After graduating from Nickelodeon cartoons, the first television drama I watched regularly as a kid was 7th Heaven. Created and produced by Brenda Hampton, the WB drama series set in the fictionalized town of Glenoak, California, follows a minister, Rev. Camden, his wife, and their ever-expanding brood of children. I watched all seven kids grow up through the years as my own big, chaotic family did the same in real life. Their world was like mine, only better.
Having grown up Catholic, the Camden family’s Protestantism seemed positively chill in comparison. I started watching the show around the time our local church was weathering its first major scandal (of my lifetime, anyway): My favorite priest, who’d recently overseen my First Communion alongside the priest in our family, my beloved great-uncle, had been removed from active ministry following sexual abuse allegations. I didn’t know the details at the time; I was under the impression, for some reason, that Father Morrissey had been suspended and disgraced because he’d had a (consensual) relationship with an adult woman — maybe my mom told me that, to spare me the truth — and I felt angry at the church for denying him, and all priests, the right to (consensually) love whomever he’d like. I was angry and sad, but I also felt ashamed — ashamed to be thinking about sex in any context, but particularly sex involving my priest.
So I nursed my Catholic guilt and budding sexual repression with wholesome doses of 7th Heaven. This kindly protestant minister, Rev. Camden (Stephen Collins), couldn’t possibly get into any similar sort of scandal. He was allowed to be married with children! (It would be another decade before Collins admitted to sexually abusing three underage girls, and by then, I’d have long since lost my faith in Christianity, men, and the world in general.)
Like basically every television family, the Camdens had their squabbles, but any major issue — most caused by bad-seed guest stars who didn’t share the Camden’s values — would be resolved by the end of every episode. I envied that manufactured ease, that stability. I was the oldest of five kids, and for a few years as a preteen, I had four extra pseudo stepsiblings, my mom’s boyfriend’s children; I loved the happy chaos of my big family, but we were also plagued by petty jealousies and money problems.
Plus, my parents weren’t anything like Rev. Camden and his wife, who were always sweeping in and saving the day for their children, sheltering them from sex, drugs, and other plagues of modern life. The older I got, the less both my mother’s and father’s houses served as my shelter; eventually, they instead became places to escape from. My reality was different from the comforting universe of 7th Heaven, in which, “when the world don’t treat you right,” the one place you could always go was home.
On a more subconscious level, that sense of comfort probably drew me to watch a hundred-plus episodes. But on the surface, I was in it for the long haul for less lofty reasons. Mostly I had an enormous crush on Simon (David Gallagher), who in earlier seasons was the exact sort of floppy-haired, androgynous twink who lulled me into a false sense of heterosexuality for so long. Less obvious to me at the time, I must have also had a thing for Jessica Biel, who, as Mary, was the basketball-playing long-haired butch of my dreams.
Even though the show was basically just 11 seasons of Christian propaganda, it took me years to finally get turned off by the heavy-handed moralizing sewn into each issue-themed episode; I really believed, for a while there, that a loving two-parent household and the not-so-sneakily conservative values they espoused might have been the things I was missing from my life.
When I was 13 or 14, we got more channels and my television allegiances switched from the more wholesome ABC Family to the darker, grungier The N, which would eventually be rebranded as TeenNick. Around the same time, I accidentally-on-purpose stumbled upon my first gay books in the YA section of my beloved hometown library — David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy and The Realm of Possibility, Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World, Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower — I also began watching South of Nowhere, one of The N’s original series.
The pilot, which aired in November 2005, follows a teenager named Spencer Carlin (Gabrielle Christian) who moves from the middle of nowhere, Ohio, to Los Angeles with her parents and her two teen brothers, Glen (Chris Hunter) and Clay (Danso Gordon). At this point in my life, I had never been to California; I’d never even left the East Coast. Going to high school in LA seemed positively exotic. (Their lockers are all outside!)
