A big problem with watching televison shows, especially when revisiting them several decades after their initial airings, is that these programs are sometimes inexorably linked with their respective eras. For example, Robin Williams’ rainbow-colored shirts and suspenders on Mork & Mindy are ‘70s clichés; he exemplified that decade’s outlandish kitsch. The character Mork may have come from outer space, but this sitcom’s overall vibe was born out of California’s fruits and nuts lifestyle. The Waltons story was set during the depression era, and even though the show was a contemporary of Mork & Mindy, it is not always a dated ‘70s program. The 4th season of The Waltons stands up well because it takes you on a direct flight back to 1936, without any annoying mental stopovers to the mid-‘70s.
As always, scenic and nostalgic Waltons’ Mountain is viewed through the eyes of John Boy Walton, a budding writer, and Olivia and John Waltons’ eldest offspring. Each episode begins and ends with John Boy – many years later – providing narration. Many times, episodes revolve around various visitors to the Walton homestead. Season four finds John Boy at college, which leads to one of the more notable episodes in the set.
Titled “The Genius”, it tells the story of a teenage college student who is asked to tutor John Boy in math. But when the not-yet-man visits the Waltons’ home, he gets most schooled via a few lasting and long overdue lessons in sociability. By the end of the television hour, he has come out of his shell enough to act in a community play. Along the way, watching this boy pit his intellectual atheism against Grandma Waltons’ steadfast Christian faith is also good fun.
Faith plays a large role in the Waltons’ life. These simple believers are not overly pious, nor do they restrain their expression. In one episode, a prize fighter chooses Waltons’ Mountain to do his physical training. The family is appalled at this man’s bloodthirsty calling – that is, at least, until Olivia learns how this boxer hopes to earn ring money to build a city church. He is, in fact, a preacher, albeit one with boxing gloves. The community’s reaction to this alien athlete says much about the mainstream opinion of boxing back then – slightly higher on the scale to them than, say, pornography.
There is another religious-themed program titled “The Sermon”, where the town pastor, played by John Ritter, gets married and leaves on his honeymoon. He asks John-Boy to fill in and preach a Sunday morning sermon. John Boy may be a thinker and a philosopher, but he is hardly a man of the cloth. Adding to his insecurity, everybody in the family, especially his grandmother, has plenty of advice for John Boy on preaching. Also, almost everybody in the Walton household relates to God from widely differing angles. For example, Grandpa Walton finds God in nature, while his father, John, rarely attends church. He finds God in his unique way. John Boy’s household is one grab-bag seminary.
As the prizefighter episode highlights, this program is at its best whenever cultures are clashing. One such oil-and-water instance revolves around a female wing-walker who reveals a daring side to the notion of femininity – a side quite in stark contrast to that known by the region’s mostly conservative Southern women. To complicate matters, both the elder John Boy and the younger Jim-Bob are smitten by this unusual human specimen. John-Boy is most surely attracted to her wild streak. Jim-Bob, on the other hand, who is in love with aeronautics, is probably more in love with what she does for a living rather than any daredevil feminism.
Sometimes the show has no visitors at all. Instead, many stories focus on the growing pains of various family members. “The Prophecy” features John Walton evaluating his life path in the days leading up to his 25th high school reunion. Although many of his classmates attained fame and fortune, in the end, they all express admiration for the fine family he’s raised on slender means. “The Breakdown” takes a closer look at Jason, the most musical of the family. He finds himself struggling to study serious music while at the same time playing gospel and enjoying country tunes on a radio show.
Mary Ellen, the eldest girl, reveals two very different sides of her personality in “The Nurse” and “The Competition”. With “The Nurse”, she takes the first shaky steps toward her nursing vocation. She is given an immediate trial by fire when asked to care for a family with a sick mother. Although her nursing school book learning initially gives her trouble, it is clear she has what it takes to become a caring and considerate nurse. “The Competition”, on the other hand, finds Mary Ellen behaving more like a school girl when she and the younger Erin compete for the attention of a visiting forest ranger in training. These bookends show us that Mary Ellen is both a girl and young woman simultaneously, which is an especially difficult balancing act for any maturing individual.
“The Secret” is the most powerful episode of this 4th season. In it, Jim-Bob must come to grips with the fact that he was born a twin and that his brother died during childbirth. At first, he cannot understand why there are so few of his baby pictures in the house and that almost nobody around him can recall the details of his birth. Eventually, John Boy takes him to the courthouse to prove he was not adopted; surely, that speculation was just one of the wild scenarios he conjured up in his mind. When they find that he really was adopted, the discovery opens a wound that his parents were too afraid to revisit in the many years since Jim-Bob’s birth.
What makes this storyline memorable television is that it is not a tragedy made all right after 42 minutes of programming. The viewer is left with the impression that these characters might never get over losing a family member. Some emotional wounds never truly heal.
I know it’s a cliché to say this, but The Waltons is a perfect show for the whole family. I watched many of these segments with my daughter, who is seven, and she was entertained the whole time. Even at her tender age, she was impressed by this program’s sincere family dynamic. This is a large family, with different talents and perspectives represented, that always finds a way to make life work. They don’t always agree, but you never doubted that they loved each other.
Michael Learned, who played Olivia Walton, won the 1975-1976 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series this 4th season. Ellen Corby (grandma) took home Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. But there is no true singular star; this was an ensemble cast, in the best sense of the word. Each episode closes with a night shot of the Walton home, where all you hear are members wishing each other goodnight. And as you listen to these folks saying their sincere goodnights, it’s difficult to believe these excellent actors are not a real family. And there is no greater compliment than that.