This is the first part of a new series that will be appearing periodically that re-evaluates the legacy of popular TV shows that have been off the air for some time. I encourage you to subscribe to updates if you’d like to follow the series as well as my other work on a more consistent basis.
The WB had more than its fair share of signature series throughout its ten-year lifespan. Shows like Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Felicity have helped the channel carve its niche in the hearts of the angst-riddled youth of America. But no show fully embodied the spirit of the network quite like 7th Heaven. A recent cast reunion photo prompted me to pick the show as the first subject of this new feature.
While the first three shows I mentioned have had their legacies reinforced by the successful careers of many of the actors involved, 7th Heaven was semi-robbed of that luxury by Jessica Biel, a divisive talent to say the least. 7th Heaven was the only WB show to be on the air for the networks’ full tenure and holds an overwhelming majority of its ratings records. For the last few years, it was just about the only thing going right which paved the way for the merger with UPN to form The CW.
Powered by family values in an era where programming was increasingly looking to deviate into edgier content, 7th Heaven found success in the simplicity of its formula. This was a show about a family and not much else. It turns out a crowded house and a never-ending supply of melodrama is enough to churn out eleven seasons worth of material. Despite the reliance on the shock value of the “very special episode,” the series was the gold standard for the PTV.
But what are we supposed to think about 7th Heaven in the year 2014? It might not be on Netflix, but it is on Amazon’s Prime Instant Video, making it a viable option for binge watching. The real question is whether or not the series holds up eight years after it went off the air.
The first thing we need to do is figure out 7th Heaven’s prime years. For a show that lasted eleven seasons, this cannot be done unanimously. We can separate the show into three distinct eras with a standard deviation of half a season. Seasons one through four focus mostly on the Camden family alone. Five through seven start to introduce outside characters into the mix such as fan favorites Robbie Palmer and Ben Kinkirk. Eight through eleven are defined by the post adolescent years of nearly all the Camden children with friends of Ruthie filling in for the empty nest left by Matt, Mary, an adult Lucy, and an occasionally absentee Simon. A rough sketch, but not an inaccurate one.
Seasons three through six stand out as the show’s prime years. The majority of the Camden children are old enough to carry their own plotlines and Matt’s college years as well as Mary’s mischievous ones supply memories of the show’s lasting memories. As with shows like Law & Order, prime years are made difficult by the show’s episodic nature, but these were the years where the melodrama yielded its finest fruit.
Which makes recommending it to new viewers problematic since season one is largely forgettable in the grand scheme of the show. Regardless of whether or not you’d like to include season two in the prime years, and there’s a case for that, it’s hard to recommend a show that requires the viewer to sift through hours of subpar material to get to the good stuff. In this day and age, that simply isn’t necessary.
This of course has no effect on the show’s nostalgic value as older viewers have enough necessary background information to simply skip right to the prime years. As far as rewatchability is concerned, the show holds up quite well. The sets get somewhat monotonous after awhile, but there’s little within the show’s actual content that’s genuinely dated. Being a family show, this is hardly shocking, but it is somewhat unique to see a show that doesn’t fall victim to the trends of its time.
7th Heaven’s legacy was affected by the ill-fated eleventh season on The CW. The renewal occurred after the tenth season finale ratings beat all the other shows that were scheduled to make the jump, but that had a price that should have been taken into consideration. The show was always a ratings hit, but the large budget, which was the main factor in ending the show after season ten, prevented season eleven from ever having a fighting chance at success. Following a heartfelt finale that reunited all the Camden’s, season eleven was filmed on a shoestring budget and it showed.
So what to make of 7th Heaven in the year 2014? If you grew up watching the Camden kids get in trouble for trivial reasons, you’ll likely enjoy the stroll down memory lane. It was a concept that the show nailed perfectly and few shows have even attempted to mimic the formula. First time viewers might have trouble figuring out why they should care. Had Barry Watson, David Gallagher, and Beverly Mitchell been more successful, this likely wouldn’t have been the case. Beyond it’s addictive nature, it’s hard to hook new viewers into a 90s prime time soap opera with all the other choices.
But if you’re looking for a glimpse of what The WB was like, it’s impossible to get an accurate image without watching at least a few episodes of 7th Heaven. It may not have been as buzz worthy (or as good in certain parts) as Dawson’s Creek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it outlived the networks entire roster and as such, remains a piece of the 90s worth remembering.
Here is a list of shows I’m considering doing “Does This Stand the Test of Time” on. Oz, Ally McBeal, The X-Files, Six Feet Under, The OC, Homicide: Life on the Street, Beverly Hills 90210, St. Elsewhere, Batman: The Animated Series, Babylon 5, Boy Meets World, Andromeda, and Stargate SG-1. If you would like to see one of these next or if you have your own suggestion, please comment below. Thank you for reading.