A series clearly in artistic decline. Warner Bros. has released The Waltons - The Complete Eighth Season, which includes all 24 one-hour episodes of the 1979-1980 season, on three flipper discs. With World War II in full swing, the Walton family rallies to the patriotic call of supporting their country, fracturing the close-knit mountain family beyond recognition. While this season admirably addresses mature, life-affirming themes and storylines that no one was interested in in 1979's bubble gum-obsessed American pop culture TV, key cast losses (and some unconvincing scrambling by the series' writers to explain them away) seriously impacted the effectiveness of the season's overall aesthetic. The single best TV drama of the 1970s, was stumbling to an end.
I've written extensively about The Waltons (please click here for my Season Four review; here for my Season Five review; and here for my Season Six review), but unfortunately, we never received the Seventh Season of The Waltons here at DVDTalk - a critical season of episodes in the development of the series. By the end of the seventh season, two major characters would leave The Waltons. Grandpa Walton, essayed so wonderfully by Will Geer, had died between shooting seasons six and seven, and his loss was keenly felt by fans of the show (there would a "goodbye" episode during the seventh season, but it still left an unresolved feeling about the character's disappearance that viewers couldn't shake). As well, Michael Learned's Olivia, the matriarch of the Walton clan, and a particular favorite of the fans, asked to be written out of regular appearances on the show, resulting in her character contracting tuberculosis, necessitating a move to Arizona where she was hospitalized (Learned would come back and guest for a handful of episodes this eighth season, before leaving the series for good).
The loss of these two central characters, as well as the continued absence of Ellen Corby's Grandma (Corby suffered a devastating stroke during the fifth season, and would only make a couple of appearances as Grandma over the course of the last seasons), only further discombobulated fans who felt the show never really recovered from the departure of Richard Thomas' John-Boy,the series' de facto star and central character, in season five - a feeling borne out by the series' decline in the ratings. Having never moved once from its Thursday 8:00pm timeslot during its entire run (a rarity for such a long running series), The Waltons went from 15th for the year in the Nielsen's, during Thomas' last season, to 21st for the sixth season, to out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether during its seventh and eighth seasons (it would crawl back up to 30th for the 1980-1981 last go-around). Clearly, whatever drove the show to such stellar ratings during its first five seasons, was missing once the lead characters that viewers so strongly identified with, began leaving the show.
And while the series never wanted for strong individual episodes each and every year (including several excellent ones this eighth season), it was clear that the series' overall direction was failing by the seventh season (which had an unusual number of simply wrong-headed episodes, including the infamous The Changling, where Elizabeth's arrival into puberty signals telekinetic powers and a poltergeist - probably the series' absolute low point - along with ridiculous, ABC After School Special-inspired episodes concerning alcoholism and drug addiction). Too much of the show's appeal was wrapped up in the original Walton family unit, and once that splintered, the show's storylines became necessarily diffused. While it was admirable that The Waltons continued to advance its central story arc along a historical timeline, in more or less "real time" for the characters (the Depression segued into World War II), the enormity of the implications associated with World War II didn't translate nearly as well within the series - probably because we couldn't invest as much of an emotional attachment to these momentous events as a result of the missing central characters, like John-Boy, Olivia, Grandpa and Grandma. The Depression era backdrop during the first seasons allowed The Waltons to become an insular drama where storylines often revolved around the family trying to survive in their rural enclave, with the thematic undercurrent always focused on John-Boy yearning to break away from his relatively safe abode to venture out into the world as a writer. However, with the loss of Richard Thomas in 1977, the point of the series was largely lost along with John-Boy. Now, in these final seasons, the war consumes everything, including many of the Walton clan, but we don't feel the enormity of the family's sacrifice - because this particular group of people doesn't resemble the Walton family we identified with during the series' first five seasons.
