Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Glen Oaks to Walton's Mountain: Musings on 7th Heaven and The Walton's

I have recently been thinking a bit about two "family shows" I once watched fairly regularly, 7th Heaven and The Waltons, and the similarities and differences between them.

7th Heaven was the brainchild of Atlanta native Brenda Hampton and veteran TV sitcom writer and is, as rumour has it, based on Hampton’s experiences growing up in that Southern city. According to legend, Hampton pitched her idea for a show about one of the last functional families left in America to veteran mega-producer Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place) and the rest is, as they say, history. With Spelling behind the show 7th Heaven was eventually picked up by the fledgling WB netlet reportedly, by the way, over Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It premiered on 26 August 1996 and ran for eleven seasons on the WB and later the CW, the network created by the merger of the WB and UPN in 2006, making it the longest running TV show in the WB’s history and of Aaron Spelling’s career.

7th Heaven always seemed to me a throwback to 1950s family oriented American television. It’s no surprise that the show shares the representational illusions of most 1950s American television. 7th Heaven centers on the sunny Camden family of sunny Glen Oaks, California. Dad Eric (Stephen Collins), a preacher at a local church, his stay at home wife Anne (Catherine Hicks), and their seven mostly biblically named children, Matt (Barry Watson), Mary (Jessica Biel), Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), Simon (David Gallagher), Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman), and the twins Sam and David (Lorenzo and Nikolas Brino) who were born in the 14th episode of season three. 7th Heaven, like so many other family oriented television shows on American television was always utterly predictable. Over its eleven seasons the Camden children and their many friends, acquaintances, and neighbours, may have had problems with dating, boys or girls, keeping secrets from mom and dad, sexy dancing, smoking, drinking, premarital sex, giving birth to children out of wedlock, not having a place to live, and so on ad nauseum, but by the end of each episode or certainly by the end of each season all of them, save for oldest daughter Mary who in Durkheimian fashion served as a warning to all the other Camden children of where misbehaviour can lead, always find themselves back on the moral path they are supposed to be on in their lives according to the nondenominational gospel according to Brenda Hampton.

While 7th Heaven was never a critical favourite the show did draw the highest audiences ratings for the WB during its run becoming in the process the longest running family drama in the history of American TV. What this says about American TV audiences I will leave up to you to decipher. Praised by such Christian moral watchdog groups as the Parents Television Council, a group that not surprisingly hated Buffy, Angel, South Park, The Simpsons, Veronica Mars, Lost, and Heroes to name just a few, 7th Heaven was slotted for cancellation in May of 2006. High Neilsen numbers for the shows finale that season, however, gave the programme a new lease on life. The show’s resurrection lasted only for one year more, however. 7th Heaven was cancelled and ended its long run on 13 May 2007.

As you can probably tell by now dear unreaders I never really liked 7th Heaven. I often watched the show. The reason? I can only describe my addiction to 7th Heaven as akin to watching a car crash or a train wreck. I had to see how much worse it could get. I should hasten to add that I don’t inherently dislike the family oriented TV genre. I actually have enjoyed some American family TV in the past. Rather I disliked 7th Heaven because, like Friends, it was so unreal. I say this knowing that all film and TV create their own worlds and their own realities. I disliked it because with its sugar coated pat formulas about life it seemed far more of a fantasy show to me than that meant to be fantasy show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show, by the way, which I found one of the most emotionally realistic shows ever to appear on TV.

One family oriented drama I really liked in the 1970s and continue to like today is The Waltons. The Waltons, which ran from 1972 to 1981 on CBS, was the brainchild of veteran TV writer Earl Hamner Jr. Hamner wrote a number of episodes for the classic Twilight Zone series from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like 7th Heaven, The Waltons, was grounded in autobiography, in this case the real life reminiscences of creator Earl Hamner’s experiences of growing up in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Like 7th Heaven, The Waltons centred around a large family. There was father John (Ralph Waite), mother Olivia (Miss Michael Learned), grandpa and patriarch Zebulon (veteran Hollywood actor, old leftist, and gay Will Geer) Grandma Esther (Ellen Corby), and children John-Boy (Richard Thomas), Jason (Jon Walmsley), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Ben (Eric Scott), Jim-Bob (David Harper), and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler).

