Appreciating 'The Waltons' - Then And Now

I wouldn’t call it a binge, but lately I have been getting reacquainted in a big way with the classic ‘70s drama “The Waltons” -- a series I recall enjoying in my youth, but one that I hadn’t given a lot of thought to since.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that an episode of “The Waltons” from Season Nine about the arrival of television on Walton’s Mountain caught my eye several months ago. I’ve been sampling episodes of the show ever since. Some I remember watching the first time around; others are completely new to me because I stopped watching “The Waltons” midway through its first run and never went back.

Thanks to Hallmark Channel, which runs several episodes of “The Waltons” on weeknights, I have been able to easily review episodes from the first two seasons of the show, when it was at its very best. And I am more impressed by it than ever before.

I didn’t really think about what I was watching when I was a kid. I simply reacted and enjoyed. That was certainly true of my experience with “The Waltons,” which in its day was heralded as an outstanding family drama. Richard Thomas received much praise (and an Emmy Award) for his portrayal of young John-Boy. In fact, all of the characters and the actors who portrayed them were recognized in one way or another for the fine work they were doing. As the show continued through subsequent seasons the Emmy nominations and awards kept coming.

But time, adulthood and a career as a television critic have me looking at the show now in an entirely different context than I did way back when. To begin with, I now understand that “The Waltons” was the first true family drama on broadcast television. (Apologies if there are any prior family dramas with which I am unfamiliar.) Significantly, only a few family dramas have followed, most of them in the ‘70s, including “Apple’s Way,” “Eight is Enough” and “Family.” They were fun at the time but didn’t exactly make history, and they haven’t been very visible since. The next family dramas of any note wouldn’t come along until the current millennium: HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and NBC’s “Parenthood.” (I’m excluding dramas with families in them such as HBO’s “The Sopranos” and CBS’ “Blue Bloods” that fall into other categories first, such as crime shows or police shows.)

As far as family drama goes, there had never been anything like “The Waltons” and there hasn’t been since. The same can be said of the performance of Richard Thomas, which I now recognize in hindsight as one of the best, bravest and boldest in the history of the medium. Had there ever been a drama series with a teenager as its lead character? (Thomas was in his early twenties when he first played the role.) Had we ever seen a teenage male in a television series that was depicted as unashamedly sensitive and caring? (That’s not to imply that John-Boy was a wimp. In an episode from Season One he picks up a large stick and threatens to clobber a homeless youth he perceives as possibly menacing to his younger siblings.) The only other teenager I can recall as having genuine emotional complexity on any television series before “The Waltons” is “Bud” Anderson (played by Billy Gray) on “Father Knows Best,” though he wasn’t in a league with John-Boy. (My newfound familiarity with “Father Knows Best” comes as a result of watching it on Antenna TV.)

Sensitive, multidimensional teenage characters began appearing with some frequency in television dramas after “The Waltons” – including “Buddy” (Kristy McNichol) and Willie Lawrence (Gary Frank) in “Family,” James Hunter (Lance Kerwin) in “James at 15/16,” Angela Chase (Claire Danes) in “My So-Called Life” and Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” plus all those moody kids in “Dawson’s Creek,” to name a few. But John-Boy got there first, at a time when viewers weren’t used to seeing young men portrayed that way. The character was the object of much derision in schoolyards but much admiration elsewhere.

Thomas nailed it, and his work holds up spectacularly well today. Watch for a rerun of “The Love Story” from Season One as a prime example of a young actor in top form. I believe it is the episode that won Thomas the Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, which was yet another “Waltons” first. Before Thomas no actor had ever won an Emmy for portraying a teenager.

In another first, when Ellen Corby -- who played Grandma Walton -- suffered a stroke in real life, her character was also stricken. After a relatively brief absence Corby (who won three Emmys for the role) returned to the show as a stroke survivor portraying a stroke survivor. Her performance was stunning. 

