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The Waltons are a large country family in rural Virginia who run a saw mill on Walton Mountain in the grinding struggle to make ends meet in the The Great Depression. As the initial lead character and narrator in his adulthood, Eldest son John-Boy Walton, noted, they didn't have much money, but they had a lot of love and fortitude to keep the whole brood going through thick and thin.
The remarkable thing is that this series began on CBS around the same time as its notorious "rural purge" in which shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres were cancelled en masse as not appealing to the desirable audience demographics from 1968 through 1973. It was expected to die a quick death like the few remaining survivors of the "rural purge" would eventually do. Instead of dying a quick death against The Mod Squad and The Flip Wilson Show as expected, the show soon killed them and went on for a successful nine-year run. Some have called it the lone survivor of the "rural purge" although the show began during it, not right before it. The show and its cast also picked up several Emmy Awards and a Peabody.
Series creator Earl Hamner, Jr. based the show on his own childhood experiences, which he had previously mined for the 1961 novel Spencer's Mountain (itself adapted as a 1963 film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara). Prior to the actual series, CBS aired a Pilot Movie in 1971 called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which featured Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton and Edgar Bergen as Grandpa; these roles would be re-cast for the series.
The Waltons includes examples of the following tropes:
- Absentee Actor: Grandma, after coming home from her stroke anyway. She was not seen or mentioned in some episodes after she returned home.
- The Character Died with Him: After Will Geer died following the sixth season, the show opened season 7 with an episode depicting the aftermath of Grandpa's (offscreen) death.
- Animated Adaptation: Not offically, but in 1974 Hanna-Barbera created an Expy called "These Are The Days" about the Depression Age Day family who might as well have been called Walton.
- Anyone Can Die: After the war starts this sort of happens... One main and two recurring are killed.
- Arbitrary Skepticism: Elizabeth says in one episode that she does not believe in ghosts, even though she attracted a poltergeist in the previous season.'
- Barefoot Poverty
- Beware the Nice Ones: Papa Walton may the iconic loving father, but do not think you can take advantage of him. One drifter thought he could when he was bunking with the family and tried to steal some money before making his escape; the next thing that happened is that he was staring down a shotgun wielded by John who is quite adament that the thief put back the money and explain himself. John-Boy is no pushover either when facing bad guys, once forcing a young girl con artist to confess her crimes in front of the family and later on beating up both boys singlehandedly that jumped him earlier in the episode.
- BLAM Episode: One episode is about a poltergeist invading the Walton home, no other episode features any overt supernatural elements (though one episode is ambiguous about a Ouija Board...) and this is never mentioned again.
- Captain's Log: John-Boy's memoirs.
- The Cast Showoff: Will Geer. He had a Master's Degree in Botany from the University of Chicago, and worked as a professional botanist after being blacklisted in 1950. Grandpa's knowledge of plants makes a lot more sense now...
- Celebrity Paradox: The family were occasionally seen listening to their favorite radio shows, including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy...after Bergen appeared in the pilot movie as Grandpa!
- Clip Show: A Decade of the Waltons, a movie-length 1980 special introduced by an onscreen Earl Hamner, Jr.
- Doorstop Kid: The first episode had a young deaf girl that was unable to communicate left on the Waltons' doorstep by her mother to prevent the father (who mistook her for mentally retarded) from sending her to an orphanage. One of the earliest examples of a clip show.
- Family Drama
- The Great Depression
- Every Episode Ending: The family telling each other good night.
- Memetic Mutation: This ending became so iconic that as late as 2010, it was still being parodied in commercials.
- Flashback with the Other Darrin: In the Season 5 episode 'The Achievement' there are clips of the pilot movie, and all the clips of the adult characters were refilmed with the new actors.
- Frozen in Time: Very much averted. The series advanced from 1933 to 1945, while the last reunion movie was set in 1969.
- Happily Married: The show is a big fan of this one: Grandma Esther and Grandpa Zeb, John Sr. and Olivia, most of the kids eventually, Rev. Fordwick and Rosemary, Ike and Corabeth, Sheriff Bridges and Sara. Even when they have arguments, they rarely erupt into anything big except for a few times in the later seasons.
- Long Runners: Nine seasons, and this for a series not expected to last one.
- Multigenerational Household
- Nostalgic Narrator: Series creator Earl Hamner Jr., as the voice of the older John-Boy Walton.
- The Other Darrin: Every adult character (with the exception of Ellen Corby's Grandma Walton) was played by a different actor in the pilot film.
- John-Boy, after being virtually absent for two seasons following the departure of Richard Thomas from the cast, reappeared in Season 8 with Robert Wightman in the role.
- Pilot Movie: The Homecoming: A Christmas Story
- Put on a Bus: In the second to last episode of Season 6 John-Boy literally leaves on a bus (though he had already been 'put on a bus' a season before when he moved to New York) (but the season still followed his exploits in The Big Apple).
- Reasonable Authority Figure: John Walton may be the undisputed head of the household, but it's hard to find a father more understanding under such difficult circumstances. He's even changed his mind on unpopular decisions and will admit when he's made an error, especially to Olivia and John-Boy.
- Reunion Show: Several reunion movies aired in the '90s.
- Shop Keeper: Ike Godsey, who runs his store also as the local post office, auto garage and pool hall, so everyone has a reason to visit.
- The Thirties