All the ink these days goes to The Osbournes, and, hell knows, Ozzy deserves it. But there is a precursor to The Osbournes' off-kilter, happily confusing mixture of familial love and conflict. I speak, of course, of 7th Heaven, still (and I always include this factoid because...well, because I think it probably really irks those gals over on Charmed) The WB's most-watched series. This is the ongoing story of a Protestant minister, his wife, his brood of oddly dissimilar-looking children, and, as they always bill the family dog, ''Happy as 'Happy.''' Though marketed as staid all-ages fare, Heaven is, I would assert, actually The WB's most radical series stylistically, favoring a unique strategy of narrative slowness and stubborn irresolution. And I mean all that as a compliment.
In any given edition of Heaven, an extremely simple plotline is introduced: Teen daughter Lucy (Beverley Mitchell), for example, refuses to remove her ring long after the engagement has been broken off; or reverend daddy Eric (Stephen Collins) grows troubled that his eldest son, Matt (Barry Watson), may be sleeping with his fiancee. Then for most of the hour, the characters stew over their puzzlements, their suspicions, their resentments; they discuss them with other, uninvolved-in-the-subplot characters. But, crucially -- comically -- they invariably refrain from directly asking the object of the plotline what in Heaven's name is going on. Take another example: For weeks on end earlier this season, the reverend's wife, Annie (Catherine Hicks), was atypically rude and cranky. She raged, for instance, that Eric wasn't helping enough around the house (he frequently looked heavenward for the strength to endure his matrimonial travails). Long after Annie's behavior ceased to be annoying/boring and ascended to the realm of funny/peculiar, Eric finally asked what was up. Duh: menopause. Hugs and kisses and hormone treatments all around. Well, just Annie got the hormones. Eric, exhausted yet elated that the mystery of his wife had been solved, was a candidate for ecstasy, either the religious or the chemical kind.
This week, Heaven wraps up a two-part season ender that does an excellent job of summarizing the weird appeal of this bland-on-the-outside, wild-on-the-inside series. Matt is going to marry Sarah (Sarah Danielle Madison), a girl he recently met. (This, by the way, is also a Heaven trait fans know well: All the Camden children fall intensely in and out of love with different people all the time. Mitchell's Lucy, who wants to be a minister like dear old Dad, is a particularly avid serial lip locker.) Anyway, Sarah is Jewish -- a big deal because her father is a rabbi intent on converting Matt, a move that the reverend finds unacceptable. Eric's excuse is that he objects to the quickness of Matt's conversion, but the intensity of his dislike for the rabbi (who's played by Richard Lewis, for God's sake -- what's not to like?) and his wife (SNL alum Laraine Newman, looking very sheepish) is, like so much in this series, stunningly blunt. Eric even complains about his involvement in the temple marriage ceremony, saying ''All I get to do is hold a little stinking candle.'' The rabbi isn't portrayed as any more seemly, either: ''It's nothing against this kid Matt,'' he tells his wife. ''He's just not, uh, Jewish.'' She responds by invoking the great Semitic sage Woody Allen: ''The heart wants what the heart wants.''
See what I mean about Heaven's weird appeal? On May 6, an entire hour was devoted to extolling the virtues of a real-life Marine, Staff Sgt. Dwight J. Morgan, who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Jan. 20. The episode -- effectively, sincerely moving -- concluded with Eric presiding over a memorial church service, asking everyone to honor the Marine's sacrifice by behaving better toward each other. But by the next week 11-year-old Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman) kicks live-in guest Robbie (charmer Adam LaVorgna) out of his room, saying it used to be hers and she wants it back, pronto. So much for Christian kindness. And the dads are so angry about the pending interfaith marriage, they call it off without consulting Matt or Sarah. So much for ecumenical cooperation.
If you think I'm condemning Heaven for its inconsistency, you've got me wrong. It's this kind of absurdly contradictory behavior, combined with dialogue that sounds as if it's been briskly rewritten from Leave It to Beaver scripts, that makes Heaven my No. 1 family show. I'm just sorry that Jessica Biel -- whose Mary, over the past year, has tried without success to become a firefighter and a police officer and is now a notably flibbertigibbet flight attendant -- is cutting back her presence on the show next season. And it looks like Watson's destined-to-be-hitched character may fly the Camden coop as well. With less Matt and Mary, 7th Heaven loses a key element of its transcendent inanity. And of course, transcendence is a quality Heaven was created to achieve. B+