In 1972, when “The Waltons” premiered on CBS, the nation was still mired in Vietnam. The Nixon administration was beginning to unravel. And 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics. America, it seems, needed “The Waltons.” Today, when the most rural skein on primetime TV is “The Simple Life,” it’s a stark throwback to an era of primetime TV before hip urbanites monopolized the airwaves.
The year before “The Waltons” hit the airwaves, a telepic called “The Homecoming” won praise and viewers for its simple, unpretentious story about a large, close-knit family in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains during the Depression.
It wasn’t a pilot, but CBS ordered a series based on the idea and writer Earl Hamner Jr. — inspired by his own rural childhood experiences — obliged. In its first season, it won six Emmys including drama series and landed in the Nielsen top 20, where it would remain for the next four years.
In the aftermath of the chaotic and free-loving ’60s, “The Waltons” became an emblem of traditional values: honesty, hard work, respect for one’s elders, the notion that strong family bonds could overcome any obstacle.
The entire first season of the series, collected on this five-disc set, retraces the early history of the Walton family, whose lives would play out over 10 full seasons and five reunion made-fors that ran into the mid-’90s.
Thomas, Learned and Corby won Emmys that first year in the roles of aspiring writer John-Boy, dedicated mom Olivia and tough old grandma Walton, respectively. Learned and Corby would win two more each; Will Geer as the grandfather would win later, and Ralph Waite as the practical father John Walton was nominated.
Middle America loved “The Waltons,” in part because family members grew, changed and followed their own destinies as the years progressed. That’s commonplace in many hourlong dramas today, but it was highly unusual in the early ’70s.
The characters who surrounded them — the eccentric Baldwin sisters with their bootleg-whiskey “recipe,” local grocer Ike Godsey, the town minister (played by a young John Ritter) — were flawed but lovable. Hamner’s articulate and thoughtful narration opened and closed every episode.
The music, including a theme and many scores by the estimable Jerry Goldsmith, was warm and authentic (autoharp, harmonica, banjo) even when the locale (the Warner backlot and, for exteriors, the Angeles National Forest) seemed less so.
Like so many quality hour dramas, “The Waltons” took a little time to find its footing. Early episodes include knockoffs of “The Miracle Worker” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” but by midseason, the large cast was comfortable and the writing solid and credible. Two of the three Emmy nominees for drama series writing that season were “Waltons” episodes, and one of them (John McGreevey’s sensitive 1973 seg “The Scholar”) won.
On this DVD set, print quality is good but variable, and there are no extras (a Hamner commentary might have been nice). Worse, after Warner Bros. took control of Lorimar, syndication prints replaced the Lorimar logo with its own, and now even that is gone: The last five seconds of every episode go black while the music plays out. TV purists — and that’s precisely the market for these full-season DVD sets — hate this, and with good reason.
In fact, “The Waltons” not only put Lorimar (which would later give us the long-running “Dallas”) on the map as a TV powerhouse, but renewed TV’s interest in homespun family drama: “Eight Is Enough,” “Family,” “Little House on the Prairie” and others arrived over the next five years. “The Waltons” would outlast most and rival all for cherished places in our collective TV memories.