By: David Cantwell
June 26, 2022

An extra installment in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite TV shows of the Seventies (1974–1983).


THE WALTONS | 1972–1981

When I was a boy growing up in Ruskin Heights, a white blue-collar neighborhood in south Kansas City, Missouri, my memory is that our family never missed The Waltons. We saw ourselves in it. It’s the only working-class drama I recall from that era (There was All in the Family and Good Times, but they were sitcoms), and after CBS’ famous “rural purge” in 1971, The Waltons was about the only in-the-country series as well.

My affinity for the series could not have been more on the nose: The show’s main character, portrayed by Richard Thomas, was John Boy Walton, a poor kid who dreamed of becoming a writer and whose father, played by Ralph Waite*, didn’t know what to make of such ambitions. When, just before the start of the show’s 1977 season, we moved from KC to an old dirt-road farmhouse, I felt as stranded as John Boy in Appalachia. Through the years, I carried with me a vague sense that The Waltons was one of the great shows of its era. During the ongoing pandemic, my wife Doris (who had never seen the show) and I determined to make our way through all nine seasons—basically one season devoted to each year from the heights of The Great Depression to the end of World War II.

Each of its 121 episodes is bookended by narration from the adult John Boy, voiced by series creator Earl Hamner, Jr. These frames are earnest to a fault, drenched in purple prose and rose-colored nostalgia. The plots themselves, however, are inevitably plainspoken, full of good humor and swamped by hardship. The Waltons battle poverty, dispossession, illness, death, and addiction. These are not the good old days. John Boy’s emotional life is bound to the mountain, but the second his writing provides him a shot at another life, he is gone. (Thomas left the series after season six.). Olivia, played by Michael Learned, is the wife of John and mother to John Boy, Mary Ellen, Jason, Erin, Ben, Jim Bob and Elizabth. She’s devoted to them all, but several episodes explore her frustration, even depression, with a life circumscribed by the domestic. Another recurring character, Verdie Grant, a black Appalachian woman played by Lynn Hamilton, and her family face and sometimes fight racism throughout the series. The Waltons often do the right thing in these stories, but often don’t. John and Olivia consider adopting a black runaway but reject the idea because they know they’ll be rejected at church. Even for a show set in Jim Crow Virginia, this was a level of realism I wasn’t expecting.

The show’s chief strength was finely drawn characters and startling tenderness. For example, when the perpetually wise-yet-childlike Grandpa, played by Will Geer, imagines life without a hospitalized Grandma, played by Ellen Corby. He collapses into sobs. Olivia just holds him. That’s The Waltons in miniature: Life’s great parade of changes, faced and survived, together.

* I strongly recommend singing “Ralph! Waite! The Waltons’ dad was great!” to the melody of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”


KOJAK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Lynn Peril on ONE DAY AT A TIME | Dan Reines on THE WHITE SHADOW | Carlo Rotella on BARNEY MILLER | Lucy Sante on POLICE WOMAN | Douglas Wolk on WHEW! | Susan Roe on THE LOVE BOAT | Peggy Nelson on THE BIONIC WOMAN | Michael Grasso on WKRP IN CINCINNATI | Josh Glenn on SHAZAM! | Vanessa Berry on IN SEARCH OF… | Mark Kingwell on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA | Tom Nealon on BUCK ROGERS | Heather Quinlan on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE | Adam McGovern on FAWLTY TOWERS | Gordon Dahlquist on THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO | David Smay on LAVERNE & SHIRLEY | Miranda Mellis on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER | Rick Pinchera on THE MUPPET SHOW | Kio Stark on WONDER WOMAN | Marc Weidenbaum on ARK II | Carl Wilson on LOU GRANT | Greg Rowland on STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES | Dave Boerger on DOCTOR WHO | William Nericcio on CHICO AND THE MAN | Erin M. Routson on HAPPY DAYS. Plus: David Cantwell on THE WALTONS.




Enthusiasms, TV