The 7th Heaven musical is one of the worst episodes of TV ever made

The 7th Heaven musical is one of the worst episodes of TV ever made

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next five installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.

“Red Socks” (7th Heaven, season 9, episode 15; originally aired 2/14/2005)

Todd VanDerWerff: I apologize.

My initial thought to pick for this was the Chicago Hope musical, as an example of what TV musical episodes mostly looked like pre-Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling,” but I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to find it, and by the time I’d tracked it down, Phil had cornered the David E. Kelley market with his Ally McBeal choice. I also thought about one of these Dean Martin Show episodes I have laying around. That could have been a lot of fun. And, hey, if I’d realized how great the Neighbors musical episode was going to be (or that it existed), I surely would have chosen that.

But, instead, because I apparently forgot I would have to watch the whole thing, I chose this episode, which is one of the weirdest, wildest, worst things I’ve ever seen on TV. I remember when it first aired, and I accidentally flipped past it while waiting for the late, lamented Everwood to come on. “What is this?” I thought. And I could never quite answer that question. It’s a musical episode of a show that didn’t really need to have a musical episode, but it’s also almost entirely plotless (unless you count some of the very, very, very slight runners here as “plots”) and performed by people who can’t really sing or dance. It’s nearly a full hour of tuneless people singing pop standards and aimlessly shuffling around, like they’re auditioning for The Walking Dead. Oh, and it was written by Martha Plimpton. As her only screenwriting credit. Which, what?

It’s perhaps worthwhile to back up here and talk a bit about where 7th Heaven was at this point in its run. In its ninth season, the show had long since run out of stories to tell but continued to be one of the highest-rated programs on The WB. (Indeed, I believe the single largest audience ever attracted to the network was for an episode of this show.) Thus, it kept being renewed, and series creator Brenda Hampton kept churning through insignificant events and calling it plot. The younger Camden kids started to get more adult storylines. The twins started having actual dialogue. Both Jessica Biel and Barry Watson had left, leaving only Beverley Mitchell to hold down the fort in terms of stories for the older kids, and she got paired off with George Stults, the less charismatic of the Stultses. Things were grim!

By this point, I’d long since stopped watching the show. Now, 7th Heaven was never good, but it was at least a kind of pleasant comfort-food TV, low-conflict and low-stakes with a weird style all its own. (That style lives on in The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, which is from the same creator, apparently as part of ABC Family’s attempt to rebuild The WB brick by brick.) Brenda Hampton shows have the same signature of everything being said in a really flat and affectless manner that suggests this is Hampton’s house style. (The fact that Shailene Woodley has broken free of Secret Life to do interesting work in films—well, more interesting than Secret Life—suggests this may be the case.) There are long, wordless passages. There’s always lots of space between lines of dialogue. And when it comes to plot, the stories are usually fairly conservative (not necessarily in a political sense), focusing on faith and family and people giving each other really boring lectures about what they should be doing.

All of which brings us to “Red Socks,” which, again, I apologize. The idea here is that the Camdens are so moved by love that they simply must start singing, which makes a sort of sense. That’s how it works in many of the great musicals. But the show’s plotting was so glacially paced anyway that watching this episode out of context makes it borderline incomprehensible, even as everything about it makes perfect sense. It’s clear who’s in love with whom; it’s never clear precisely why. And then people will start singing. Apparently Simon just met this girl he’s seeing? But they’re already in love? And Annie is giving her a lecture in the form of the song “Talk To The Man Upstairs”? And most of the other problems are what amount to TV writer problems or problems that TV characters have because they seem like they must be relatable to someone. (Hampton series often seem to be dramatic presentations made by aliens and beamed back to the mothership, based on old sitcom plots from the ’50s.) The “red socks” plot, or Lucy’s anger that her husband might not give her a nice Valentine’s Day, or even Ruthie being upset that her paramour didn’t call… they’re all such dramatic non-starters, but the episode gives them such weight.

I don’t want to be too hard on this, because I think its heart is somewhere near the right place. But it seems evident to me that this was a musical made by people who had a vague idea of what musicals looked like but then tried to retrofit one into an episode of 7th Heaven. It remains one of the most awe-inspiringly bad things I’ve ever seen on TV, and I’m glad I shared it with all of you, like that video in The Ring. So let me ask you this: Did you have a favorite performance? And does anyone want to make a case for anybody in this cast other than Stephen Collins having anything like a musical bone in their bodies? (I mean, Collins isn’t great, but he’s in the general vicinity of the tune most of the time. But some of the others… ye gods.)