Like 7th Heaven, The Waltons could be sugary at times, but not all the time. Unlike 7th Heaven where the middle class Camden family was urban and relatively well off, The Walton clan was rural and poor though not impoverished. Unlike 7th Heaven where the struggles of the middle class Camden’s always seemed to strain credibility, the struggles of the Walton family trying to survive the tough times of the Great Depression of the 1930s always seemed, at least to me, credible and real and often bittersweet. Not everything always ended on a happy note on Walton’s Mountain. Unlike 7th Heaven where Glen Oaks seemed like everywhere USA, a telling commentary perhaps on our times in which all of America seems increasingly to look alike, The Waltons had a wonderful sense of place, some would say a romanticized, nostalgic, and somewhat xenophobic sense of place though I wouldn't, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Not too long ago I rewatched seasons one and two of The Waltons on DVD. I recall being struck by the quality of the storytelling and the almost poetic quality of the words some of the characters, particularly John-Boy, said. I remember being struck by the quality of the acting in The Waltons particularly from Ralph Waite, Miss Michael Learned, Will Geer, Ellen Corby, and Richard Thomas. I recall being struck by how, despite the fact that it was filmed in a Hollywood back lot—the Walton house, by the way, for those of you interested in trivial pursuits, shows up in another CW show Gilmore Girls—the show gives you a sense of Great Depression era Virginia and the history of America during the Great Depression and New Deal eras. I remember being struck by how touching several of the episodes are including what surely has to be one of the first shows ever on American TV about anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany (“The Ceremony”, 1:9). One of the earliest, by the way, was The Twilight Zone episode "Death's-Head Revisited", episode 3:9, from 1961. I recall being struck by the quality of the cinematography. Walton’s cinematographer Russell Metty had worked, after all, with Douglas Sirk on his classic melodramas of the 1950s and with Orson Welles on his brilliant Touch of Evil. I remember being struck by how literate and literary the show is. I love the short story quality of the show with its wonderfully nostalgic opening voice overs by creator Earl Hamner Jr. And I recalled how much of an influence The Waltons had on me, a teenager in the 1970s.

I grew up with The Waltons. I had watched the television movie in which the Walton family first appeared on the small screen, "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story", when it debuted on CBS in December of 1971 and I watched the series when it came on the air almost a year later in September in 1972. The show appealed to me so much and for so many reasons but I think the main reason I fell in love with The Waltons was because I really identified with John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) and I came to believe that there was a lot of John-Boy in me. Or perhaps by religiously watching the show and by identifying so strongly with John-Boy I turned more and more like John-Boy. I didn't dream of becoming a writer like John-Boy but I was, like him, a reader of books and a lover of books and still am. Instead I dreamed, as did John-Boy, I think, that I too might become an intellectual. I don't recall exactly when I started thinking about going to college--I stupidly confused being an intellectual with becoming an academic--but I wouldn't be surprised if it was John-Boy who, because he wanted to go to college and he romanticised it so much, made me think about going to college and who helped me create my own romance about academia, a romance that was very similar to his (that I no longer do thanks to being smacked in the face by reality on several occasions).

It wasn't only because of intellectual yearnings or a dream of going to college that I identified with John-Boy so much. When John-Boy fell in love with Jenny Pendleton (Sian Barbara Allen) in "The Love Story" (1:17), so did I. When John-Boy worried that his father might sell Walton's Mountain to a developer who wanted to build a health spa destroying, in the process, the Walton family heritage ("The Heritage", 2:18), so did I. When John-Boy opposed censorship and the burning of German books on Walton's Mountain ("The Fire Storm, 5:5), so did I. Looking back on it I am not sure whether I liked John-Boy so much because his sensitivities and morality were just like mine or whether John-Boy's sensitivity and morality were increasingly becoming my sensitivity and morality because I admired him so much. Perhaps John Boy made me one part liberal and two parts socialist.

Anyway, I wish I could report that the quality of The Waltons DVD’s is as good as the show is but I can’t. Warner Brothers, usually the best of the big corporate home entertainment boys, has not given The Waltons the Criterion treatment. The show is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. Colours seem right. Blacks are fine. Contrasts are fine. Audio is good. There are, however, far too many scratches and pops that appear throughout the episodes and particularly during the opening credits. No restoration here. There are no extras. The French subtitles have to be manually turned off. Despite all of this, this is probably about as good as it is going to get for this seminal and outstanding American TV series. And that, dear

unreaders, is sad but then life in an America that, unlike the rural America of the Walton's, has become a land of commodity aestheticism. Warner Brothers presumably thinks that the rural America of The Waltons has a limited appeal to a largely nostalgia target audience in this now urban and consumer America.

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