In the Camden family, even the dog was a narc.
Throughout its run, 7th Heaven—the WB’s long-running, famously moralistic series about minister Eric Camden and his family—framed coming of age in America as a minefield of potentially disastrous “mistakes” like teen pregnancy. And one of its most absurd “special episodes” arrived early on, in Season 2, when the eldest Camden kid, 17-year-old Matt, brought home—gasp!—a joint.
As we wish a happy 4/20 to all who celebrate, especially in states where marijuana’s recently become legal for recreational use, it seemed like a good time to revisit this monument to overwrought television writing to see what we might… learn? We’ll go with “learn.”
Sitcoms had already established a long tradition of spreading alarm about weed by the time 7th Heaven rolled its first joint. Saved by the Bell’s most infamous drug-related special episode might have involved Jessie Spano and a lot of uppers, but let us not forget the one where Bayside High School students were dismayed to find out their teen idol, Johnny Dakota, had a serious drug problem—i.e., he smoked weed. By the time 7th Heaven got in on the trend, it was already on its way out. Still, given the show’s dedication to preachiness, the gambit felt right at home. (Thanks to its “elevated after-school special” vibe, the show was never exactly held in high esteem—even before Stephen Collins, the actor who played Minister Camden, confessed to sexually abusing underage girls in 2014.)
“Who Knew,” the fourth installment of 7th Heaven Season 2, opens on what seems to be a perfectly normal Friday afternoon. Matt is just about to leave school for another weekend of sulking when a classmate asks about his “party plate” for the weekend and hands him a joint. The Chekhovian doobie falls out of Matt’s pocket when he returns home and stoops down to pet the family dog, Happy.
7th Heaven believes in miracles, so naturally Happy picks the joint up and stays seated at the door, marijuana in mouth, for several minutes until Eric arrives home from work. When Eric finally walks in, the plot device—[cough] I mean, dog—drops the reefer at his feet. Let the madness begin!
Eric struggles at first to figure out which of his precious young souls has defiled their bodies with marijuana; the possible culprits in this house seem endless. As Matt wolfs down cookies in the kitchen, eldest daughter Mary (hi, Jessica Biel!) is nursing some very red eyes—allegedly a reaction to all the incense middle daughter Lucy has been burning. Also cause for concern, and probably the incense: Lucy has started flirting with a new boy who’s got her, in her mother’s words, “dressing like a bad poet, throwing around words like per se.”
Case closed? Not so fast! There’s also Mary’s beau, Wilson—a teenage widower who apparently is so in love with Mary that he’s willing to endure her family’s obvious judgment every second of every day for being a teen father. Could he have brought the ganja?! Detective Eric is not ruling it out. Not even Simon, the family’s most black-and-white moralist in these years, escapes scrutiny; after all, he’s just started junior high.
Eventually, our Sherlock shows the contraband to his Watson—his wife, Annie—who asks (understandably) if Eric is sure it’s pot. After a sniff, however, she answers her own question and hides the joint in her dresser as the parents set out to determine which of their brood is “using drugs.”
The next twist should be obvious to anyone who’s ever owned a television. Mary and Lucy are preparing for their respective boys to come over when Lucy decides she wants to borrow one of her mother’s scarves to impress her Rasta-loving crush. As Lucy rifles through her mother’s drawers, she finds the spliff of mysteries—leading her and Mary to the shocked conclusion that their parents are potheads.
Simon, meanwhile, becomes his father’s first interrogation subject as he helps baby sister Ruthie do laundry. (He apparently measures the laundry soap using his mother’s bra cup as a “shortcut,” seemingly ignoring the measuring scoop he used to load said soap into said bra cup…? Not sure what that’s about.) But it quickly becomes obvious to Eric that his second son is no stoner as he describes the after-school videos he must watch in junior high, depicting “junkies laying in alleys, needles sticking out of their arms, drooling all over themselves.”
“It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how dumb drugs are,” Simon insists.
(To my recollection, Simon never faced down heroin in 7th Heaven—but remember that episode from a couple seasons later, where his art student classmates are huffing spray paint while painting a mural for school? And then they make fun of him for not using it by calling him “too pure?” That was wild.)
Things heat up when Lucy’s crush, Rod, arrives at the Camden house for dinner—on his moped, in a Bob Marley T-shirt and leather jacket, and with a peach-fuzzy mustache. But they explode when Annie drops a harsh toke on her husband: The summer before she left for college, she “did a little experimenting” herself and tried marijuana. (It was the ’70s, man!)
After dinner, an absolutely distressed Eric confronts his wife with perhaps the best line in 7th Heaven history: “How could you just drop a bomb on me like that and then serve eight people and a dog a meatloaf like nothing happened?!”
Annie, however, is convinced that her acquaintance with Mary Jane might help her bond with Matt. She tearfully tells him about the time she and some friends got stoned in a TV room—and how, true to “Very Special Episode” form, one of those friends got into an accident while driving home. She embraces her son and begs him to never make the same mistake.
Cue a family meeting, in which Eric holds up the joint and Simon finally asks the question that could have saved us all a lot of time and cagey conversations: Whose is it?
After an awkward pause, Matt fesses up—but rather than let him explain, the entire family goes apoplectic.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Simon shouts. “I can’t believe you!”
Melancholy piano and strings kick in as Eric lays into his son. “The look that you just saw on Simon’s face,” he says, “is the look of a kid who’s just lost all respect for his older brother.”
“Is this why you’ve never held down a job?” Eric asks. “Because hey, here’s something that doesn’t take a whole lot of skill to do—just a lighter and a complete lack of self-respect!”
(On one hand, this is a terrible thing for someone to tell their son. On the other, the lighter bit is pretty amusing because in an earlier scene, Lucy, Mary and Eric had all been trying to figure out where a box of matches went, as if it never occurred to the pot smoker to pick up a Bic. It’s reassuring to know that this family is at least aware of lighters!)
Anyhow, Eric’s tirade concludes with a devastating verbal coup de grâce: “Please explain to us how anyone could be so stupid as to do drugs in the first place.”
The comeback: “I don’t know dad. Why don’t you ask mom? Maybe she can explain it to you!”
At this point, Matt storms out of the house to join a friend with god-like timing who’s just pulled up to whisk him away from the house for a party. His parents, meanwhile, process the blowout fight and try to figure out how they’ll ever rebuild trust with their delinquent son. Eventually, they decide to go to Eric’s church just in time to find Matt sitting in the pews. Turns out, he got out of the friend’s car after all, and he’s in the middle of a prayer—or perhaps we should call it a devotion ex machina.
“I don’t know what I was going to do with it but I swear I never even smoked pot,” a tearful Matt says. “If I could just go back, I would, but I can’t. I’m so sorry. It was so stupid. I don’t know how they’re ever gonna trust me again if they won’t listen to me.”
Thanks to that wonderful timing, Team Camden never has to figure out how to communicate with one another like a functional family unit. Instead of determining how to listen to and respect their nearly 18-year-old son’s choices (or at least react in a way that is not completely insane), Eric and Annie get to tightly embrace their boy, comforted by the knowledge that he’s “never touched the stuff.” The three return home, united in their righteous knowledge that marijuana truly is the enemy.
So, uh, what did we learn? Well, first and most obviously, there’s the fact that television spent way too long taking the whole Nancy Reagan thing to embarrassing heights, which we need not ever repeat again. But beyond that? Perhaps the true meaning of April 20 is all the joints we light (or in Matt’s case… don’t light) along the way. After all, life is a trail we all must blaze for ourselves.