Ryan McGee: First of all, I’d like to apologize to you, Todd, for whatever I might have done to wrong you in the past that made you force me to watch this as atonement. I can’t imagine what I did, but I will say that I am heartily sorry all the same.

“Corny 7th Heaven” isn’t my cup of tea, but could be tolerable under certain circumstances. There’s a place and time for overly earnest television, even if such programming might be roundly mocked on this particular part of the Internet. But, oh boy, this is a disaster from moment one. This isn’t corny; it’s barely filmable. The number that begins and ends the episode (“Love Is Sweeping The Country”) could be used to break prisoners immune to other types of interrogation. The attempt to create a number that involves the majority of the cast ostensibly reaches for the heights of Les Miserables’ “One Day More,” but instead comes off like a sonic assault designed to pummel the audience into submission. As you point out, Todd, most of the cast can’t sing, some don’t even attempt to do so, everyone looks miserable, and absolutely no one involved with the show thought it weird that the two youngest members of the cast sing about “all of the sexes / From Maine to Texas.” What. The. Hell.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t even count on Jessica Biel eye candy to maintain a semblance of interest, but that annoyance was countered when Thomas Dekker showed up out of nowhere. I’m not exactly well-versed in Dekker’s body of work, having come to know him in the first season of Heroes before he moved over to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His musical number isn’t really good by any metric, unless you rank it against something like Annie Camden singing “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs,” an uplifting number that in the context of this episode suggests that God is always watching you having sex. In that case, Dekker’s “Accentuate The Positive” is downright Tony Awards-worthy. If Skynet sent a robot back to kill this version of John Connor, said robot would short-circuit from the dissonance created between its programming and the dancing baseball players in front of it.

I mock Annie’s rather odd way of ensuring her son doesn’t keep slutting it up in college, but I want to ask the remaining people to weigh in: Are any of the people in this show actually likeable? Because to my untrained eye, they all treat each other fairly terribly. This wouldn’t be a particular problem, except it’s unclear whether the show recognizes how terrible they are. It’s not just that Lucy Camden and her husband Kevin Kinkirk have marital problems. They have marital problems that stem from the fact that these two have to treat each other terribly in order to have anything remotely related to stakes occurring within an episode of this show. The discussion the two have about Kevin’s return to work is almost as bad as George Stults’ assault on the Great American Songbook. It doesn’t give these two problems to which those watching can relate. It simply sells out these people for 90 percent of the hour only to have everyone forgive each other in the last 10 percent. That’s not complex characterization. That’s just sloppy writing.

Noel Murray: Donna and I started watching “Red Socks” before we read any of your reviews, but after about 10 minutes of furiously tapping out notes about how terrible the musical performances are, and how the whole thing is paced like a mule-drawn buggy, and how I couldn’t believe that Martha Plimpton was involved with this, I finally paused the episode so I could read your opening salvo, Todd, and find out what the hell you were thinking. Now I know. You haven’t taken leave of your critical faculties. You’re just a cruel, cruel son of a bitch.

Early on, I wondered if “Red Socks” might’ve been intended as some kind of high-level conceptual aesthetic experiment, pairing trunk-musical songs (including more than one from the ultimate trunk musical, Singin’ In The Rain) with people who can’t sing or dance, to see if the numbers still work. But the ineptitude of the rest of the episode pretty much scotches that idea. Todd and Ryan, you’ve pretty well covered most of my objections, but I did want to note three particularly stupefying bits of staging:

  1. At the end of the “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs,” after coercing an entire city block to sing and dance some sense into a horny teen, Annie suddenly leaps up, mutters, “Thinkaboutitokay?” and just kind of wanders off.
  2. To illustrate the flirting on the baseball diamond that’s making Ruthie fume, the scene keeps cutting back to her rival, smiling and waving at her man, which implies that this is pretty much all this girl has been doing, throughout the entire practice. 
  3. When Kevin decides to order some flowers for Lucy, we get to see him laboriously pull out the phonebook, look up the number for a florist, call the number, hear that the florist is out of roses, hang up, look up another number, and call that one. Scintillating!

There’s something reassuring about the way 7th Heaven dots every I and crosses every T by the end of the episode, right up to having Ruthie’s new boyfriend explain that he picked the roses he gives her from his mother’s bushes (lest we wonder how he managed to get roses when Kevin couldn’t). But the all’s-well wrap-up is also tied to the episode’s over-the-top conception of Valentine’s Day, which is very much along the “dramatic presentations made by aliens” lines of which you speak, Todd.

But I promised I’d let Donna get into all the crazeball aspects of 7th Heaven’s version of V-Day, so I’ll give way to her now.

