If I say The Waltons, what immediately pops to mind? Corny old TV show? Saccharine family drama? Boring waste of time? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, at the height of its creative existence, The Waltons was one of television’s finest accomplishments. And the great irony is that this exemplar of “family values” television was actually one of the few proponents of anti-free market socialist ideology.
In case you aren’t aware, The Waltons was a 1970s television drama focusing on Virginia family growing up during the depths of the Great Depression. The central character was John-Boy, the eldest son of John and Olivia Walton, who desperately wanted to become a writer. But the overall focus of the show extended outward from John-Boy’s ambitions to lend a particularly realistic vision of what life was like during the 1930s. Still, for the first year or two Richard Thomas was like a grasshopper among ants, showcasing his maturity as actor in comparison to the less experienced actors and actresses who played his siblings.
The Waltons dealt with many crises that were actually faced by its creator, Earl Hamner, Jr. The show was, in fact, based upon his own family. As a result The Waltons bore a much stronger essence of reality than other nostalgic shows of the same era such as Happy Days, which barely even tried to keep up with the appearance of taking place in the 1950s by the middle of its long run. The Waltons, on the other hand, appeared to take place chronologically and even wove many famous historical events into its plots, from the love affair of King Edward and Mrs. Simpson to Pearl Harbor. Rather than taking place in some nebulous generic time period, The Waltons was often very strict about exactly what year the show was supposed to be taking place.
Still, the overriding concern of The Waltons was The Great Depression. The effects of the Depression and FDR’s New Deal were dealt with both explicitly and implicitly. And it is the implicit take on the New Deal that serves The Waltons best. Underlying the saccharine sheen that makes the show such a favorite among absolutist conservatives-remember the infamous statement made by Pres. George H.W. Bush that more American families should be like the Waltons than the Simpsons-is the irony that this show eschews most so-called traditional values that conservatives embrace. The theme of The Waltons is that it takes cooperation to run a family-or a country-and not competition. The Waltons thrive because they share; not just with each other, but with those around them. When someone is in need, they don’t automatically hike prices and engage in the type of gouging that-whether conservatives like to admit it or not-is a fundamental mandate of the system of free enterprise. John Walton works a sawmill and when someone is desperately in need of wood, he doesn’t lower his inventory to create a manipulated sense of demand, he makes a deal to be paid either later or with barter goods. All of those things are fine socialist ideals, not free enterprise ideals.
Yes, we love to think back to the mid-1970s and say that something like Saturday Night Live was cutting edge and subversive. But the truth be told, there was no more subversive program on TV during those times The Waltons. Not All in the Family, not MASH, not Saturday Night Live. It was The Waltons that was thumbing its nose in the face of the phony ideals of free market economics that most people embrace despite the fact it is clearly not in their best interests. The Waltons, each and every week, made the announcement-in such subtle terms that it was missed by most of its biggest fans-that the American system was broken. The 1970s, remember, are known as the Me-Decade. It was the decade that really, when you think about it, began the push toward consumerism that invades and controls every aspect of American social life. The Waltons embraced the idea of the We-Decade, the 1930s, when people had no choice but to depend upon one another. By the 1970s, everybody was “doing their own thing” which usually meant buying products that was used to supplant any real individuality. The ultimate result has been an utter breakdown of the very values that the show was supposed to uphold. Today, Americans live fragmented lives where every relationship is virtual, even those involving blood and flesh. Even when we meet with someone for a lunch or even a business meeting, we don’t connect and we don’t share. As we’re talking to a person across a desk, we’re more than prepared to answer the cell phone. As we go for a walk with someone even while holding hands we’ve both got our iPods connected. Life in the 21st century, upheld as progress because we have so much to buy and make our lives fuller and richer, stands in direct opposition to those values they embrace in The Waltons.
The Waltons was a show that said every week that something had gone wrong after the end of World War II. The sense of shared destiny that marked the Great Depression and the New Deal was thrown out the window in exchange for a sense of entitlement to sell whatever you have at the highest price even to those who need it the most and can afford it the least. The next time you channel surf right past this saccharine family drama, take a moment to stick with it. Do so and you’ll discover what was quite possibly the most revolutionary family drama in American history.