Thanksgiving, right? I mean…it’s a tough one this year, no doubt. Outside of family and friends and the traditional bird and old timey TV, it feels like there’s not a whole lot else to be thankful for, you know? I mean, you’ll be lucky if family can even visit, what with gas prices the way they are (as well as that one lunatic who refuses to visit because most family members don’t believe in the clot-shot). And that big dinner—if you can find the ingredients on those mostly empty shelves—costs way more this year, thanks to you know who (when given the time-honored chance to offer Presidential clemency to the White House Thanksgiving turkey, he promptly pardoned the Easter Bunny). Hell, even nostalgic TV might not help; I know I had a tough time getting into the holiday mood, after watching 1982’s mostly-okay A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain and 1993’s decidedly icky A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion.
By Paul Mavis
Now…I love The Waltons. I grew up on that show; it was one of my favorites as a young boy; and a few years back I wrote about one of the more memorable episodes from that beloved series, The Thanksgiving Story (check out that review for all my background thoughts on that classic 70s CBS family drama). However, I don’t know too many hardcore Waltons fans who wildly enjoyed these later made-for-TV reunion movies, so I don’t think I’m stepping on any toes here with these tepid reviews, reviews entirely suited to these decidedly unenthusiastic times. Ready to be underwhelmed?
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A DAY FOR THANKS ON WALTON’S MOUNTAIN
It’s 1947, and the United States bestrides the post-war globe like a colossus. Unfortunately, the unraveling Walton clan finds little joy in world domination. On Walton’s Mountain, in the Blue Ridge hills of Virginia, Elizabeth Walton (Kami Cotler) is extremely upset: for the youngest of the O.G. Walton tribe, it’s just not Thanksgiving if everyone can’t attend. This year, Mama (a conspicuously no-show Michael Learned) and Daddy (Ralph Waite) can’t come because they’re still in Arizona, trying to figure out how long they can milk her T.B. diagnosis and stay the hell away from the endless family troubles. Radio drama writer Fake John Boy (Robert Wightman) won’t be having homemade pumpkin pie, either. He’s stuck in New York with a bad case of writer’s block which even the ministrations of Amazonian goddess Jane Schuler (the one, the only…Melinda Naud) can’t cure (one peek at her slip could raise the dead but it can’t jolt Fake John Boy into scribbling-like-mad action? Please…).
Things aren’t much happier for the people who will be sitting at those uncomfortable benches come dinner time. Tiny tot Ben Walton (Eric Scott) and his wife, Cindy (Leslie Winston) are upset because they literally have nothing to do in this reunion movie. Ditto for Mary Ellen “You’re such a crazy!” Walton-Willard-Jones (Judy Norton), while still-a-honey Erin Walton Northridge (Mary Beth McDonough) is seeing her marriage headed right for the toilet. Her husband, Paul (Morgan Stevens), has that one wonky eye set on a’leavin’, since he feels overwhelmed with other Waltons crowding his wedded union. Jason Walton (John Walmsley) is tired of pounding out the same honky tonk standards at his bar, the Dew Drop Inn, and he thinks it’s time to skedaddle off the mountain. Good kid Jim-Bob Walton (David W. Harper), barely surviving running his small garage, gets taken with a load of defective spare parts—spare parts paid for with the Baldwin sisters’ (Mary Jackson, Helen Kleeb) money. And little John-Curtis Willard (David Friedman), Mary Ellen’s son, has completely lost his marbles, running off into the woods every day to talk to “his friend” which, conveniently, no one else can see.
A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain came about when, after 9 successful seasons, CBS finally pulled the plug on The Waltons at the end of the 1980-1981 TV year. Ratings had been dipping ever since star Richard Thomas left after the fifth season, but there was still enough fan interest in the show that this final wrap-up nudged the series back into the Nielsen Top 30…at #30. 3rd place loser NBC didn’t fail to notice this, and approached The Waltons‘ production company, Lorimar, with the notion of doing three “reunion” movies as a test “group pilot” for a proposed new series on NBC, Walton’s Mountain. That series would have used the Walton family as an anchor for other stories and other characters that would be explored on the mountain.