Donna Bowman: One innocuous Valentine’s Day episode in, and I now hate all these characters. That can’t be a good sign for a heartwarming family drama.

Okay, I don’t hate Eric, because I can’t hate Stephen Collins. He’s genial, he has Broadway cred (including starring opposite Julie Andrews in Putting It Together!), and he was in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But everybody else seems to be doing their level best to be loathsome. Annie assumes any woman Simon is seen with in public must be a whore in need of religion. The girl upon whom she bestows this summary judgment is the original model for Overly Attached Girlfriend, talking earnestly about endless love after one night of conversation. Lucy acts like her husband going to work on Valentine’s Day is a crime against humanity (and her husband’s boss, astoundingly, agrees with her because he knows that February 14 is their engagement anniversary, which frankly creeps me out). Her husband acts like being at home alone with a newborn is a piece of cake. Ruthie excoriates her boyfriend for not calling her for (gasp!) three whole days, holding it against him even after he engages the entire baseball team in choreography for her entertainment.

The parade of self-absorbed awfulness is epitomized by Lucy, who drops in on her mother for sympathy and ends up being asked to wash the dishes. “Happy Valentine’s Day to me,” she mutters to herself, and I wonder A) when did Valentine’s Day become a festival of female entitlement, and B) why don’t those ostensibly cute lisping twins looks like each other anymore? (I swear, one is noticeably taller than the other, and they’ve been given contrasting haircuts in a violation of all rules of twin children on television.) Todd, I appreciate the insight that these flat, glacial, snotty, lifeless plotlines and performances constitute the house style of creator Brenda Hampton. As Harry Dean Stanton’s Paul says to dream-sequence Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ, “I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.”

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’d never seen an episode of 7th Heaven before this. I used to feel a little guilty about that. In the mid-to-late ’90s, the best regular writing about TV that I knew of was in Salon, and the critics there used to sometimes mention the show, and would invariably describe it as “weirdly addictive.” (In the same breath, they would also invariably describe it as one of the worst shows on TV.) I did a little research before just jumping in, and I was amazed at some of the things I found out. For a start, the title really is “7th,” not “Seventh,” Heaven. Secondly, this son of a bitch was on for 11 years! Finally, as previously noted, this was the ’90s family soap opera on The WB that I never watched that had Jessica Biel on it. I would have bet money that was Party Of Five. So I guess that show must have had Neve Campbell, because I know for a fact that Katie Holmes was on Dawson’s Creek. (Hey, am I the only one who liked Neve Campbell in her movies? I get the impression that she doesn’t get any more love than Biel or Holmes, and now she’s vanished from the earth, but shit, call me a fan. I guess that’s a discussion for another day.)

I suspect the fact that I didn’t know what to expect helped make this a painless experience for me. It’s not my kind of thing, but it seems like the kind of thing I could have watched with my grandmother, and I liked watching shit with my grandmother. Based on the musical-episode format, I made some assumptions that may not have been correct, not that I’ll ever know. For example, I’m assuming that, on normal occasions, this is not a show where a young cop’s boss gets all up in his love life. Maybe the people on it don’t normally have dialogue like: “So where we were?” “I think we were falling in love.” I will say that the abstinence propaganda gives me the cold creeps, whether it’s in little exchanges like the guy telling the girl that even if she wouldn’t mind it if they did the nasty, he’d mind (Hey, what about my feelings, you skank!?), or the flash mob scene with Catherine Hicks’ anti-coitus minions gathering around her like winged monkeys. 

We all agree that the musical numbers here aren’t going to be keeping the ghost of Hermes Pan up nights. (I’m just assuming he’s dead. I’m not going back to Wikipedia again.) But I’ll give them credit for a little thought and traces of self-knowledge: The actor here who has the least excuse to be singing a song on film, the guy who plays Junior Jack Webb, is treated as a bad singer, with reaction shots of his wife smiling through her pain, looking at him as if she can hear the same thing we’re hearing, but she still appreciates the effort. Maybe, when she’s trying to think of a reason she married him besides his rockin’ bod, she likes to tell herself that he’s endearingly goofy, and pretend that’s the same thing as having a great sense of humor. I was a little reminded of that Woody Allen movie where people like Edward Norton and Natasha Lyonne kept bursting into song, though if anything this makes more sense, since here, the non-singers are singing because they’re the cast the show is stuck with. 

