Today, ensemble family dramas are often the biggest TV events that still find a wide audience. But before “This Is Us” or “Downton Abbey” — years prior even to “Dallas” or “Little House on the Prairie” — trailblazing drama “The Waltons” presented one multi-generational Appalachian family’s trials and triumphs. All nine seasons are currently streaming online.
Recently marking 50 years since its September 1972 premiere, “The Waltons” lovingly depicted the Depression-era backwoods of Virginia through the eyes of sawmill owner John Walton Sr. (Ralph Waite), his wife Olivia (Michael Learned), and their seven children. Their eldest son, called John-Boy (Richard Thomas) — an avatar of series creator Earl Hamner Jr., who died in 2016 — dreamed of life beyond Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains even as he chronicled the challenges, romances, debates, and happenings of a rural Virginia community.
Actress Kami Cotler played the youngest child, Elizabeth, only age 6 when she began the role. Today, she regularly interacts with fans of the series on Facebook, where she has 146,000 followers. “The show frequently told really simple human stories that resonate with people because that’s what life is like,” said Cotler, now a teacher in Southern California, in a recent interview. “People will joke that it was very saccharine sweet, but I don’t think that it actually was.”
Right from season one, each Walton child differed in personality and had episode-long stories as part of the ensemble. It also ventured beyond typical TV fare of the time to tell “some very important stories,” according to Thomas. “Poverty, racism, religion, book burning, aging, illness, death, illiteracy, and so much more. And the stories, and the situations, felt very relatable. We put a spotlight on them.”
Despite being scheduled against NBC’s hit “The Mod Squad,” this throwback sentimental drama found an audience, and it got critics talking, too. “The Waltons” won five Emmys in its first season, and Hamner remained as showrunner for its entire 221-episode run. With a word of thanks to my own siblings, who helped determine this ranking, here are 10 must-see episodes.
1. ‘The Burn Out’ (S4, episode 18)
After a fire burns down their home’s second story, this two-part episode introduces a half-dozen plotlines that converge. The Walton men undertake repairs, even as two of them covertly feel they caused it: John-Boy covers up his lit pipe, while Grandpa Zeb is sure he forgot about a space-heater. When the family parcels out children to neighbors, it opens up small-town Waltons Mountain in intriguing ways.
Quirky locals, always central to “The Waltons,” entertain as temporary caretakers: ever-cheerful general store owner Ike Godsey learns how to help a child process trauma, a teenager finds no-rules living with local scamp Yancy Tucker has major drawbacks, and another person lodges with the high-class Baldwin sisters who make their own moonshine. Nearly 100 episodes into its run, viewers can sense the writers and castmates have hit their stride in this story’s thematic depth.
2. ‘The Baptism’ (S5, episode 4)
Then, as now, prime-time TV usually avoided thorny issues of religion. Just look at NBC’s beloved drama “Parenthood,” in which baseball seems to be the only thing resembling faith among the Braverton clan. But on “The Waltons,” their small-town church was central. “In a small community in the mountains of Virginia in the Depression, if you don’t deal with the church aspect of things, then you don’t deal with things as they were,” said Thomas.
Surprisingly, comedy legend John Ritter portrayed preacher Matthew Fordwick for five seasons, including in this standout story. Fordwick is enthralled to welcome a famous revival preacher to town. But his fiery sermons repel Waltons patriarch John Sr., who isn’t a churchgoer, farther from faith.
3. ‘The Deed’ (S1, episode 20)
For all its personal stories, “The Waltons” sometimes delves into larger societal and legal issues. And, akin to top-rated “Bonanza” — which was more of a Western than an ensemble family drama — sometimes good ol’ fashioned fisticuffs help solve the central conflict.
An underhanded rival lumber company threatens to force the family off Walton’s Mountain, and the Waltons discover they never obtained the legal deed to their property. All family members chip in, with John-Boy taking a leave from college to work in nearby Wheeling. After a couple of miscreants steal the family’s hard-earned money, he takes matters into his own hands.
