As a resident of the Virginia Blue Ridge in the 1970s, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger was obligated to like this show. As a thirty-something programmer in the Research Triangle today... he still does.
Though decades have passed and I've moved out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the theme song to The Waltons still haunts the back of my mind, evoking memories of the mountain paths I walked as a boy. Jerry Goldsmith's tune spins a perfect blend of melancholy and hope; his strains pierce right to the center of my heart. I responded to the show then. I wonder now whether the theme song is its sole legacy, or if The Waltons still has something to say.
Facts of the Case
The Great Depression is especially hard on those who live along Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains, like the Waltons, a very large family with little money and many cares. Yet as bad as life may seem, the support of a loving family, the kindness of neighbors, and hard work can get people through tough times.
John and Olivia Walton (Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, who won three Emmys for her work on The Waltons among a sea of nominations and wins earned by the ensemble cast) stoically lead a family of precocious children and grandparents. While Grandma and Grandpa Walton (Ellen Corby, Will Geer) bicker and dispense occasional wisdom, the seven Walton children encounter stray animals, transients, and troubled townsfolk. The standout in this gaggle is eldest son John-Boy (Richard Thomas as a semi-fictional character based on the memoirs of Southern writer Earl Hamner), a studious and introspective young man who wants to be a writer. The Waltons humbly live their lives, while their joys and sorrows are preserved through John-Boy's literary observations.
John-Boy shares with us these 24 tales:
• "Episode 1: The Journey"
The Waltons had a successful run by any measure. It was critically acclaimed, earning a flotilla of Emmy and Golden Globe nods over the years. It was long lived, spanning almost ten years in its nine-season run. Most important, though, was its extensive and loyal fan base, which allowed the show's ratings to flourish in a time when fluorescent gel bracelets and preppy clothes ruled the day.
Somewhere along the way it became cool to bash The Waltons, and I have no problem with that. Gritty cop shows and dark sci-fi wield an edge that slices right through The Waltons's family-oriented fluff. Those who grew up with the show grew into other avenues of entertainment, leaving The Waltons in the dust bowl. Despite its continued run in syndication and its stalwart fan base, no one would confuse The Waltons with the popular shows of our day. What led to this decline in status? The Waltons and their family-friendly, values-based sentimentalism led the charge for an entire brigade of sentimental sap. Lifetime Originals, after-school specials, and other "aww, shucks" pulp clog the airwaves, choking us with cheap emotion and manufactured melancholy.
As an irrevocably tarnished soul who thinks the edgier the better, I'm here to tell you that The Waltons is not the problem. The show is undeniably sentimental—in fact, sentiment is one of its pillars. But The Waltons is sentimental in the best of ways. Its sentiment is a rudder gently steering us toward conclusions about humanity. The Waltons is guilty of melodrama sometimes, and overplays its cards at others, but it is founded in real human situations, genuine love, and actual (not manufactured) hash times. When you carve away some of the fluff, you'll find sturdy bones and mountain roots below.
I'm no Earl Hamner scholar, but it seems clear that basing The Waltons on an existing body of writing strengthens the show. Rarely does The Waltons rely on a trite, neatly wrapped resolution, not even in the tangential plots. For example, "The Prize" shows Esther Walton entering a quilt contest against a beautiful double wedding ring quilt. Esther is certain that the quilt has already been entered, and in fact won, in '27. She notifies the judges and calls out the quilter. If you're expecting the situation to be resolved via a disqualification or some late-breaking evidence to confirm the quilt's vintage one way or the other, then you may have been spoiled by lesser shows and their dumbed-down approach. The ribbon goes to the wedding ring quilt, and nothing more is said on the matter. Esther's doubt and her loving memory of each scrap in her own quilt is the story we see. It is a real story, the kind of frustrations regular people encounter. The Waltons is enriched across the board by touches like this one, fictitious stories that are based on an actual past. The Camdens and their pat resolutions have no answer to such organic ambivalence.
