The Waltons are back, and in the weirdest of places: The CW.
That’s right. The sweet, wholesome family from the 1970s TV series has been rebooted for the network that is the home of superheroes, ghost-hunting detectives, witches, werewolves, vampires and sexually active teenagers.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a CW viewer who was born when the Waltons first appeared on TV 50 years ago. Heck, you’d be hard-pressed to find many CW viewers who were born when the series ended in 1981.
I asked my 30-year-old son if he knows who the Waltons are. “The family that owns Walmart,” he replied — not wrong, but not right in this context. Despite growing up the child of a TV critic, he’d never heard of “The Waltons.” And when I tried to fill him in, he told me I sounded like Grampa Simpson telling one of his stories.
But the fact is that about three-quarters of present-day Utahns weren’t born in 1971 when the Waltons first appeared on TV in the CBS TV movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.” Pushing two-thirds of Utahns weren’t born when the series ended in 1981.
With a bit of recasting after the 1971 movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” the family returned in September 1972 in a weekly series that nobody expected would succeed — and everybody was wrong. In its first season, “The Waltons” was No. 18 in the ratings and won six Emmys — including best drama — and a Peabody Award. In its second season, it rose to No. 2 in the ratings.
From 1972-1981 — a total of 220 episodes — Utahns gathered around their televisions on Thursday nights to spend time with “The Waltons.” A lot of locals could relate, because John and Olivia were the parents of seven children. And Grandma and Grampa Walton also shared the house. There were a lot of Waltons and there wasn’t much money.
The series was set in the 1930s, and the country was sunk in the Great Depression. The Waltons didn’t have much, but they did have each other. You get the idea.
“The Waltons” was based on the memories of creator/executive producer Earl Hamner, who served as the narrator and was the inspiration for the show’s central character, John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas), a 17-year-old aspiring writer and the oldest Walton offspring. Fans of “This Is Us” will recognize the new John-Boy — Logan Shroyer plays the teenage Kevin in that series.
The CW’s reboot jettisons one of the kids from the original.. We get John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth, but no Ben.
Thomas, who’s now 70, steps in as the narrator for the new TV movie. (Hamner died in 2016 at the age of 92.) And listening to him makes it clear the reboot’s producers are taking themselves and their show just a little bit too seriously:
“It’s a story about a family — an American family — living through a time of great social upheaval and economic hardship,” Thomas says. “It’s a story that takes place in 1933, but it made its mark on our country in 1972. And now, in the 21st century, it may be more resonant than ever before.”
It’s also more 21st century than perhaps it should be. The new Walton kids fight and argue a lot more than the originals — more like real kids — and there’s even a bit of (gasp!) swearing. It’s also considerably more progressive on race relations than was true in 1933. (There was a Black family in the original series, and a heart-breaking episode in which John forms a bond with an orphaned Black boy, but has to send him to the Black family because — at that time — it just wouldn’t work for the Waltons to adopt him themselves.).
Actually, “The Waltons Homecoming” is the same story told in the first Waltons movie way back on Dec. 19, 1971. John Walton Sr. (Ben Lawson), forced to take a job far from home, is trying to make it back to his family for Christmas. But a winter storm might prevent him from making it back to his family, and Olivia (Bellamy Young) is worried about John’s safety.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s sweet and endearing. Nostalgic for old-timers, and totally new territory for young viewers.
The producers are hoping CW executives will want to turn this into a new “Waltons” series. Or at least more TV movies. We’ll see.
Although wouldn’t it be nice if there’s room on TV — room on The CW — for a show like this?