• May 26, 2024

The Waltons creator wrote this episode to combat the rise of reality TV

When John-Boy lands a job hosting a TV show in The Waltons episode “The Threshold,” Jim-Bob immediately sets out to build the family a television set so they can tune in.

This episode was a particularly special episode to The Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr. who co-wrote it with his son Scott and considered it a standout of the show’s ninth season.

“In it, the Walton family sees television for the first time,” Hamner told The Morning News in 1981. “The episode addresses itself to the potential the medium offers each of us, to its power to move and influence people, to its enormous potential for good, to its awesome ability to communicate, to its value as a medium in which we can celebrate the best of humankind.”

TV viewers today streaming reality shows may not exactly see television as the noble medium that Hamner describes, and it might surprise you to know that this episode was specifically written because Hamner wanted to dissuade audiences from making reality TV the future of TV.

Hamner felt “sickened” by early iterations of reality TV in the Eighties.

“Not too long ago, I was flipping the dial and I saw a … man douse himself with chicken fat, then set himself on fire, and dash to a swimming pool in a contest between immolation and salvation,” Hamner said. “Thank God, he got there in time, and probably suffered only superficial burns.”

Watching this kind of programming share the same air that The Waltons breathed bothered Hamner to the point where he said he wanted to quit writing for TV entirely.

“The event sickened me and forced me to ask myself: how could I remain in a medium where such degradation of the human spirit is possible?” Hamner asked himself. “If television is headed toward such gladiator sports, how can I, with good conscience, dedicate my talent and my energy to it?”

Fortunately for fans of The Waltons who would’ve hated to see Hamner give up writing for TV, Hamner ultimately came to a different conclusion, which was rooted in the same notions of empathy that made watching The Waltons so enjoyable.

“The answer came back that we’re all human, and if there is a baseness in us that will allow ourselves to take pleasure in seeing a man set fire to himself, there is also a part of us that is noble, reaching for the human qualities of compassion, pity, sacrifice, love, decency,” Hamner said.

He vowed to keep The Waltons as a sanctuary on the dial, a spot where viewers could depend on him to never appeal to such baseness, but instead to their better judgments.

“Because we have celebrated those values in The Waltons, and because I feel we need to support those values for our audience in a threatening and confusing world, the series is still growing, changing, living,” Hamner said. “And while we will never set a person on fire, we may occasionally light a candle to help us see ourselves better.”

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