I’m also impressed by the way “The Waltons” -- which was set in rural Virginia and at the start took place during the Great Depression -- handled the subject of religion. I remembered that John Ritter portrayed an arrogant young preacher whose fire-and-brimstone intensity alienated people. But I had forgotten that Olivia Walton was a Baptist, that her husband John was not a religious man and that they would sometimes clash over their choices about how to raise their children. Also, there was a fascinating episode in Season One in which a Jewish family that had fled Nazi Germany was seeking a peaceful life on Walton’s Mountain. To ensure their safety, the father insisted that they hide their faith and that his son not experience his bar mitzvah.

Nobody could have known at the time that “The Waltons” would occupy a singular position in television history that would hold for decades to come. I can’t help but wonder why the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences or the Television Critics Association (which every year honors programs and performers who have made extraordinary contributions to the medium) have not done more to recognize the contributions in hindsight of this extraordinary show.

Furthermore, one almost never hears or reads anything about it in the entertainment media unless someone in its cast passes away. Thank heaven for the Hallmark Channel; without it, “The Waltons” might be all but forgotten today.

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6 comments about "Appreciating 'The Waltons' - Then And Now".
  1. Steve Beverly from Union Broadcasting System , August 29, 2014 at 3:24 p.m.
    Ed, sometimes I feel as if you and Gary are the last bastions of perspective on shows that had an impact on those of us who are no longer twentysomethings. I remember when TV critic Hal Freeman said on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" in 1975: "'The Waltons' is a difficult show to write because it isn't formula." I have a thought that will probably be scoffed at by the modern-day internet entertainment journalist: "Waltons" is ignored by TCA, the Academy and the mainstream of the entertainment media today because it's a show about a family that loved each other, even through its faults, and where dysfunction didn't equal fun and games. "Waltons" explored human emotions, real problems that real people experienced, and relationships. Yet, even in the early '80s when the show was in its waning two seasons, you were beginning to read more critics that used adjectives such as "syrupy" and "icky-poo" in their reviews of the show. We can't seem to have an appreciation in today's society for a family that isn't falling apart or where kids have no respect for their parents or each other. As Dr. Joanne Stephenson recently said, "In our culture today, bad is good." Thanks for reaffirming that someone in an editorial role still appreciates the value of shows such as "The Waltons."
  2. Steve Beverly from Union Broadcasting System , August 29, 2014 at 3:30 p.m.
    Ed, arguably the Friday night CBS series "Mama" in the '50s may well have been the first family drama. "Mama" had no live audience or laugh track and was structured along the lines of "Waltons." "Mama" received much critical acclaim but not the ratings or Emmy success as did "Waltons." One more thing...."Waltons" probably scored one of the biggest upsets in television history. The show was slotted up against two big hits, "The Flip Wilson Show" on NBC and "The Mod Squad" on ABC. After a slow start, "Waltons" overtook both shows by the end of the first season. "Mod Squad" was canceled. The next year, Flip was gone.
  3. sharon savitski from HOME , August 30, 2014 at 1:01 p.m.
    You forgot Little House on The Prairie , brady bunch, lassie, gilligans island, flipper, i know there is more that i watched but i cant think of them right now.
  4. Ed Martin from MediaPost , August 31, 2014 at 12:59 a.m.
    I agree that "Little House on the Prairie" was a family drama. I was never a fan so it had slipped my mind. But the other shows you mention (all among my favorites when I was younger) are either comedies or shows with a dog or a dolphin as the central characters. Definitely family friendly shows but not in the same family drama category as "The Waltons," "Little House" or "Parenthood."
  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics , September 2, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.
    The popularity of shows like "The Waltons" and "Little House On The Prairie", while well deserved in their own right, was also a product of our long involvement in the Vietnam war and the surge of anti-war and other protests as well as the counter reaction that seemed to be tearing the nation apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In response, many Americans over the age of fifty looked back to earlier times when things were simpler----if not easier---- and there was less social stress. This played a part when these two family dramas, set in the saner times of yore, appeared. They fit in perfectly with the mood of the older generation and these were their primary viewers.
  6. Fran Mccreary from KSL Media , September 2, 2014 at 10:40 a.m.
    Thank you for this appreciation & analysis. I too watched The Waltons with my family when I was young & remember it fondly. I've been rewatching episodes on Hallmark & too am struck by the quality of the acting & writing. Seeing this show through adult eyes makes me appreciate its quality all the more.