I also assume that Hicks, whom I only know from the Bill Murray film The Razor’s Edge and that Star Trek movie with the whale, usually played a likeable woman and that it’s a deliberate choice that she comes across here as a stone-faced harridan who probably keeps a pair of bolt cutters next to the bed to send a message to Mr. “There’ll Never Be A Sixth Time” cowering next to her, to make it that much more meaningful when she melts, or at least partially thaws, at the end. I was all braced for him to reveal that he wore those red socks on their first date because all of his were in the wash, so he borrowed a pair from his roommate, thus proving that he is and was exactly as square as a non-denominational Protestant TV minister played by Stephen Collins would appear to be, so their whole marriage is based on a lie! There’s your 12th season right there. You’re welcome, ghost of Aaron Spelling.

Genevieve Koski: Since everyone’s been cursing your name, Todd, I’d like to begin by thanking you. Thank you for choosing an episode that ensures that my choice from two weeks ago, “Daria!,” would not go down in the Roundtable history books as the most tuneless episode of the musical round. I’d also like to thank you for one of the best laughs I’ve had in a while. I’m in agreement with you, Phil, that having no connection at all to 7th Heaven makes watching “Red Socks” not only a painless experience, but almost an enjoyable one, in the same way it’s enjoyable to watch something like The Room. It’s not so bad it’s good, but it’s so bad it’s fun, fun to mock with like-minded friends who can’t believe this thing exists and will express their horror at any opportunity. And there are plenty of opportunities for such outbursts in “Red Socks,” particularly any of the… interminable… pauses… between… lines.

Todd and Noel have already pointed out the ridiculous pacing of this episode—and presumably of 7th Heaven in general, but I have no context for that, as this is my first time watching—but it can’t be said enough: The dialogue here is as flat and lifeless as Lucy’s hair. (Oh yes I did!) It’s like Plimpton—again: what?—wrote a 37-minute script and said, “Eh, close enough.” 

I really wish there was video of the moment when the cast was told they were going to do a musical episode, because nearly everyone’s discomfort is palpable—and audible—throughout this episode. In fact, you can pretty much track each actor’s attitude toward the endeavor from performance to performance. Stephen Collins, as the most able singer by a long shot, doesn’t exactly give it his all, but exudes a general sense of playing along: “Hey, why not, I enjoy singing!” Catherine Hicks, on the other hand, seems barely able to contain her resentment as she grimaces her way through “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs”—though as previously discussed, maybe that’s just the character’s overall unlikeability coming through. Poor Mackenzie Rosman seems utterly resigned, performing an oddly sexualized yet awkward version of “Nice Work If You Can Get Is” in a muffled murmur and wriggling through half-formed “dance moves” while looking offscreen with eyes that say, “Is it over yet?” The only person who seems to really be into it is Dekker, who, as Ryan already pointed out, has the only number that even approaches the sort of high-energy theatricality associated with a big Broadway number (a baseball routine, no less!).

But I have to say, my favorite number by a landslide is poor George Stults’ deconstruction of “You Were Meant For Me,” which hits just about every note but the right one. It’s the most tone-deaf performance in an episode full of them, but Stults’ dorky gusto makes it… well, not delightful, but charmingly pitiful. It’s like watching a puppy trying to figure out how mirrors work. He approaches the whole thing like the guy who’s been dragged to karaoke and knows he can’t sing, but he’ll go along with it ’cause, hey, might as well, right?

“Might as well, right?” seems to be the guiding principle behind “Red Socks,” and if everyone approached it with the same “what the hell?” attitude as Stults, it might have almost, sort of worked in a weird way. Oh, who am I kidding? No it wouldn’t; as already covered in detail, the “plot” is so wispy and the characters act so noxious that I can’t imagine “Red Socks” ever crossing over into “likeable” territory. But it sure is fun to hate.

Erik Adams: Normally, I’m the type of guy who follows the advice of that nice, spiky-haired young man and his strangely 25-year-old friends on the Kennedy High baseball team: Eliminate the negative and all that. But we’re reaching the point in this look at musical sequences on TV where “Hey, they tried their best with what they had” starts to wear thin. Even within the context of a trunk musical—that domain of regional-theater companies and middle-school drama programs alike—the flop sweat pours from “Red Socks.” If “Daria!” felt like it was done on a dare, this episode comes off like it was written, performed, filmed, and edited at gunpoint. Ostensibly, a TV series mounts an experiment like this to break from routine and inject some fun into a job that, nine years in, might feel like a chore. Instead, “Red Socks” embodies the forced-fun perception of musical theater, seemingly thrusting into the spotlight the types of people who would grouse about the implausibility of characters spontaneously bursting into song.

