Would the CW's core demographic even understand “Goodnight, John Boy” references? The experiences of the hardscrabble, God-fearing family struggling to get through the Great Depression is certainly quite far removed from contemporary frames of reference. Seriously, they could not even afford a decent wifi connection. However, they had each other and their faith to help them endure. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether they will all be together for Christmas in the rebooted The Waltons: Homecoming, directed by Lev L. Spiro, which premieres Sunday on the CW.
This happens to be the CW’s first made-for-TV movie, but it is familiar territory for The Waltons franchise. The first adaptation of Earl Hamner Jr’s autobiographical novel was the feature film Spencer’s Mountain, but the rural Virginia family became the Waltons in the TV movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story that spawned the long-running series. Even after its cancelation, the Waltons returned in six subsequent TV movie reunions. It is an entirely new cast, but Richard Thomas (the original John Boy) returns to narrate, from a contemporary perspective.
It is hard for us to understand just how difficult the Great Depression was. It makes our current supply chain issues and the unemployment of the late 2000s and early 2010s look trivial and mild. Arguably, John Walton Sr. was lucky to find work in a big city 90 miles away, but he can only come home for special occasions, like Christmas—and only if he gets sufficient time off from his boss. Initially, that approval was not forthcoming. When he suddenly agrees, John Sr. must make his way home on buses navigating treacherous roads, a lot like Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Clearly, the folks behind the Waltons re-upping (screenwriter Jim Strain, executive producer Sam Haskell, etc.) understand what made the original series work and they hold onto those elements. Faith and family are always front-and-center. Their only “updates” are a greater emphasis on tolerance, but in ways work in concert with the bedrock themes, as when Mother Olivia Walton and her children spend their trying hours with a family friend in the town’s traditionally black church (in 1930s Virginia mountain country). Wisely, they also kept the instantly recognizable musical theme.
Sure, it is corny, but it is all about family at Christmastime. You have to expect a lot of corn baked in. Unlike gooey cheesy Hallmark Christmas treacle, the 2021 Homecoming also reflects the economic anxiety of the era and the home-and-hearth values of the rural community. It is a decent period production that treats the characters’ religion with respect. Recommended for fans of the original series and three-hanky holiday movies, The Waltons: Homecoming (2021) airs this Sunday (11/28) on the CW. Happy Thanksgiving.