NEW YORK – It's been a weird spring for the people on "7th Heaven," which ends like it spent most of its 10-year life -- disrespected despite being more popular than anything else the WB network has on the air.
Told last fall that the series was ending, they've been teased with the idea that it would live again, only to be disappointed.
The Camden family will gather Monday night for Simon's wedding in an episode that weaves in scenes from the pilot first aired in August 1996.
A few weeks after "7th Heaven" officially became the longest-running family drama in TV history, the WB announced in November that this would be its last season. No official reason was given, but it's best to follow the money in these circumstances: successful series become much more expensive as they age, primarily because the pay for everyone shoots up, and "7th Heaven" has a large cast.
Yet before the finale was filmed, the WB was canceled, too.
Corporate owners said they were shutting down the WB and UPN networks at the end of this summer. They will combine forces to make a new network, the CW, which debuts in September.
Almost immediately there was talk that "7th Heaven" wasn't really dead, or that it might be replaced by a spinoff.
"We all got pretty comfortable with the idea that the show was going to be over, (back) in November and December," said Stephen Collins, who portrays family patriarch Rev. Eric Camden. "So it's been kind of weird, hearing all the rumors."
His agent received a cryptic phone call from someone involved with the show wondering if Collins would be available if the series were to continue in some form. He's also curious about why the show's sets weren't torn down a month after the finale was filmed.
No one's told him anything more definitive, so he's left to assume it really is over.
There was substance to some of the rumors. A couple of months ago there was a quiet meeting involving the show's producers; Dawn Ostroff, programming chief for the CW; and Nancy Tellem, who oversees CBS-owned studios. "7th Heaven" is produced by Spelling Television, which is owned by Paramount TV, which is owned by CBS Corp., which owns part of the CW.
Got that? Since there was now a financial relationship between the studio and network, they explored whether it made financial sense to keep the series alive.
"We really brainstormed every possible way to continue the show and ... ran all the numbers for them," said Brenda Hampton, "7th Heaven" executive producer. "But it just costs more than they want to spend."
She had several ideas for spinoffs, which would have continued the story with a much leaner cast. Those didn't seem to go anywhere, either.
Hampton and Collins both consider the notion that "7th Heaven" was too expensive to be an excuse, saying there are other series on the WB that cost as much to make.
"I think it's because we were kind of an old shoe and they probably wanted something more glittery and new," Collins said. "TV seems to fall for that over and over again. We were very fortunate to kind of fly under the radar for 10 years."
Collins is used to the show being slighted. The WB has always tried to be a young, buzzworthy network and there was nothing even remotely hip about "7th Heaven." It gets relatively little attention for a show that still pulls the numbers. Its average of 5.2 million viewers a week this season is tops for the WB, with "Gilmore Girls" next at 4.6 million.
You would think the new CW would want to begin operations airing a show that comes with such a reliable audience, he said.
Hampton felt certain enough that it was over that she recently went out and spent $300 to pull some scrapbooks together.
"I have no news that it's not the last episode," she said.
"7th Heaven" is the first of a planned series finales this month, including "The West Wing" and "Malcolm in the Middle" (both May 14); "That '70s Show" and "Will & Grace" (May 18); and "Alias" (May 22).
The "7th Heaven" finale brings several story lines to a close, but viewers will leave with the sense that life goes on for the Camden family, Collins said. That also leaves open the possibility for televised reunions in the future, he said.
"I think it will be pretty satisfying to people," he said.
The cast didn't quite know how to feel filming the final episode while still uncertain about the future.
"It was very odd," he said. "The human mind and heart can't hold two realities at once. You can't say, `Oh, this is the end of 10 wonderful years' and at the same time wonder if you're going to get picked up. In a way it felt not much different than the end of the previous seasons."
Hampton has reason to move on. The "7th Heaven" finale comes on the same day that two Ethiopian boys that she and her husband are adopting arrive in the United States.
"I'd love to keep doing it," she said, "but I'm grateful for the 10 years we've had on the air. Nothing lasts forever. This is a long time to have the same job in Hollywood."