Perhaps that audience perception of The Waltons turning from a believable, realistic family drama into a herky-jerky soap opera could have been avoided if the writers had been more adept at smoothing over the cast changes. Obviously, there's not much that can be done when a cast member decides to leave a show. They're physically not there on the set anymore, and the writers have to explain them away somehow within the bounds of the show's internal logic. With Michael Learned, she returns this eighth season for the first ten episodes, but then disappears again (for good) in a totally unrealistic manner. Supposedly cured of her tuberculosis, Olivia's arrival home - along with Learned's steady appearance in episode after episode - seems to indicate she's back for good on the show: a welcome sign for viewers put off by the disappearing Walton clan. However, her manufactured exit - becoming a Red Cross nurse - makes no logical sense, which shouldn't be a surprise when its connected with the series' biggest con job: the re-casting of the John-Boy character.
Whatever possessed the producers to think viewers would accept another actor in the role of John-Boy, is anybody's guess. But it fails spectacularly here in this eighth season. I won't name the actor who replaced Richard Thomas - not because he's a particularly bad actor - but because it's obviously not his fault for this seriously stupid mistake on the part of The Waltons' producers. However, since the series' central story arc was, after all, John-Boy's adventures as a writer (he remains the narrator of the show, via creator Earl Hamner's smooth, reassuring delivery - a gimmick the producers apparently felt they couldn't afford to lose), they probably felt they had no choice, if they wanted to continue the series within the historical timeline of WWII, but to bring back the John-Boy character in some fashion. I don't know if they tried to lure Thomas back into playing the role (I would imagine they probably did, with a hefty paycheck to match), but the actor recast as John-Boy simply doesn't have enough unique appeal to make the character his own (a losing prospect anyway, considering the already iconic status of Thomas' original portrayal). The new "John-Boy" always feels fake, never real, and only tacked on to keep the series going - a disastrous mistake for a series like The Waltons which always maintained a credible atmosphere of dramatic integrity along with its obvious commercial intentions.
Even worse, the manner of fake "John-Boy's" return is flubbed magnificently here when the writers first introduce him. Supposedly injured in a bomber run when he's shot down by the Germans, fake "John-Boy" is hospitalized stateside, in Alexandria, Virginia, in a catatonic state. Olivia and John, Sr. go to stay with him, eventually succeeding in breaking through to fake "John-Boy's" psyche (he calls out, "Mama," at Thanksgiving). This small ray of hope spurs Olivia to join up with the Red Cross at the military hospital, so she can nurse fake "John-Boy" back to health. And that's all we ever see of Olivia again. Which would be at least logical...if fake "John-Boy" never actually recovered. The writers could make occasional references to Olivia still looking after fake "John-Boy," thereby keeping up a vague connection with the character while letting her slip away from the week-to-week episodes. However, the next time we see fake "John-Boy," in The Prodigals, Ben comes by the hospital, and fake "John-Boy" is...fine. He's resting comfortably, convalescing, and speaking normally. The fog, apparently, has lifted for fake "John-Boy." Ben casually mentions that he saw his mom inside the hospital, and that's that. Fake "John-Boy" eventually starts coming home on week-long furloughs, before he joins the cast permanently at the end of the season. All of which, of course, begs the question: where, then, is Olivia? She never shows her face again, nor is she mentioned by the others. At least during this last part of the eighth season, she ceases to be. It makes absolutely no sense, in context with the rest of the series, for a character like Olivia who couldn't stand to be away from her family for one night, to suddenly disappear as a Red Cross nurse, with absolutely no explanation as to why she wasn't back home with fake "John-Boy," having apparently seen him through his ordeal. Producers and writers frequently think that viewers aren't all that savvy to interruptions in story continuity, such as the magically disappearing Olivia, but for a show like The Waltons, where the fans respected the writers for treating them with intelligence by never writing down to them, such a gimcrack paste-over job of Michael Learned's departure, coupled with the frankly ridiculous notion of recasting the John-Boy character, spelled the final straw for many loyal viewers.
