''I'm feeling like I have a new life,'' exclaims 7th Heaven creator Brenda Hampton. ''It's like [we've] all had a near-death experience.'' Actually, what happened with the gently religious family drama sounds more like a full-blown death experience. The 10th season of Heaven was to be its last, or so the WB prophets intoned when they canceled it last November. But not long after the show's two-part finale in May (the second hour pulled a whopping 7.7 million viewers), The CW that network created in the image of The WB and UPN announced the Camden clan would be resurrected for at least another 22 episodes.
''I was in a state of shock,'' recalls Hampton. ''I had moved on, I had other things going.'' She wasn't the only one: Stephen Collins (Rev. Eric Camden) was working on another suspense novel (his third), and Beverley Mitchell (daughter Lucy) had headed to Nashville to record a country album. Catherine Hicks was looking forward to more time with her own 14-year-old daughter rather than with the seven kids Annie Camden had amassed during the past decade. But all were happy to move back into the Camden home. ''I was not ready for 7th Heaven to die,'' Mitchell proclaims. Adds Hicks: ''[The show] is like a public service at this point. It gives a lot of people something at a time when the world is falling apart.''
One Camden kid David Gallagher's Simon chose not to return as a regular, and Mackenzie Rosman (Ruthie) is only signed for seven episodes, but Hampton promises we'll be told ''where every family member has gone'' in the season premiere. (And Haylie Duff is back as new mom Sandy, but will we ever find out what she so urgently needed to tell Simon?) Another challenge: making sure the show's die-hard fans know it's coming back. The actors are making like CW missionaries, spreading the good news whenever they're stopped on the sidewalk. Marvels George Stults, who plays Lucy's husband, Kevin, ''Ninety-nine percent of the people I've come across think the show is canceled.''
Appropriately, life and death are the big themes this season. After announcing in the finale that she's pregnant with twins, Lucy will suffer a miscarriage. ''There's something honest and sweet about that,'' says Mitchell. ''Things have been quite rosy for the Camdens, and it's good to have reality hit.'' Collins says Reverend Camden, who has a history of heart problems, will be dealing with a life-threatening illness, which he initially tries to hide from the family. ''Brenda's idea is that people who think they might die become more open, [but also] less tolerant of people's bulls---.'' (Hey, watch your language there, Rev!) It all sounds about as fun as a funeral, but Hampton is quick to add that serious plots will be balanced by some funny story lines like Reverend Camden attempting to homeschool twin hellions Sam and David (Nikolas and Lorenzo Brino). ''I don't want to give the impression that it's going to be a Very Dark and Special 7th Heaven.'' God forbid.
By Hannah Tucker