Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

It’s been reported in the last week that the WB’s 7th Heaven, a show I lovingly call the “campy Christian family drama,” has been picked up for an unprecedented 10th season. I have to admit, the network promos have a good point, no family drama manages to stay on the air for ten years.

It’s mindboggling really. When the show first started this remarkable run, the Camden family featuring mom (Catherine Hicks) and Reverend Dad (Stephen Collins) and their five (and eventually seven) kids were welcome because the show dealt with serious issues, but everyone just about always did the right thing in the end and actually analyzed their behaviors instead of just doing it and either never talking about it or making jokes about it.

Nine years later, that hasn’t really changed much. Everyone has grown up and gotten older, but the characters have largely stayed the same in terms of their morals and values. That’s part of what has made the show continue to have a fairly sizable, but more importantly, loyal audience.

But look at the kids though…

Matt (Barry Watson) was a dopey high school student. Now he’s a dopey med school student close to becoming a doctor (and we hope he doesn’t become a gynecologist).

Lucy (Beverley Mitchell) started out as a whiny, annoying teenager who was boy crazy. Now she’s a whiny, annoying woman in her early 20s who somehow was able to convince the nicest, most attractive and most stable man in the free world to marry and impregnate her.

Simon (David Gallagher) started out as a little weenie who seemed a little too interested in hanging out with his little sister. Then he grew a foot and a half, his voice changed, he graduated from in high school, went to college and starting banging broads.

Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman) used to be this nice, cute little girl who was largely there for comic relief and the occasional storyline. Now, she’s morphed into a freshman in high school who seems unbearably smart with an unconsciously good head on her shoulders and has major teen/adult storylines centered around her. And she’s even got breasts now! Good lord…I think I need to look away.

Those are the characters that have played the most prominent role of the show’s development of the last 9 years. Sure. Mary (Jessica Biel) is one of the 7 kids, but she got ridiculously hot, she moved onto greener pastures (literally…take Summer Catch for example…) and is now much too good for the show. Then there are the twins Sam and David (Nikolas and Lorenzo Brino). But, to be frank, they are terrible and I think the producers are just too nice to fire them.

Anyway, the point is that 7th Heaven has gone through some remarkable changes over the last nine years and yet, it continues to tell stories that people want to tune into every week…at least enough where the WB continues to want to renew it and the actors want to stay involved with it.

How could this possibly be? What makes this “campy Christian family drama” tick?

To me, the answer is simple, I really don’t think the WB’s 7th Heaven and one of Fox’s greatest creations, Beverly Hills, 90210 are all that different and that’s why it continues to succeed.

Allow me to explain.

It all starts with Aaron Spelling. While Brenda Hampton gets credit for creating 7th Heaven and is heavily involved with all the writing, Aaron Spelling (and his longtime 90210 producing partner, E. Duke Vincent) act as executive producers and I’m sure they have at least some say when it comes to the direction of certain storylines that make the series more serial in nature, meaning the stories carry on from week to week instead of being completely independent of each other (like Everybody Loves Raymond for example).

Admittedly, Spelling’s reputation as a producer isn’t spotless (anyone remember Robin’s Hoods or Burke’s Law?). But, it’s important to remember that Spelling did bring such wonderful guilty pleasures like Dynasty, Melrose Place and 90210 to the air. He’s always done a marvelous job of introducing different types of characters to the screen and involving them in storylines that people want to tune in to see every week.

Whether it was Kelly Taylor and her bevy of lovers or the crazy progression of Donna and David over the years on 90210; or maybe the Billy/Allison storyline, the ridiculously crazy Michael/Jane/Sydney/Kimberly drama and anything involving Heather Locklear’s character, Amanda on Melrose Place. Either way, Spelling has always been involved with shows that give his audience something to talk about.

The same applies to 7th Heaven. While the characters from series like 90210 and 7th Heaven are on the complete opposite side of the morals scale (after all, the patriarch is a minister at a church and has everyone in his family obsessed with God), the storytelling is remarkably similar and that’s what makes 7th Heaven a show people continue to tune in for.

There are a couple of storylines unfolding now on 7th Heaven that show the great serial nature of the show. First and foremost, while it may not be a primary storyline with a lot of time devoted to it, it could be said that the writers and producers are starting to put the notion in the audience’s head that Ruthie and Martin (Tyler Hoechlin, Road to Perdition) might end up getting together despite the fact that Martin lives with the Camdens while his father is serving in the military in Iraq and both characters have said they wouldn’t be interested they wouldn’t be interested in each other. But both appear to look longingly at each other and those involved with the production have often grouped what Martin is doing with his new girlfriend and what Ruthie is doing with her new boyfriend. The bottom line is that while both say they’re happy on the surface, neither appears to be in reality. Will they get together at some point? It’s a reason to tune in and find out.

Another tactic the production staff of 7th Heaven uses to get an audience to tune in comes from the always dramatic “I’ve got a secret!” storylines. Generally starting with the preview the week before it airs, the writers get people to watch by suggesting that one character has a “secret” or “something that someone is trying to hide” that could possibly change the fabric of the world the family lives in. Sometimes, these developments are relevant and important. Sometimes, not so much. But the possibility is out there and it makes people want to watch because they don’t want to miss anything. It’s part of the reason Desperate Housewives does so well every week. The stories are always developing and like the true interested, nosey, third party that we are, we don’t want to miss anything and be out of “the know.” It’s the same reason we like poking around and wanting to know with what our friends and neighbors are doing. It always seems more interesting that what we’re doing.

The most obvious example can be pulled just from the promos for next week’s episode (airing Feb. 21) that imply one or more of the Camdens have some sort of secret and there’s some important family gossip that will be revealed in that episode that shouldn’t be missed. Will it change the world as they know it? It’s doubtful, but it’s a possibility and if you don’t want to get lost and be out of “the know,” then you’ll tune in.

Are these the only reasons to watch 7th Heaven? Not at all. Not only is it good for people who are tired with series like Desperate Housewives and 90210 and their violence and sex and boorish behavior overall, but it’s a good “family series” that everyone can watch together instead of the stuff that needs to be saved for when the kids go to bed or when the bedroom is locked during the day or early evening.

That certainly has some appeal too. But what about the people who don’t care about moral values?

That’s where the stories come into play and if they’re interesting enough and presented in such a way that anyone who doesn’t tune in the following week would be making one hell of a mistake.

What can I say? I got hooked in 2000 and haven’t been able to look away since…

(Please hold your laughter…)

— Coogan