Not helping matters in making The Waltons's eighth season seem uncharacteristically calculated, is the inclusion of new "family" characters Cousin Rose Burton (Peggy Rea) and her grandchildren Jeffrey (Keith Mitchell) and Serena (Martha Nix). Obviously, the inclusion of the two children was the producers' idea of injecting some youthful hijinks back into a series, where the youngest original Walton child, Elizabeth, was now a teenager. However, the Serena character is utterly ignored, almost from the start, while the Jeffrey character is made so obnoxious, it's a wonder anyone thought he would be a viable surrogate for the original Walton children. Parents and grandparents used to love to watch The Waltons with their kids, if for no other reason than to be able to say, "See, you brats? Kids knew how to behave back then!" How many of those same parents turned off The Waltons, then, when odious little Jeffrey pulled one of his lame pranks? Even worse is the inclusion of Rea as the preternaturally affable Rose, a character designed to stick out her brave, trembling, chubby chin at the first sign of trouble, while asking the whole world to simultaneously excuse her awkwardness and love her for it - a more annoying character to show up on Walton's Mountain I can not think of.
Good episodes do crop up here and there in this eighth go-around for the series - all of them, ironically, having to do with characters and situations outside the regular confines of the day-to-day doings on Walton's Mountain. In The Diploma, Mary Ellen befriends a group of backwoods "hillbillies," discovering the depth of warmth and feeling they possess behind their protective facades of suspicion and the willful rejection of what the outside world has to offer them. In The Silver Wings, David W. Harper (still one of the most natural actors on the series) gets another chance to shine as Jim-Bob, in this Summer of '42-inspired little story. Familiar comedic character actor Todd Susman has a nicely dramatic role for a change in The Unthinkable, where he brings Jewish traditions - as well as the first inklings of the Holocaust - to the Walton family. Marvelous character actor Woodrow Chambliss has an impressive turn as cousin Zadok Walton in the beautifully scripted The Remembrance - the kind of episode that The Waltons did better than any similar series (where the value and worth of older people are celebrated and cherished, as opposed to today's youth-obsessed pop culture). And of course, Mary Jackson as Miss Emily, and Helen Kleeb as Miss Mamie, impress yet again as the delightful Baldwin sisters in The Inspiration, where a rather stunning appearance by Ellen Corby (who was a better actor, even with the debilitating effects of a catastrophic stroke, than almost anyone else on TV at that time) marked this as one of the series' best episodes.
However, too much of The Waltons - The Complete Eighth Season plays out in a decidedly desultory manner, with lazily-constructed episodes about women's rights in the workplace (The Home Front, Part 1, The Innocents), women's places within society and at home (The Wager and The Fastidious Wife), racial prejudice (The Medal), and the "moral equivalency" of war (The Spirit, which plays almost scene for scene like the fifth season's The Nightwalker, with a decidedly ridiculous denouement: the Waltons welcome an escaped German POW to share Christmas with them...as, of course, all apologetic, appeasing rural Virginian families would have done back in 1943, at the height of WWII), gumming up the works for this hodgepodge season. Indeed, many episodes from this eighth season seem reminiscent of better times on Walton's Mountain - a good example being The Diploma, where John has to graduate high school again. Earlier, in the fourth season, one of the series' best episodes, The Prophecy, dealt with John's self-doubts as his high school reunion approached. Not only does The Diploma essentially devalue that earlier, superior episode by first aping it, and then negating its logic, it utterly fails to come close to the level of emotion that The Prophecy so effortlessly achieved. Clearly, by this next-to-last season of The Waltons, what was once routine - beautifully scripted, cleverly integrated stories enacted by characters the viewers had come to identify with and love each week - had now become the exception, not the rule.
Here are the 24, one hour episodes of the double-sided three-disc box set, The Waltons: The Complete Eight Season, as described on the insert:
DISC ONE: SIDE A
The Home Front Part 1
Doing their part: John heads the draft board, Jason is a D.I., Mary Ellen and Erin help manufacture war supplies.
The Home Front Part 2
John contends with the bereaved father of a dead solider and his own grief when John-Boy is reported MIA.
Cousin Rose arrives to make Olivia's life easier. But her mischievous grandchildren make everyone else's life harder.
To get a security clearance, John has to graduate from high school...25 years late.
When Ike takes dancing lessons, a suspicious Corabeth wonders if he's aiming to change partners.
