Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger don't mess with mountain folk.
A family poor in possessions, but rich in understanding, hope, and love.
As The Waltons approach the middle season of their nine-season run, not much has changed. The family is intact. Earl Hamner's hand (voice?) is still on the rudder. It is mostly the same, comfortable cast spinning the same, comfortable stories. There is nothing here to change the opinion I voiced in my lengthy, self-indulgent review of Season Two: "Writing, acting, story, and setting work in concert to make The Waltons the cream of the crop where family fare is concerned."
There are subtle changes, of course. Season Two kicked off with a maudlin, special-effects-bogged whopper of a tale, where a dying lady wanted to return to her honeymoon spot. Such effects are mostly missing from Season Four. Instead, Season Four kicks off with "The Sermon," which is possibly the finest Waltons episode to grace the eyes and ears of this Protestant mountain boy.
"The Sermon" is an excellent introduction to the show and to the season. Every main and tertiary character is in it, giving us a capsule view of life in the shadow of Walton's Mountain. John Boy (Richard Thomas) is asked to give the sermon by Reverend Fordwick (John Ritter in a straightforward character role that couldn't differ more from Jack Tripper). As John Boy frets over his theme, everyone from his grandparents down to the town busybodies gives him an opinion on what to say. By the time Sunday morning comes, John Boy has crafted a stirring sermon that incorporates everything he experienced during the week.
That may not sound like much of a plot, and in some ways it isn't. The show is entirely character based, thriving on small observations and a central nervousness about preaching to the congregation. John Boy's anxiety isn't stage fright or fear of embarrassment. Rather, he is concerned about being a poor steward of the town's souls. I almost caught tears in my eyes when he delivered his sermon with its skillful and encompassing message. And that's another reason why "The Sermon" is an excellent litmus test for Season Four. If you hear this sermon and roll your eyes at its sentiments, you might as well turn off the TV—The Waltons isn't for you.
Although the rest of the season doesn't always live up to the high standards set by "The Sermon," the season maintains a remarkable level of quality. Most of the episodes strike a just-this-side-of-corny balance between message and characterization without beating the audience over the head with too many anvils. Then there are episodes like "The Wing-Walker." This episode is interesting because it heavily features stunt footage of an actual wing-walker (you know, those people who stepped out onto plane wings without any support and waved flags around.) Perhaps because of the resources needed to obtain this footage, the episode is comparatively weak in terms of plot, tone, and polish. Don't get me wrong—the titular wing walker is plenty pretty, and compelling enough as a character. But the plot seems to be on autopilot.
But such missteps are rare among the even stream of pitch-tuned stories. The end of the season presents nice surprises: "The Burn Out," a two-parter that tells of the aftermath when the Walton home burns down; and "The Fledgling," notable because it was written by Earl Hamner himself. "The House" gives "The Sermon" a run for its money, with a truly heartwarming overture by Grandpa after he and Grandma hash it out over the fate of an old house. All told, Season Four is the sweet spot of the show's run.
As in Season Two, Michael Learned stands out in the ensemble cast. The cinematographers seem to have gotten the knack of focusing on the lined, careworn faces of the adults and highlighting the innocent brows of the children. Even so, Michael Learned has an extra spark that invigorates her performance. This might explain her Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress (Ellen Corby also won an Emmy this season.)
In terms of video, audio, and extras, this set is indistinguishable from the others. There are no extras, the audio is plain but serviceable, and the slightly dark video transfer has not been cleansed of artifacts but still looks decent.
The Waltons is a consistent show that stands near the peak of all family television. This season does nothing to rock the boat. It is full of the heartwarming stories, realistic characters, and human foibles that made the show an enduring hit.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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