There's something about Mary.
Mary Camden, that is.
The teen-age "7th Heaven" character has been through some tough times in the past two years. First, she was arrested for vandalizing the school gym. Then she skipped college, racked up bills she couldn't pay, got involved with drug- and alcohol-swilling friends, and stole money from her twin baby brothers.
When her parents, the Rev. Eric (Stephen Collins) and Annie (Catherine Hicks) Camden, had had enough, they shipped Mary to Buffalo to live with Eric's parents. Mary had become a "bad girl," seemingly following in the footsteps of the actress who plays her.
Last winter, Jessica Biel sought to sex up her wholesome image by appearing semi-topless in Gear, a men's magazine that's not quite as racy as Playboy, but a sex, beer and buds publication in the Maxim mold.
Biel cursed like a sailor, said she could kick her character's behind (but used a three-letter word for "behind") and threatened to quit "7th Heaven." "I'm leaving, period," she told Gear.
A year later, her attitude has turned around.
"I'm just going to lay it straight on the table, I made a horrible, horrible choice," Biel said at a WB party last month in Pasadena, Calif. "Those were just not the right people to work with. It was not the right thing to do for myself, for my career. It was an incredible learning experience. I learned more about myself and how actions really can affect other people when you think they can only benefit or not benefit yourself."
This is a different Biel than the bratty girl I met two years ago at a similar party. I wasn't hugely surprised when the immature girl I met appeared in Gear. Since then Biel has grown up.
A cynic might think she had no choice. Executive producer Aaron Spelling was unhappy with her Gear stunt. Maybe she felt his wrath. But I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Last month, dressed rather demurely and vaguely like a '40s starlet, Biel seemed sincerely contrite.
"That was just a mistake and something in my past I guess I had to go through to really see what I needed to find out about me," Biel said. "I don't want an image. I don't want to be like some bad girl."
It turns out, neither does Mary. In tonight's 100th episode of "7th Heaven," Mary returns from Buffalo for a visit. There are hugs and tears and the mending of some relationships. But before that, there's mystery about why Mary is coming home and whether her "teen-age lothario" ex-boyfriend, Robbie, is plotting against the Camdens.
Biel, who turns 19 in March, acknowledged the story of Mary spinning out of control probably stemmed from her own mistakes.
"A writer like [series creator] Brenda Hampton is very perceptive of what's going on in everyone's life," Biel said. "I think it could have something to do with it, but it's really nice how she's planning to make the character transition. Mary comes to a point in life where she doesn't know what she's going to do and doesn't know if she's going to go to school. Then she's going to rise up from that and find balance, making something of herself and choosing a path. I'm pretty sure that's where Mary's character is going, and that's sort of where I was going in my own life. I was a crazy teen-ager, and I didn't know what I was doing."
Biel said the show's young fans have been shocked by Mary's behavior.
"A lot of people have been hurt by the way Mary's treated her family and all her actions with her friends getting involved with substance abuse," Biel said. "They were just sad for her and hurt and scared. I'm sorry they feel that way, but I think they're going to be pleased and feel good when she comes full circle and gets back to her normal self and finally figures out what she wants to do."
Series star Stephen Collins credits Hampton with the Mary story.
"The usual solution would be to kill her off or have an exchange student from another country come in," Collins said. He was concerned the Mary story would be too much of a downer, but Hampton found a way to make it palatable.
"Brenda's solution was to keep all the stories completely within the household," Collins said. "Everything is about the walls of the house reverberating with all these problems."
Mary's departure hasn't driven viewers away; in fact, ratings are up. Collins said it's because Hampton always kept the show an ensemble piece and never made any one character the star. That's evident in tonight's show, which is not all about Mary.
In celebration of the series' landmark episode, "7th Heaven" features a guest appearance by Eileen Brennan, reprising Mrs. Bink, the role she played in the show's pilot episode. A party in the closing moments of the hour brings back more than 100 former guest stars, including Ed Begley Jr., Deborah Raffin, Peter Tork and the late Ray Walston.
It's a heartfelt hour, even if some of the plot twists stretch credulity. Robbie's turn from the sex-obsessed guy who tried to bed Mary at a motel last season to a near saint this year is particularly unbelievable. That's OK, "7th Heaven" is just accentuating the positive, something Biel has learned to do, too.
She's happy at college, although she says it's challenging. Her decision to attend Tufts University in Massachusetts is the reason Mary was written off the show. But it wasn't easy for Biel to see the re-filmed dinner scene in the opening credits. For years it's included the whole family, but in episodes without Biel, she's not seen at the dinner table.
"I was there when we shot the dinner table scene. They shot one with me in it, and then they said, 'All right, Jessie, you can get up.' So I got up and no one else got up, and everyone looked really confused and it was bizarre," Biel said. "It was very sad. I called my mother close to tears, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, Mom, I'm not in the credits anymore.' It was a traumatic thing for me because it's a big part of my life, but after the shock of it, it's OK. I'm not totally gone. If I was totally gone, it would be heartbreaking."
Despite her protestations to Gear a year ago, Biel plans to continue to appear on "7th Heaven" from time to time as her college schedule allows.
"I would like to be involved in the show as much as I possibly can," she said. "I don't know how easily we can do it for how many years to come, but as long as we can keep doing it during my breaks, I would love to come back and forth."
Returning to "7th Heaven" also gives Biel a chance to spend time with her real-life boyfriend, Adam LaVorgna, who plays Robbie, Mary's ex-boyfriend, who now lives with the Camdens. The couple met several years ago while making the Jonathan Taylor Thomas-starring movie "I'll Be Home For Christmas." LaVorgna was attending Boston College when Biel suggested him for the role of Robbie last season. Now he's taking a break from school to appear on "7th Heaven" full time, even as he and Biel have swapped coasts.
"There are times when it's frustrating, but he's having a good time and it's a really great opportunity, and I'm in school and it's OK," Biel said.
Rather than taking the show for granted as she seemed to a year ago, Biel credits "7th Heaven" with jump-starting her career. "I totally appreciate that," she said. "If I didn't do '7th Heaven,' I don't know what would have happened. They gave me the chance to really do what I love to do."
Just like a "7th Heaven" episode, Jessica Biel's story appears to have a happy ending.
You can reach Rob Owen at email@example.com. Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.