In turn, the episode presents a “Why bother?” approach to its subject matter. Pivoting off Noel’s theory: What if Plimpton wrote this as an indictment of romantic love, using beloved pop melodies to underline the phoniness of Valentine’s Day, all the while illustrating the various complications and inconveniences of falling in love? The over-commercialized facets of the holiday are a refrain throughout “Red Socks,” and each of the relationships depicted within the episode look like a pain in the ass for those involved. Marriage leaves the Camdens with a messy sink and ruined clothes. There’s no such thing as love at first sight for Simon and Anna—just raging hormones. The simple task of buying a gift for Lucy is a Herculean labor. The almighty dollar trumps Ruthie’s teenage crush. Consider abstinence, because the alternative is a pair of hellspawn hopped-up on sugar and demanding presents. There’s a pat, happy ending for each of the “Red Socks” couples, but those feel grafted on, as if Hampton read Plimpton’s first draft and said, “You know you’re not producing this for the Steppenwolf, right?” It’s hard to stay positive about “Red Socks” when the episode itself is so inadvertently cynical.

Stray observations:

When Annie is singing “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs,” keep an eye out for a Betty White doppelganger among the extras. She has the weirdest grin. [TV]

I’m not against the abstinence storyline in this episode per se, but my God was that blonde girl pushy. [RM]

Seriously, if I hear “Love Is Sweeping The Country” in my car, I’ll swerve into oncoming traffic. [RM]

As someone who grew up in the South, where “religious” and “teetotaler” goes hand-in-hand, it always surprises me when a family-oriented TV show depicts a man of the cloth as a drinker. [NM]

Noel describes the excitement of watching every step of Kevin’s search for V-Day roses. My favorite part is when he does a parody of the Monty Python cheese-shop sketch, asking the florist whether every potential color of rose is in stock before finally asking whether the shop is out of flowers entirely. Shoot me now. [DB]

Hey, did you catch what book Simon was reading? If I read the title right, it appeared to be Philip Roth’s lusty roman-à-clef Portnoy’s Complaint. I gotta think that was Plimpton’s idea. [NM]

Accentuating the positive, I will note that I smiled when two baseball players squirted water bottles into the air during the part of the song about Jonah and Noah. If only the number had been shot in such a way as to put that clever bit of choreography within the frame. [DB]

As much as I hate this episode, I have nothing but love for Happy The Dog, who pretty much steals the show. His reaction shots provide effective emotional manipulation, which is more than I can say for anything else on display. [RM]

Has anyone ever done an official study to see what the rates of teen pregnancy are among people who watched this show—well, religiously? Because if they turned out to be any higher than average, or higher than those of fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Teen Mom, that would make my millennium. [PDN]

I like how Simon walks away from his girlfriend just long enough for his mom to swoop in with her scold-song, then returns with an apologetic attitude that indicates he was watching the whole thing happen from in the wings. You don’t just let something like “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs” happen to the person you love without intervening, Simon! [GK]

Donna, I had the same reaction as you to the very un-twin-like twins, but then I realized that the strict regulations on how long kids that young can work would make casting identical twins really hard; you’d really have to cast triplets or even quadruplets in order to be able to swap them out long enough to get the takes you need. But still, couldn’t they have at least put the shorter one in lifts or something? [GK]

Did anyone else notice that the bakery Eric is shut out of is named Frenchie’s French Bakery? I suspect it’s right around the corner from the Limey’s English Pub and Kraut & Sons Haus Of Sausage. (I hesitate to ask for the name of a Japanese steakhouse or taqueria in Glen Oak.) [EA]

I find it amusing and appropriate that Happy The Dog is the first cast member credited on the IMDB page for 7th Heaven. [GK]

It’s probably just me, but I’ve always sort of felt sorry for Stephen Collins. He started his career in the ’70s, a time of antiheroes and ethnic-identity politics, and he’s such a square-jawed, white-bread type that he got stuck with such roles as the most sympathetic of the Watergate conspirators in All The President’s Men and the guy at the underground newspaper in Between The Lines who has some self-protective careerist instincts. So here he is, 30-odd years down the line, stuck playing a loveably fumbling minister for 11 years on a teen-idol show. I always wished for him to get a chance to, I don’t know, do a legendary job hosting Saturday Night Live, or have a really good sex tape come out, and show that he was a little hipper than his roles, and I don’t know that he ever did. But for all I know, he isn’t. [PDN]

I’m still baffled as to the fact that Martha Plimpton was involved in this. [TV]

Next week: Donna Bowman takes us into the world of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia for “The Nightman Cometh.” After that, Erik Adams takes us to a taxi garage in ’70s New York for Taxi’s “Substitute Father.” (The first is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. The second is on YouTube.)