Revelations, epiphanies, and resolutions
A bit of TV history took place last week. With the early renewal of the WB's most popular series, 7th Heaven becomes the longest running family drama, surpassing The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, which each ran for nine seasons.
"[We've] never been media sexy," says Stephen Collins, who plays the Rev. Eric Camden, in a WB press release. "We don't win the big awards." The reverend and his loyal stay-at-home wife, Annie (Catherine Hicks), preside over their family of five (six, if you include former cast member Jessica Biel, who ditched the series in 2002 to pursue more adult roles) in Glen Oak, Calif. Like in The Waltons and Little House, church is an important part of family life in 7th Heaven. Yet, it manages this foundational element without being excessively preachy. It's not particularly challenging, either. Which brings me to an ongoing question about how religious or spiritual life appears on TV. Why does an under-the-radar drama like 7th Heaven have such staying power, while shows like the criminally short-lived Wonderfalls (now available on DVD) get dumped before they have a chance to thrive?
Talking about Wonderfalls and 7th Heaven in the same breath may seem odd, when a comparison to CBS's Joan of Arcadia is more obvious. The link lies in how spiritual and moral dilemmas play out. By and large, religion on TV is tied to family, and since family at least one version of family is sacred, so, too, are the religious underpinnings that privilege it above all others.
Yet in real life, aren't questions of faith much more messy, personal, and less solvable in the space of an hour? Perhaps that's why I enjoyed Wonderfalls. As a modern day Joan of Arc, Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), a Brown-educated woman who has turned her back on the upstream swim toward social and financial achievement, has taken a job at a Niagara Falls gift shop, lives in a trailer park, drinks, and hears voices. From God or Satan, she's not sure, as the talking animal knickknacks won't say. What they do offer are sometimes cryptic instructions, often with multiple interpretations, that force the iconoclastic Jaye to confront her morality and get involved in the lives around her.
Though some of the episodes are as tidily sewn up as a 7th Heaven episode, what makes Wonderfalls so engaging is its sometimes wacky approach to the larger existential questions the talking knickknacks force Jaye to confront. That's where the beauty of the series lies in its irreverence. But that, alas, appeals to a small sliver of viewers like myself who are not satisfied with the cut and dried, but revel in the muddiness of life, sensing that the core of truth is to be found in the gray zones. So, when a rare moment of clarity breaks through, it's all the more precious. Who knows how long it will last? And if you can laugh in the process of this journey, all the better.
7th Heaven airs Mondays at 7pm on the WB. Meanwhile, Wonderfalls: The Complete Viewer Collection is now available in a three-disc set with 13 episodes, including nine that never aired. Extras include voiceover commentaries, a "Greetings From Wonderfalls" documentary, a visual effects featurette, and the Wonderfalls music video.
Last week's "TV Eye," among other sources, reported on the dustup surrounding the "Sugartime" episode of "Postcards From Buster" (PBS) because a lesbian couple appeared in it. While PBS decided not to distribute the episode to its affiliate networks, public television station WGBH, where "Postcards From Buster" originates, offered to provide the show to any PBS affiliate that requests it. Local PBS affiliate KLRU has requested it and will air it Monday, March 28, 8pm.
Below is an excerpted statement on the matter from president and CEO Bill Stotesbery posted on KLRU's Web site:
"After reviewing the episode, we believe it is consistent with the mission of the series and appropriate to broadcast. At the same time, we respect the right of parents to make viewing choices for their own families and we encourage them to do so."
The full text of Stotesbery's statement can be read online at www.klru.org/pressroom/buster.asp.
Thank goodness my personal KLRU membership is current. How about yours?