It seemed like a smart move on NBC’s part…mostly because they had little to lose. Lorimar at that time was producing three big hits on CBS (Dallas, Knots Landing, and Earl Hamner’s Falcon Crest), so why not hope for a little of that success to continue on at the peacock network? Timed for the all-important February, May, and November ratings “sweeps,” A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain, Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain, and A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain, however, proved to be indifferent performers with viewers who had already tired of almost a decade of Walton shenanigans. Certainly a number of factors played into their ratings failures, such as missing key cast members, a different network (it seems weird today, but believe me…people had a more difficult time switching and accepting a show, in their mind, with another network), and a too-familiar approach to the material (perhaps NBC wanted something more…adult from Lorimar and the Waltons?). However, less-than-optimal material and indifferent direction and acting were probably the main culprits in not generating “must see” Nielsen numbers.
While there are certainly good elements in A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain, overall, it plays very much like an extended episode from the series’ last season: well intentioned, but far from optimally executed…and not especially compelling. Chief problem is far too many subplots. The central idea is solid: the family, the core appeal of the series, is breaking apart, and they need to be brought back together for the Thanksgiving holiday. Fine. However, to illustrate each and every family member’s problems, along with side characters who are given too many scenes as it is, only diffuses the storyline, creating an overall “highlights” feel to A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain. For example, when you’ve got John-Curtis asking minor supporting character Jonesy again if he’s his father, it takes a diehard Waltons fan to even get the context of that scene. It’s simply not needed in this reunion show.
In other Waltons reviews of mine (no, not here, but at another site which shall remain nameless…they should get cancer and die, is all I’m saying), I’ve made my feelings about Fake John-Boy very clear, but for the uninitiated, I’ll reiterate: I can’t stand him. Richard Thomas is John-Boy, no matter how much he secretly hates that, so seeing another actor step into the role was deeply disconcerting at the time. Time and distance have only emphasized that disconnect, because now I can see also what a crappy actor he is—so passive and soft and weak.
John-Boy was The Waltons‘ lead character, but here, with Fake John Boy, you can see the producers don’t know what to do with him. Once he finally decides he needs to go home (he says his “head doesn’t work” anymore—you got that right, FJB, leaving Melinda Naud alone in NYC over the holidays), the writers don’t even give him a “welcome home” scene—he just pops up in his old room, eating breakfast in bed (a very un-Walton thing to do). No group hugs, no Elizabeth crying, nothing. It’s almost as if the producers have acknowledged that the viewers won’t accept such a scene with the replacement actor.
Central to A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain now is Ralph Waite’s John Walton, and he proves to be a welcome, calming presence amid the strife…even though his seeming magical ability to fix problems with a homily and a wry smile is stretched to the limit. Waite had his character down pat by this point, so he didn’t need to do much to get across a wise, patient paternal figure, making his mark in several good scenes with Elizabeth and Jim-Bob.
Jason’s life ennui is much more difficult to sympathize with, not only because the actor doesn’t do “existential despair” too well, but also because Jason seems to have it pretty good. Even if he isn’t happy running the Dew Drop Inn, he’ll get plenty of dough from its sale to tramp around New York, finding himself as a musician—not something most starving artists can claim. Worse, still, is how Mary Ellen is treated. We know it’s tough studying to be a doctor, but couldn’t something have been done with her character other than running around screeching for John-Curtis? Why are we seeing her husband goofballing around with a turkey more than we’re seeing her, once a central character in the series? Norton created a really interesting, always entertaining character with the rebellious, slightly crazed Mary Ellen…but that funny, conflicted, teen-angst character is long gone by this point.
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Some actual drama does crop up in A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain. I rather liked the Paul character having his fill of the always cheerful, always present Waltons. Who wouldn’t get tired of that, eventually? Didn’t you feel that way sometimes, watching the show? Didn’t you feel you’d be a welcomed outsider—but always first and last an outsider—if you ever found yourself on the mountain? It’s just too bad the solution for Paul’s problem was so prosaic: put in a toilet and Erin’s heart is won.