South of Nowhere, like Degrassi: The Next Generation — another show I discovered and fell in love with, thanks to The N — was a melodrama about Issues: racism, adoption, homophobia, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, sex and drugs and friendship and romance. Overindulged sepia tones and shaky cam made the world of the show seem ethereal and dreamy, the people dreamier still. But unlike a show like, say, 7th Heaven, which involved kids blundering through adolescence only to be put back on the “right” path by all-knowing white Christian grown-ups, the moral fabric of these shows was more complicated. Christian grown-ups didn’t always know what was best for the kids in their care; sometimes, they could even be the villains.
In South of Nowhere, wholesome Ohioan Spencer meets walking Wet Seal ad Ashley Davies (Mandy Musgrave), the daughter of a famous rock star, an absent mother, and a string of volatile stepparents. When we’re introduced to Ashley, she’s wearing every possible kind of clothing I coveted as a middle schooler: a cropped shrug covered in sequins, knee-high black boots, an impossibly tiny camouflage miniskirt. She and her new lower-back tattoo take Spencer on a whirlwind tour of LA before they end up in Ashley’s mansion, in her bed, watching TV and complaining about boys. “It’s a good thing they’re not the only choice,” Ashley says, placing her hand on Spencer’s.
Both me and Spencer at this point: They aren’t?????????
South of Nowhere took the well-worn trope of a dark-haired vixen dragging an innocent blonde to the dark side and pushed it further than others have dared to go: the sexual tension that tends to burn beneath the surface of so many fictionalized good girl/bad girl close friendships is made explicit. Ashley’s confidence and openness about her bisexuality lead Spencer to navigate her own budding queerness; the love triangle between Spencer, Ashley, and basketball god Aiden (Matt Cohen) is sexy and awkward and feels true to what it’s like to be 16 and becoming queerer by the minute. Spencer wonders, as so many of us did, do I just want to be like my hot best friend — Aiden’s on-again, off-again fling — or do I want to date her?
But this was the mid-2000s, and the show wasn’t able to fully deliver on its queer promises. Though South of Nowhere tackled plenty of tough topics for the viewership of its young audience — Clay, Spencer’s adopted brother and the only black person in his white family, is killed in a drive-by shooting (on prom night!) — the network apparently thought queer intimacy would be taking things a step too far.
“We weren’t allowed to do anything,” Nancylee Myatt, a writer and producer who coexecutive-produced the series for its first two seasons, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “The courtship, the suffering fans will remember, took us a very long time to consummate. ... What is the difference between two young girls falling in love and a guy and a girl falling in love? I knew what the answer was gonna be. It’s too controversial.” Eventually, Ashley and Spencer are able to nearly consummate their relationship, but their brief dalliance is quickly interrupted by Spencer’s mother (Maeve Quinlan), who violently wrenches Ashley away from Spencer and pulls her by the hair down the stairs.
Spencer’s parents — a doctor and a social worker, well-meaning white Christians who have devoted their careers to improving other people’s lives — are nevertheless ill-equipped to do right by two of their children: a son who’s black and searching for meaning and identity outside his home; a daughter who’s falling in love with another girl. It’s a much harsher reality of home life than the glossy, platitudinal 7th Heaven — and perhaps, for many viewers, a truer one.
As I got older, I’d become exhausted by the reality that the few gay narratives about young people that make it to the mainstream, even now, are often rife with pain and suffering. But at the time, I think it was important to see a show, however feebly, take swings at the pretty picture of heteronormative domesticity — and to acknowledge that, sometimes, the kids are not all right. Sometimes that's because parents wield Christianity to oppress their own children.
I quit the Catholic Church a few weeks before my confirmation, guided, perhaps, by my latent lesbianism as much as by my newfound sense of feminism and social justice. If I harbored any last shreds of Christian goodwill, they dried up for good when the priest I had so loved and admired as a kid died in 2014, and I learned the real reason he’d been removed from my childhood church — the same year that Stephen Collins admitted to sexual abuse. I’m glad that since my 7th Heaven and Catholic Church–going days, my life (and my television) has gotten a lot queerer. Which is to say: a lot better. ●