't need guest stars, but I guess the producers of 7th Heaven thought they'd play it safe. The show has been a weird sort of Catskills-type attraction for all types of washed-up comedians over the years including Richard Lewis, Laraine Newman and Phyllis Diller. The first season features Eileen Brennan in a thankless, mercilessly recurring role as Mrs. Bink (a crotchety old woman the show pulls out whenever the kids need to be reminded of the ravaging effects of smoking) and Richard Moll, as the supposedly mysterious "Mike the Mutant." Like many of the supporting characters, these people are barely developed and serve only to teach the Camdens some sort of lesson. There is no depth too low for the show to stoop when preaching some point, and just when you think they may have bottomed out, they'll cast real mentally handicapped kids just to give the Camdens some fortune cookie advice. Heart-warming.
Frankly, the show can be excruciating to watch. The plots wander as aimlessly as Ruthie searching the house for someone to bother. Often the viewer will feel like they must have dozed off during one episode and woken up during the next only to discover they haven't even hit the second commercial break. It can drag and then head off on an unexpected but equally boring tangent. Yet somehow I find it interesting. There are forehead-slappingly dumb moments and moments of pure weirdness. Characters say insane things like they make sense. It's quirky stuff, made even weirder by the fact that it positions itself as the family alternative to all that other naughty stuff on TV. If you took your values from 7th Heaven I suspect you'd end up a pretty strange person.