I always found David Harper to be the most naturalistic non-actor actor on the show, and here, he does quite well with his substantial plotline. I doubt he could do Shakespeare (and seriously—who cares?), but he never comes across as anything other than what he’s playing—a sincere, sometimes conflicted young man, and it’s always appealing. Playing perfectly off him is another series favorite, the marvelous Robert Donner as the dodgy Yancy Tucker. He’s a pro, and he pings off Harper with skill, getting big laughs whether he’s walking his pet turkey Isabella on her morning “constitutional,” or delightedly exclaiming, “Let us eat! I’m starved! when he finds out she’s been spared being their Thanksgiving dinner.
Ike and Corabeth get some chuckles trying to shepherd daughter Aimee to the dinner table, but, as usual, the show’s biggest yoks are generated by the wonderful Baldwin sisters, expertly timed by Mary Jackson and Helen Kleeb. Doomed to spend Thanksgiving with their disagreeable cousin, Octavia, the sisters pray for pneumonia to take them instead, before Emily hits this emancipated note of saying, “no”: “I’ve had good manners all my life. Perhaps it’s time for a change.” These two are a continued delight throughout the series and the reunion movies, and they always deliver (my favorite line in A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain comes after Emily utters the word “darn,” to Mamie’s horror: “I’ve always secretly yearned to use profanity,”). Classic.
And finally, Ellen Corby shows up in a few brief scenes, gamely soldiering on years after suffering a real-life stroke. I would imagine her scenes are considerably shortened due to the medical limitations the actress endured, but I often can’t help but feel the producers and writers are rushing those scenes, as well, because they simply don’t know how to integrate her into the stories. A shame…but not as a big a shame as using the ol’ supernatural bit at the end of A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain, when John-Curtis states that the spirit of long-deceased Zeb Walton is his friend in the woods. Didn’t the producers and writers watch the infamous The Changeling episode, where Elizabeth’s puberty lock brings forth poltergeists and manifestations? It’s an unnecessary—and unconvincing—twist that doesn’t help an already rocky reunion.
A WALTON THANKSGIVING REUNION
It’s 1963, and the Waltons are going to have one last Thanksgiving at the old house on Walton’s Mountain. With building to soon commence on a new, smaller house, John (Ralph Waite) and Livvie (Michael Learned) are worried that they haven’t had any contact with globe-hopping Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), who’s celebrating earning that Botany Masters by traveling through Europe, collecting weeds. Real John-Boy (Richard Thomas), now a workaholic newscaster in NYC, wants to bring home his chic new girlfriend, magazine editor Janet Gilchrist (Kate McNeil). She, however, has doubts about his ability to settle down and start a family.
Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), now divorced, is trying to raise her three kids alone, with the help of Cindy Walton (Leslie Winston), who lost her daughter 2 years before (didn’t they have a son, too?), while Cindy’s husband Ben (Eric Scott), is having difficulty being a junior partner in the lumber business with the increasingly scrappy John Sr.. Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), now a doctor, is overly protective of her child Clay (um…what happened to John-Curtis?), while Corabeth Godsey (Ronnie Claire Edwards) is on the outs with her daughter, Aimee (Rachel Longaker). Jim-Bob (David Harper) is flying planes and living at the airport, while Jason (Jon Walmsley) is on the road, touring with a band, while his wife Toni (Lisa Harrison) is saddled with three kids…and a fourth on the way. With everyone so scattered, it will take a momentous event—like the assassination of JFK—to bring the Waltons all together this holiday season.
Like a piece of dried-out turkey: tough to chew and flavorless. I distinctly remember when A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion was trotted out before Thanksgiving, 1993, and my two immediate reactions were 1) Why? and 2) They’re still alive? A remarkably maladroit piece of Walton trivia, I’m not going to waste a lot of time dissecting A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion because, quite simply…there’s not much there to carve into.
