The Waltons:

Review 1

I recently came across the following reviews of some of the season openers, and an occasional other episode, for "The Waltons". They originally appeared in Variety.

SEASON ONE: Reviewing the series, in 1972, and the episode "The Foundling".

With Richard Thomas, Michael Learned, Ralph Waite, Will Geer, Ellen Corby, Judy Norton. Jon Walmsley, Eric Scott, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, David W. Harper, Kami Cotler, Erica Hunton, others.Executive

Producer: Lee Rich

Producer: Robert L Jacks

Director: Vincent Sherman

Writer: John McGreevey

60 Mins, Thursday 8 p.m.

Touted as an innovation in primetime series programming, "The Waltons" is certainly different from most of what's been offered the past 10 years, but a new concept it isn't. As family drama, with incidental comedy and melodrama, it has antecedents in shows such as "Mama" (big on video in the '50s) and "One Man's Family" in the old radio days. It is, however, probably the first series of its kind in an hour format, and whatever else it's a welcome and refreshing break in the relentless primetime march of sitcoms, action-adventure and variety.

Since it is different from all the shows around, and therefore out of the fail-safe groove (those designed to fall in the share range of 25 t0 35), it's the kind of series that can either boom or bust, one that after a slow build could soar into the plus-40 share regions or, rejected, go into fixed orbit at sub-20. Under the circumstances, it's the right kind of gamble for CBS.

After getting praise for chancing it, CBS-TV undoubtedly will be criticized for slotting "Waltons" opposite two very hot series -- Flip Wilson on NBC and "Mod Squad" on ABC -- but in fact it's an ingenious strategy. An ordinary new show would almost certainly get demolished there, and any established series could probably do no better than break even with the competition. But if a new kind of series like "Waltons" should catch on in the way of, say, "All In the Family," everything in opposition is in trouble, and either ABC or NBC may find itself minus one established hit when the final accounting is in.

Indeed, it may be that the tough timeslot foreordained the series. That is, this spinoff of Earl Hamner's Christmas teleplay, "The Homecoming," might not have happened if there were not the dilemma of how to deal with Flip Wilson.

"The Waltons" has attractive elements that suggest hit potential, not the least of them a large and likeable resident cast, a rural setting (playing to CBS' traditional rural advantage), and nostalgia for the morally stable peacetime days of the Great Depression. Built into the situation, as a constant overhanging peril, is the economic uncertainty of the thirties, making the struggle against poverty a continuing dramatic force.

Read in advance of air date, the script for the premiere, by John McGreevey, was depressingly hackneyed, straight out of the forgettable folksy fiction that used to run in the old Saturday Evening Post. But in execution, with much credit certainly to the tasteful, intelligent direction of Vincent Sherman -- and also to the casting and filming -- it played as a sweet and affecting chapter in a moderately sentimental series.

Richard Thomas, as the eldest of the seven Walton children with the soul of a poet, is narrator and principal character whose diary the series represents. But the focal interest in the premiere was a deaf-mute child left on the Walton doorstep who is taught to communicate with hand language by the other children before she is reclaimed by her parents. Erica Hunton gave a good performance as the mute child, and Kami Cotler, as the youngest Walton who grows jealous of the visitor, was a cut above the precocious and saccharine kid types who inhabit video sitcoms.

The remainder of the clan, Ralph Waite and Michael Learned (a female Michael) as the parents, Will Geer and Ellen Corby as the grandparents, and the other siblings, Judy Norton, Jon Walmsley, Eric Scott, Mary Elizabeth McDonough and David W. Harper, impressed as an appealing and dependable ensemble.

SEASON ONE: Review of the episode "The Easter Story", in Variety, April 25, 1973.

For a change, commercial television this season had a series that was proudly presented, CBS-TV's "The Waltons". And sure enough, the chronicle of an American family in the 30's is a switch on the standard network primetime melodramatic pulp fiction grind.

"The Waltons" is slick fiction, and the series' appeal is not so much in the nostalgia attached to the era, but rather in a longing for the sweet style of drama presenting the best of all possible families and challenges which are forever conquered.

This was borne out in a mawkish yarn titled "The Easter Story," in which an episode of the show last week was stretched into a two-hour special. Mama was struck down with polio, only to rise and walk moments before the final credit crawl. Only thus was John-Boy's faith in the good Lord restored. Meanwhile, brother wins the amateur song contest and sister's first high school dance is a triumph.

There is something very antiseptic in virtually all of the characterizations, both as scripted and performed. So what is all this praising and Emmy Awarding?

SEASON TWO: Appearing in Variety issue September 19, 1973, this one reviews the season 2 premiere episode, "The Journey".

