Goodnight, John Boy

Why 'The Waltons' Are Still Worth Watching

“Could switching to Geico really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance?” wonders a serious-looking man. He thinks about this for a moment, then asks: “Did the Waltons take way too long to say goodnight?”

And then we see that famous, shabby white house with the big front porch, accompanied by those familiar voices: “Goodnight John Boy, goodnight Mary Ellen, goodnight Mama, goodnight Erin, goodnight Ben, goodnight Jim-Bob...”

The commercial brings a grin to the face of anybody who—like me—grew up watching The Waltons, which aired from 1972 to 1981. I loved that show because, like John Boy, I wanted to move to New York and become a writer. The program won many awards, and was famously parodied by Carol Burnett, who played “John Girl” of Walnuts Mound.

Recently, when I knew I’d be recovering from surgery for a few days, I borrowed dozens of episodes from the library. The series holds up well, but one notices certain things while speed-watching them. For instance, just as nobody ever got off Gilligan’s Island, nobody, other than John Boy, ever manages to get off Walton’s Mountain for long (although certainly not for lack of trying). And as the years went by, and the show’s writers began running low on ideas, they came up with some truly bizarre plot twists—such as bringing back Mary Ellen’s husband Curt two years after he “died” at Pearl Harbor.

And it was amazing, wasn’t it, how many people made their way to the Mountain? Hollywood actresses, famous writers, carnival people, gypsies, prize fighters, British war orphans, Parisian artists, German POWs, documentary filmmakers, and the United States Army. Which kind of makes you wonder why John Boy wanted to leave so badly. Why move to the city when the whole world eventually comes to your front porch?

Lying on the sofa watching the Walnuts—I mean, the Waltons—several nights in a row, also made me realize something sad: There is no way this show would be accepted as a new series today. In an era that offers seemingly endless violent crime shows like Law and Order, NCIS, Criminal Minds and 24; when we flip the channel to find hefty doses of cynicism and raunch-Desperate Housewives, House, The Family Guy, and South Park—what Hollywood executive would bet on a slow-moving, sex-and-violence free family drama? Who’d watch it?

A lot of people, as it turns out. The Waltons has been endlessly in reruns since its cancellation nearly three decades ago. The release a few days ago of The Waltons Movie Collection on DVD is a hot seller (Number 39 on Amazon, well ahead of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Julie & Julia). The drama ran, until recently, on the Hallmark Channel, and fans are now complaining about its absence. Thousands find their way to the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Virginia, every year, where occasionally a cast member—or the real John Boy, Earl Hamner, Jr.—turns up.

Most of those DVDs are, no doubt, being bought by middle-aged fans of the program. But I hope plenty of children—kids whose parents think The Waltons is a corny show about a bunch of hillbillies—are finding opportunities to watch old episodes, too. Even if the plotlines seem deeply implausible—as they surely must, given the seismic shifts our culture has undergone since the 1930s—or even the 1970s.

Loving parents who stay faithful—and stick around—through thick and Depression-era thin? The parents of too many modern kids are divorced, or perhaps never married in the first place. Seven siblings? Huge numbers of kids today are only-children who never had to share a Game Boy, never mind patched, hand-me-down clothes. Sitting down to have meals together, holding hands and thanking God for the simple stew and homemade bread on the table? Today’s kids are often involved with after-school sports and jobs, and whose too-busy parents often pick up fast food on the way home, to be eaten separately as each family member wanders in the door.

The Walton grandparents live with their son, contributing to the richness of family life. Grandma Walton, after her stroke, is lovingly cared for at home. Modern grandparents, if they’re sick, have probably been dumped placed in a nursing home.

The Waltons live within their means, stubbornly refusing to buy so much as a sack of sugar on credit—something almost unbelievable in an era of massive consumer debt. Punishments for today’s kids likely involve having their electronic games taken away from them—not being required to memorize Bible verses, Mama Walton’s favorite punishment, especially for Mary Ellen.

I hope the Hallmark Channel puts The Waltons back on the air, or some other channel does. Since the last episode was filmed 29 years ago, we have witnessed a huge rise in broken and unformed families. Children reared in them often have no idea how healthy families function. Hollywood doesn’t help; it killed off the family drama a long time ago.

The Waltons is a cultural stealth weapon in a culture that has reinvented how to live. Modern society tells kids it’s normal to grow up in a home with only one parent, assumes you will begin having sex when you’re 14, and expects you to have an abortion if you become pregnant. Church? It’s the place you get married in, after engaging in multiple live-in relationships. Divorce is easily obtainable if your marriage doesn’t work out. If you can’t find someone to marry, you can have a child, anyway, and raise her alone. (You can get mother-daughter tattoos!)

That’s what today’s children are being told is normal—even good—family life. Pardon me while I puke.

Imagine a child being raised with these teachings—and then encountering the Walton clan. He or she will find parents who got married before having children, and a mother who prefers taking care of her brood to holding down an outside job (even though the family could use the extra money). A wise and hard-working father who is respected and admired by his wife and children—unlike many TV dads with better educations. Walton children are viewed as blessings, even during hard times, not burdens—or worse, as a kind of consumer good, to be “acquired” like sports cars or designer kitchens.

All the Walton daughters refrain from sex until they are married, despite temptations. The children are expected to dress up and attend church every Sunday (even though their father—religious in his own way—mostly declines to accompany them).

In the Waltons’ world, family loyalty, integrity, and a reputation for honesty are considered far more important than wealth and social position. Brothers and sisters routinely sacrifice for one another, and for their parents. Cynical attitudes, like computers and cell phones, have not yet been invented. When trouble arrives—and there’s plenty of it—the family prays for help. When neighbors are in need, the Waltons give out of the little they have, and frequently take in homeless strays.

I love that in nearly every episode, narrator Earl Hamner, Jr. reinforces the message that if you have a loving family, you are rich in the only way that really counts. He never romanticizes being poor—many episodes deal with the family trying to come up with the cash to pay for an unexpected emergency. But as Hamner notes in an episode titled “The Fulfillment,” “Our family had little money and few luxuries but we did have food on the table and clean clothes to wear even if they were mostly hand-me-downs, and a bountiful supply of love to sustain our household.”

In an essay in which Hamner, now 86, reflects on his childhood, he notes: “We were in a depression, but we weren’t depressed. We were poor, but nobody ever bothered to tell us that. All we knew was that we suffered an absence of money, but that didn’t bother us.”

The Waltons are a witness to the way family life is supposed to be lived; episode by episode, it rejects the modern message that we can untether ourselves from the moral order, from the way God designed us to live with one another, and get away with it—without pain, shame, or regret.

I have to confess: I love NCIS, House, and Law & Order. But I’m glad I grew up on The Waltons. I hope the clan will always be around to say goodnight to America’s children, after demonstrating to them, in an era in which they desperately need it, the best and happiest way to be a family.

Anne Morse is a senior writer at BreakPoint.

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