4. ‘The Thoroughbred’ (S3, episode 4)
On Walton’s Mountain, joyful celebrations — like friendly competitions with neighbors — come just as often as weighty crises. When John-Boy enters his mule in a race, he has to race against a college classmate’s thoroughbred while they both vie for the affections of Selina, one of a dozen love interests that John-Boy has over multiple seasons. It’s a comic story of rivalry, heritage, attraction, and sportsmanship.
5. ‘The Best Christmas’ (S5, episode 12)
Last Christmas, a new fresh-faced cast on The CW attempted to reboot “The Waltons,” and another holiday-themed, made-for-TV movie sequel will arrive this November. Despite some nice interviews, the reboot comes off as poorly produced with contemporary, out-of-place dialogue.
At least the show’s original holiday episodes can still be enjoyed — and, appropriately, this is perhaps the best. Olivia desires to make Christmas special before her oldest children leave the mountain for new adventures. But from a tree falling on the town church to a car wreck that leaves several stranded, multiple emergencies make that “perfect” holiday look very different.
6. ‘The Fire Storm’ (S5, episode 5)
As World War II begins to consume even a rural community, John-Boy seeks to help the townsfolk understand the conflict by reprinting excerpts from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in his local paper. With anti-German sentiment rising, including a local German woman hesitating to even utter her native language, his gesture doesn’t go well.
Caught up in their zeal, locals organize a burning of German books, which is cut short by a poignant scene illustrating the value of free speech and forbearance. The episode originates from writer Rod Peterson, whose social studies teacher came under fire for reading portions of Hitler’s work to inform high school students about the ideologies at work during the conflict.
7. ‘An Easter Story’ (S1, episode 24)
During the business of spring and the lead-up to Easter, Olivia suffers a fall and is diagnosed with polio. The family has faith she’ll walk again, but with the gift of a wheelchair, her fate seems inevitable — until new hope arrives. Michael Learned, the Waltons’ matriarch who is still acting, called her brood “the family you simply wanted to be part of.” She added of the cast’s rapport: “You can’t fake the chemistry; we were like an extended family.”
8. ‘The Hero’ (S5, episode 19)
Sheriff Ep Bridges, a by-the-book lawman who wore his heart on his sleeve, was a fan-favorite character. When John-Boy prepares to honor those lost during World War I for Honour Day, he’s surprised to learn Sheriff Ep is a decorated veteran. Yet battle scars are still painful years later, as the sheriff keeps his medals and memories locked away. When he reconnects with a woman who served as an ambulance driver, the memorial carries all the more meaning.
9. ‘The Wedding’ (S5, episode 7)
When calling “The Waltons” the first ensemble family drama, one has to overlook sitcoms — even though, like “The Brady Bunch” or “Ozzie and Harriet,” this series can be really funny. In his book about the show, creator Hamner said of his family: “[We] were living through a Depression, but rarely knew what it was to be depressed.”
Humor abounds in the verbal sparring of nurse Mary-Ellen Walton, the second eldest of the siblings, with a young doctor who takes over the medical practice where she works, despite his lack of bedside manner. Long engaged to a hospital intern, Mary-Ellen has second thoughts even after announcing a wedding date. If good comedy arises from surprises, viewers will get plenty of laughs out of this episode.
10. ‘The Return’ (S6, episode 23)
In the season five finale, Richard Thomas exited the series as his character, John-Boy, moved to New York to become a reporter. Though “The Waltons” soldiered on for multiple seasons, even re-casting John-Boy, it lost something essential to its early success.
Thomas returned for three reunion films decades later and also made two more appearances on the show, including this two-part story where the economic plight of his family brings him back. Though assigned to report on jobs drying up, John-Boy seeks to solve the problem by purchasing a long-dormant mine. Then a cave-in traps several friends and family members.
Honorable mentions include “The Intruders,” “The Sinner,” “The Graduation,” and Emmy-winner “The Pony Cart,” which is featured at the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Virginia, where the real-life Hamner family once lived.