"The Waltons" was another holdover series using its preem show to re-establish its basic virtues for viewers. The initial show was blessed with a marvelously persuasive performance by guest Linda Watkins as an old Scotland-born widow who wanted one last look at the sea before she died and sweetly tricked Richard Thomas into driving her to it. En route to its finale, the hour had ample space and opportunity to display the attention to warmth, decency. and honest hearttug which has typified the series in the past, even though the remainder of the regular cast, other than Thomas, was on camera very little during the stanza. Episode writer Nigel McLeand and director Harry Harris rate special credit for their handling of the Watkins role and performance.

SEASON THREE: Appearing in Variety issue September 18, 1974, this one reviews the season 3 premiere episode, "The Conflict".

It is almost incredible that this gentle tale of a mountain family during the Depression ended up near the top of the rating heap last season, and promises to do so again this season. It flies in the face of what even the friends of TV have said about the tempo and content of the medium and it does so with style and grace. It's a good and honest show that treats its audience with respect, and already towers over the imitators it has spawned.

This two-hour season premiere dealt with a theme that has become an increasing preoccupation in the nation -- the limits of progress. It's the familiar story of the Government destroying a village by running a road through it, but here it is dealt with in terms of people and their traditions. Beulah Bondi was superb as the aged mountain grand dame sorrowfully watching the bulldozers scrape away her past. The regular cast was in fine fettle.

SEASON FOUR: Appearing in Variety issue September 17, 1974, this one reviews the season 4 premiere episode, "The Sermon".

There was no reference to the Depression in the seasonal bow of "The Waltons" in its new Thursday night slot on CBS. They may be saving it for later shows but perhaps the thought of bad times is too close to where we're at right now. The series has never attempted to touch a nerve in a single viewer, though it undoubtedly works on the tear ducts of the vulnerable.

First episode dealt with John Boy's unwilling agreement to take over the preacher's sermon chores on a Sunday and his mother's similar deal to teach school for a week so the teacher and the preacher can go off on a honeymoon. Naturally, the whole family gets involved in those laudatory tasks, with attendant strains. Son Jim-Bob causes his mother most of her classroom trouble and Gran's memories of her old fire & brimstone pastor is offered to John Boy as a shining example of how to sermonize. Such seemingly minor problems are no more difficult for the Waltons than are terminal diseases, and they are disposed of with the same warmth, understanding and success.

SEASON FIVE: Appearing in Variety issue September 29, 1976, this one reviews the season 5 premiere episode, "The First Edition".

The new season for "The Waltons" opened with a hotter issue than is usually faced by this warmest of all TV series. John-Boy started a newspaper and immediately came upon a viper's nest of ethical considerations. For one thing, brother Ben was busted for

breaking and entering and John Boy (when will he be old enough to drop that name?) was faced with the problem of whether or not to report the obviously bum rap. But things got even deeper when the brother's judge got involved in a car crash and tried to persuade John Boy not to print that story either. John Boy had to decide whether family loyalty (and in this case justice) is more important than an editor's duty to report the news.

For those who glory in the series' "rightness" of purpose it was just the kind of opening to get back into the swing of John Boy's balanced and basic goodness. Richard Thomas as John Boy and the rest of the cast appear to have lost no zest in their renewed roll down memory lane, circa 1930's.

SEASON FIVE: Appearing in Variety, March 23, 1977, this is a review of the final episode of Richard Thomas appearing in the series.

Another defection from a CBS-TV series took place on Thursday (17), when Richard Thomas took his leave of "The Waltons" in a sensitively written bon voyage. Thomas went to New York to get his first book published, was smitten by the city's hustle and bustle, and in bittersweet flashbacks to past "Waltons" episodes, reviewed his own past relationships with his family as he reluctantly planned to leave the fold.

The series will go on without him, but the exit episode was a good example of how to get around an actor's departure from a project that has been good to him.

SEASON SEVEN: Appearing in Variety issue September 27, 1978, this one reviews the season 7 premiere episode, "The Empty Nest".

Lorimar's "The Waltons" opened its season with a two-hour stanza that had to take into account Will Geer's death since last season's last episode had been completed. To do this a script was fashioned that not only paid tribute to Geer (and the Grandpa role he played) but managed to tie up its whole message of family togetherness with a touching finale pulling the family closer one more time, as the Waltons gathered to pay tribute to him at his gravesite on Walton's Mountain.

Focal to the story was Ellen Corby, returning to regular duties in the cast after suffering a stroke, and she made her footage count as a vivid example of the courage and strength that the series has always held as a prime attribute of its characters -- and of her own personal stature as a trouper.