DISC ONE: SIDE B
Next stop, Hollywood. Erin meets a documentary filmmaker who tells her she's got what it takes to be a star.
With John-Boy missing in action, a publisher asks John and Olivia for permission to publish their son's war journal.
The Lost Sheep
Erin is eager to become Mrs. Ashley Longworth, Jr. - until she learns something surprising about her intended.
Why won't a young soldier's wife answer her husband's letters? The stunning reason spurs Olivia into action.
When John-Boy is hospitalized in Alexandria, Olivia volunteers for the Red Cross to be near him.
DISC TWO: SIDE A
The Silver Wings
Jim-Bob falls for the allure of an older woman - the pretty wife of an Air Force pilot.
Mary Ellen and Erin saddle up and partner up for the Run and Ride race, traditionally a men-only event.
The Waltons show the true spirit of Christmas when they share the holiday with an escaped German POW.
The Fastidious Wife
Cindy follows a book's advice on how to be a happy wife...and turns into a very unhappy woman.
Jason's eyes are opened when a Jewish fellow recruit tells him about his grandfather's fate at the hands of the Nazis.
DISC TWO: SIDE B
Elizabeth is fascinated by the new schoolteacher, a modern thinker who dares teach her students where babies come from.
You gotta be smart to keep from getting drafted. Stung by a soldier's sneering remark, Ben considers signing up.
Twenty-one years after he made a date with Grandpa, cousin Zadok shows up to keep the appointment.
When Miss Mamie refuses eye surgery, John and Mary Ellen call in the ultimate authority figure: Grandma.
The Last Straw
Bad breaks: John gets ornery when Jim-Bob breaks his arm and the mill machinery breaks down.
DISC THREE: SIDE A
The Traveling Man
Rose is wooed by an old beau, a traveling salesman who swept her off her feet on the dance floor.
John-Boy returns home, healed in body but troubled in his mind. Ike receives greetings from Uncle Sam.
Romance on Walton's Mountain: Mary Ellen is drawn to a handsome paratrooper and Corabeth encounters a former admirer.
Jim-Bob graduates from high school at the top of his class, and all the Walton brothers march off to war.
Again, as with the previous three Waltons DVD sets I've reviewed, the full-screen, 1.33:1 transfers for The Waltons: The Complete Eighth Season are, on the whole, not very impressive. Scratches and dirt mar almost every episode presented here, while colors sometimes come across as muddy or faded. It's incredible to me that one of the best-remember dramas in TV history is treated so shabbily by its releasing company.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track accurately recreates the original broadcast presentation, but at times, it's no better than the prints, with occasional warbley, squelchy sound. Subtitles are available.
Included as a bonus, A Decade of The Waltons Retrospective Special, which originally aired in May at the end of the eighth season, has The Waltons' creator Earl Hamner appearing on screen, discussing the past "decade" of The Waltons (which is confusing, because he refers to the past eight years of the cast portraying the characters). Set around the birthday of Grandma, the special allows for a generous selection of "best of" clips, woven into the birthday narrative (Grandma gets a photo album, hence, the flashbacks), while at the end of the show, Hamner is able to "introduce," via some clumsy split-screens (which were obviously shot at different times), his actors to their real-life counterparts: his family. Hamner also gives a brief look at his hometown of Schuyler, Virginia, as well as a visit with his mother. It's a sweet, nostalgic special (perhaps they thought the eighth season was going to be the last?), and quite rightly, Warner Bros. has included this last "episode" of the eighth season where it belongs.
What was once the best family drama on 1970s television, stumbled badly this eighth season. Already diminished by the loss of Richard Thomas as John-Boy, Will Geer as Grandpa, and only occasional appearances by the amazing Ellen Corby as Grandma, The Waltons' continuity further fractured with the permanent exit this season of Michael Learned as the Walton matriarch, Olivia, and the idiotic recasting of the central role of John-Boy. These massive changes are unconvincingly played out with awkward scripting and a disregard for the series' previous context, ultimately leaving too much of The Waltons: The Complete Eighth Season feeling calculated and false. I have to recommend this eighth go-around for fans of the show (since they've gone this far) - but only as a rental.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.