Of course the big news and selling point with this ill-conceived reunion movie was the return of Richard Thomas in the role that made him an internationally known actor. Obviously this was a delight for fans of the show (or most of them…), but for me, all it signaled was somebody got out their checkbook. If he wasn’t interested in coming back in ’82, what made him suit up in ’93, except cash? Probably the same could be said for Learned, who appeared in three short cameos in one of the ’82 reunion movies, but has a full role here in A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion. Thomas, a fine actor who worked steadily (and still does) after The Waltons (I really prefer him as a villain, though…), does what he can with John-Boy, but except for one or two scenes with his new girlfriend, his role here consists of reading editorials into a TV camera. He does so with sincerity and assuredness…and not even a modicum of interest.
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As for Learned, an air of distraction shadows her performance. She knows she’s late coming back to the party, and when she gets there, she learns it’s nothing more than a few limp balloons and a stale box cake. She has nothing really to do except react to Ralph Waite and the kids and their problems. Was there a scene where she’s with all her daughters, talking about life and love and disappointments and such? If there was, I don’t remember it. Shouldn’t there have been? Instead, the one moment I remember is her ordering veritable stranger Janet to go to church—where the hell did that intolerant attitude come from?
Waite comes off worse, indulging in either grimacing overacting when news of the assassination is played for us, or his off-putting anger that flares up a couple of times, particularly when he snaps at Ben to answer him (you can tell, despite his public persona, that Waite must have been a handful). It’s a testament to Eric Scott’s apparent need to be in these things that he put up with the treatment his character receives, without a fuss (he’s basically a whipped dog who’s forced to wag his tail once John decides to be nice to him again).
We go off-sides for a peek into Jason’s and Toni’s married life. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s boring as hell. Why the writers would think that Walmsley could pull off a devilish, roguish traveling musician who needs to sweet talk his wife into staying with him, is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t work. Elizabeth is still dressing like she’s 12, so I don’t know what else I can say that isn’t already summed up in that ridiculousness, except of course, the entire timeline of A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion is completely whack, with John getting the date of his father’s death wrong, missing kids, new unexplained kids, and grandkids still in single digits when they should be in high school. None of it makes any sense.
And regardless of my own personal politics (history has shown he was a mediocre President, at best…with some HUGE personal problems that would never fly today), I don’t tune into a holiday reunion show with my favorite TV family to watch Walter Cronkite crying. Why was the murder of a sitting President ever considered a “hook” for a holiday movie? What a bizarre idea. What does getting the family together for Thanksgiving have to do with John demanding non-sequiturs like, “We need to know if he [Lee Harvey Oswald] acted alone!” Uh…can you just pass the pumpkin pie, Dad?
And it just deteriorates further from there. It’s insinuated that Erin’s a slut (with that hairdo? Good luck…), and that Jim-Bob’s a loser (from Mary Ellen, no less—she’s got room to talk?), while we get one single line from Robert Donner’s Yancy, before he disappears from the Walton universe forever (a particularly egregious error here). Goddamn cousin Rose (Peggy Rea) shows up for a second (jesus I hated that character); Elvis saves Jason from poverty by buying one his songs (Jason apparently doesn’t know Elvis gets songwriting credit on all his singles…); all before Elizabeth chooses the Peace Corps over the kid with scary blue marbles for eyes. Oh, and Grandpa Walton is still haunting the place, moving his own picture around and bringing dead plants back to life (couldn’t he do something useful like put in new plumbing?). When the hell did The Waltons become The Exorcist?
Thank god for the Baldwin sisters. Even though by this time, Helen Kleeb was quite frail, her Emily still has razor-sharp timing, and all the best lines. When the sisters, locked in jail for moonshining (a potentially great subplot just thrown away like all the others), are asked about their lawyer, she responds, “He died in 1942. Some sort of seizure. The Recipe didn’t revive him, so…we had to let him go.” When the sisters deliver a holiday cake to the family, they miss the turn and plow their car right into the woods. A horrified John rushes over to see if they’re okay, to which Mamie first replies, “We often use a convenient bush for stopping,” before Emily tops her with, “Saves wear and tear on the brakes, don’t you know.” Had I been the producer of A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion, the whole show would have taken place at the Baldwins, with various people stopping by to enjoy some old world gentility, a sample of Papa’s Recipe, and their delightfully daffy world view. What a crime that didn’t happen.