Religion: it is difficult to find aspects of human life that cannot be related to this topic. This is inarguably also true of the television programs that we watch, especially those which deal explicitly with spiritual themes. Two such programs are ‘7th Heaven’ and ‘Supernatural’. While each takes a vastly different approach to matters of religion and spirituality, both in their time have garnered a loyal following. This review deconstructs the religious content in each program and draws conclusions as to the purpose and popularity each show.
7th Heaven chronicles the lives of the Camdens: a brood of seven children parented by dad Eric who is a Christian reverend and his wife Annie, a meddling stay-at-home mother. The Camden children are an interesting bunch; Matt the oldest is a medical student, Mary is the stereotypical bad girl, Lucy follows in her fathers footsteps and becomes a minister, Simon rebels against his family’s views on premarital sex, Ruthie navigates the battlefield of high school, and twins Sam and David complete the clan. 7th Heaven finds its purpose in providing a subtle moral education by covering contentious issues such as sex, drugs, teen pregnancy, and even the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Meltzer, 2006). This raises an interesting question: what made this moral-ridden tale of contemporary American Christianity so popular?
While the program is obviously religious, it is careful to keep the precise details of its’ evangelical affiliation vague. The characters rarely mention Jesus or the bible explicitly, and the exact denomination of the family, though obviously Christian, is never revealed. Winegarden suggests that this is a strategic move on the part of the producers; he states that by avoiding blatant religious preaching the program is able to promote faith in “an everyday way that seems natural and fitting”. Furthermore, he says religious beliefs flow organically into the family’s day-to-day life without being a rigid set of self-inflicted rules (Winegarden, 1998). And others agree that this idea is what makes up the 7th Heaven formula for success. The popularity of the show is also owed in part to its timely arrival at a period when the world was searching for enlightenment. While it previously appeared that religion did not have a place in prime time viewing, a poll conducted in 1997 concluded that 68% of people wished to see programs relating to spirituality on television (Winegarden, 1998). 7th Heaven was more than equipped to fill this void, finding a rare audience that comprised almost a perfect share of kids, teens, adults, and seniors (Jensen, 1999).
When the program ended its ten year run in 2006, it departed as the longest running family drama in history. Although Mhatre argues that the shows’ demise on the back of declining ratings marked the beginning of a new agnostic era of network television where the attention of viewers was to be drawn by the ‘supernatural’. Mhatre suggests that people had become “God-ed out” leading to a cache of new programs concerning themselves with ghosts, demons, vampires, and other paranormal creatures (Mhatre, 2006). An example of such a program is 2005’s ‘Supernatural’.
Supernatural tells the tale of the Sam and Dean Winchester, who fill their time banishing murderous ghosts, fighting (and occasionally making deals with) demons, and killing vampires. Sam and Dean are recruited into the ‘family business’ following the disappearance of their father who began fighting demons after a paranormal creature killed his wife (Supernatural Official, 2009). Unlike 7th Heaven, Supernatural does not represent any particular religious sect but that is not to say that the program lacks spiritual themes. Contemplations of life and death and heaven and hell feature heavily in Supernatural. For example, central character Dean is dragged into hell after he attempts to renege on a deal in which he traded his soul to restore his brother’s life.
Notably, like 7th Heaven, Supernatural arrived at the opportune moment. Lynn Schofield Clark agrees with Mhatre in that the world’s youth is becoming increasingly taken with the paranormal. Schofield Clark asserts that teens today have “less experience with religious institutions and formal belief systems that any of [their] predecessors” (Schofield Clark, 1998). Eleven year old Greg Norby surmises this feeling eloquently in the following comment:
"When God made woman from man, he didn’t want Adam to be lonely. He doesn’t want us to be lonely either. Now some of us are bored with what we’ve seen in our lives and want to see new things. Therefore I think God will relieve our boredom with aliens.” (Schofield Clark, 2003: 3)
The magic of Supernatural lies in quelling this boredom and feeding the thirst of youth for the paranormal. This would explain the type of viewers (18-49 year olds) and the ratings success- averaging 3.5 million per episode (Williams, 2008).
The transition from the evangelical enlightenment people yearned for during the reign of 7th Heaven to the demon killing paranormal adventures led by Sam and Dean Winchester in Supernatural reflects a global religious trend. There are currently 1.1 billion people classing themselves as secularists while concurrently many are moving towards the paranormal (Adherrents, 2009). Steve Wohlberg, for example, predicts that Wicca will be the third most popular religion in America by 2012 (Wohlberg, 2009). Although, after observing this global religious trend, perhaps the real question is where the world’s youth will find enlightenment next.
Adherrents, 2009, Major Religions of the World, viewed 18 August 2009, http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html.
Meltzer, M. 2006, 7th Heaven Goes to Heaven, viewed 19 August 2009, http://www.slate.com/id/2141151/.
Mhatre, A. 2006, Beyond 7th Heaven, viewed 17 August 2009, http://www.therevealer.org/archives/timely_002511.php.
Jensen, E. 1999, 7th Heaven a Hush-Hush Hit, viewed 17 August 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/22/entertainment/ca-10415.
Schofield Clark, L. 1998, Exploring the Role of Media in Identity-construction Amongst Teens, viewed 16 August 2009, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=223.
Schofield Clark, L. 2003, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, viewed 15 August 2009, http://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-_Pxhh-bn64C&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=the+supernatural+on+television&ots=0JU7Gj4Giz&sig=Sa9I7TH5eKt2PrNhpgWtkhpHAqA#v=onepage&q=&f=false.
Supernatural Official. 2009, Supernatural, viewed 16 August 2009, http://www.cwtv.com/shows/supernatural/about.
Williams, D. 2008, Supernatural Experiences a Ratings Surge, viewed 17 August 2009, http://www.buddytv.com/articles/supernatural/supernatural-season-4-experien-23386.aspx.
Winegarden, A. 1998, Prime Time Faith, viewed 18 August 2009, http://188.8.131.52/scholar?q=cache:nozSHNs8mssJ:scholar.google.com/+religion+%227th+Heaven%22&hl=en.
Wohlberg, S. 2009, Wicca Emerging as America’s Third Religion, viewed 18 August 2009, http://www.emediawire.com/releases/2005/4/emw231351.htm.