7th Heaven's Milestone Episode

The Rev. Eric Camden is the guest of honor at a party in tonight's 7th Heaven, but the celebration might as well be for the show itself.

It's the 100th episode, a milestone for the family comedy-drama. Longevity was hardly a guarantee for what began in 1996 as WB's lowest-rated program. Lacking the cachet of hip counterparts that feature vampire slayers and hyper-articulate teens, it nevertheless has risen to become the youth-oriented network's top-rated show.

Cross-generational appeal fuels viewership, says Stephen Collins, who plays Camden, a minister, husband and father of seven who will be feted tonight (8 ET/PT) by characters he has helped. The episode features brief appearances by earlier guest stars, including Ray Walston, who died shortly after the taping.

Adults tell Collins the whole family can watch 7th Heaven, and serious topics, including racism, drug use and teen pregnancy, give them something to talk about afterward.

''It touches people,'' Collins says, but avoids a goody-two-shoes sensibility with its sense of humor, courtesy of its creator and executive producer, Brenda Hampton.

''Because of her gift for comedy, Brenda can have these people keep doing the right thing without being cloying,'' Collins says.

Hampton, who wrote for Mad About You, acknowledges that the functional Camdens are not your average family.

''It's the ideal we'd all like our family to be -- with a sense of humor.''

The family's decency doesn't exempt them from problems. Tonight, Eric has his first face-to-face meeting with rebellious daughter Mary (Jessica Biel) since sending her away to live with relatives, a story line written to accommodate Biel's enrollment at Tufts University.

''It's a wonderful scene, but not a happy scene,'' Collins says. In real life, Biel's off-screen plea to leave the show, included in a magazine article last year that featured suggestive photos, caused no problems on the set, he says.

Hampton credits 7th Heaven 's success to good casting, writing and production, along with the support of executive producer Aaron Spelling, who has had success with family drama ( Family ). Hampton's co-executive producer, Sue Tenney, wrote tonight's show.

Romantic pairings will be featured in coming weeks, with Matt (Barry Watson) getting together with somebody else's old flame and Lucy (Beverley Mitchell) finding the love of her life, ''only we may find him with Mary later,'' Hampton says. The discovery of a wallet with a condom in the house will have the family speculating about its ownership.

Hampton, who has married and adopted two children since the program's premiere, says family events help fuel the show, which also runs in syndication.

''I wrote in the twins'' -- born to Annie Camden (Catherine Hicks) --''because my sister has twins,'' she says. ''So, if the show continues, we'll have plenty of twins stories.''

That's likely, since a deal renegotiation means the series will be back next year, WB executive vice president Jordan Levin says.

''When we started, we felt it was time for a (family) show that was lighter and paced quicker and had multiple story lines,'' he says. ''It's been the little engine that could.''

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