Trivialities aren't the only beneficiaries. The Waltons is discreet, but not coy. John and Olivia are shown in their bedroom and—gasp!—in the same bed, even—double gasp!—flirting, snuggling, and possibly doing other stuff. Grandma and Grandpa separate. Grandpa drinks. The kids make out (though not with each other; this isn't that kind of show). Theft, death, and taxes are a part of life on Walton's Mountain just like everywhere else. In other words, the show seems real because it acts real.
Good writing is the foundation of the show (in fact, "The Thanksgiving Story" won an Emmy for best writing), but acting sells the stories. The ensemble cast is rich with talent, which makes us want to watch even when The Waltons missteps. I've already mentioned that Michael Learned won repeated Emmys, and other cast members were recognized as well, but awards don't tell the whole story. The cast really acts like a large family striving for attention, companionship, resources, and opportunity. The kids tease each other as much as they laugh together. There's jealousy, anger, joy, and fatigue. The actors individually carry their roles (with the periodic exception of flat line delivery from some of the young cast members), yet the whole is still greater.
Writing, acting, story, and setting work in concert to make The Waltons the cream of the crop where family fare is concerned. I typically shun family-friendly shows like the plague, choking back my own bile when the saccharine situations become too much to bear. But my toddler laughs out loud at this show, and instinctively knows that John-Boy is kind. My wife leans in to listen. It really is a wholesome show that the family can watch together and all be entertained.
Above all, I like The Waltons for personal reasons. Those who haven't lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains may not understand. For the people in those mountains, trust is a vital commodity. Roots and reputation are favored over money or education. The environment is both inviting and harsh. I loved the endless hours I spent splashing in streams, eating blackberries off the bush, catching trout, walking the woods, sunning on rocks, listening to banjos and dulcimers. At the same time, I remember the slow-as-molasses drawl, suspicious streak, and hard lessons I learned from the mountain community. I've moved out of the Blue Ridge, and no matter how deeply the mountains may resonate within me, I can never go back to being a part of that community. But The Waltons helps me remember those times.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The DVD treatment is as humble as the overalls and flannel shirts people wear in the show. There are no extras—this despite all the Emmys for The Waltons, and an abundance of cast members available to provide commentary. Maybe Warner Bros. doesn't believe that the core audience for these DVDs will care much about extras, and they may be right, but it bears pointing out. The video transfer is dark, with poor contrast in low-light scenes. The opening sepia silhouettes against dark brown backgrounds are well nigh indecipherable in low ambient light. Brighter outdoor scenes fare better, though the colors are still desaturated. There is a strong grain and periodic print damage, but not enough to call it a dirty print. Basically, the show has been ported to DVD with a stable, no-frills transfer, plain sound, and no extras.
The core cast is wonderful, but the guest stars are all over the map. Any given Waltons episode features a daunting number of actors and sets, so it's understandable that a sour note creeps in from time to time. Nonetheless, some of the spotlight guests could have used less exposure.
Walton's Mountain may represent the peak of family drama, and the show may wield sentiment properly, but it sure can be corny sometimes. The themes are real at heart, but the trappings are hokey—and '70s kitsch sneaks in from time to time. The first episode, "The Journey," is a good example of what's wrong with The Waltons: It is painfully slow and overtly obvious, with bad special effects, a hokey conclusion, and overwrought conversations. Watch John-Boy and Grandpa stride through the chicken coop, locked arm in arm, yelling "The Charge of the Light Brigade" verbatim from memory while thrusting their arms in the air! You can vomit now, if you'd like. If The Waltons had managed more episodes like "The Honeymoon" and less like "The Journey," we'd be looking at an undisputed classic. As it stands, people have much leeway to dispute such status.
The theme song is one of the greatest aspects of the show, and I was looking forward to hearing it again. Sadly, I'll have to settle for the truncated "Cliffs Notes" version, which was used in Season Two to make room for an extra commercial.
If you have even the slightest interest in family television, you could do much worse than The Waltons. It doesn't always go for the obvious neat ending, which causes you to think about the people and events in ways you didn't expect. The stories aren't always sweet, but the overall tone of the show is. Best of all, you and your family might actually absorb some of the Waltons' care, respect, and good humor.
I reckon we'll let 'er go free.
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