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Steven Culp in "The Waltons: A Walton Thankgiving Reunion"

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(November 28, 1993)
Review: "A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion"

Premiered November 21,1993, 9-11 p.m. CBS

"For me, coming home was remembering what was real and meaningful, even when outside events turned everything upside down, the way they did in November of 1963" -John-Boy Walton

It's late November, 1963. The Waltons are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, expecting the arrival of all their children and their families. But this Thanksgiving will be special, since John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned) have announced that it will be the last held at the old family homestead. They are planning to move out, sell it and break ground on a new house in the Spring. Everyone has promised to come home, except for youngest daughter Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), who is travelling the globe as a botanist. Elizabeth's nomadic lifestyle means that she has no permanent address and is hard to contact.

Oldest son John-Boy (Richard Thomas) has become a successful author and television journalist. He lives in New York and is dating Janet Gilchrist (Kate McNeil), an editor at Harper's Magazine. He wants to marry Janet, but she's worried that the Waltons won't like her. John-Boy says not to worry because "Virginians fall in love with everybody they meet".

Elizabeth arrives home right after John-Boy. She runs into her old boyfriend Drew Cutler (Tony Becker). His wife has recently left him and it's obvious that he's still interested in Elizabeth.

The other (now adult) Walton children are living closer to home in Virginia. Mary Ellen (Judy Norton) is a doctor, Jim-Bob (David W. Harper) is a pilot, Ben (Eric Scott) is working with John at their lumber business and Jason (Jon Walmsley) is a country musician and songwriter. They all are going through various work and family struggles.

Mary Ellen is having trouble as a single mother. Her husband Jonesy is serving in Vietnam, his absence has taken a toll their kids.

Ben is frustrated working at the family lumber business. He feels that John is holding back the business and undercuts his father. This causes a falling out between the two, and Ben quits. At the same time, Ben and his wife Cindy (Leslie Winston) are still grieving over the death of their daughter Ginny. Cindy would like to adopt, Ben doesn't want to discuss the topic.

Jason's marriage is also going through a rough patch. He's been spending lots of time touring, trying to break into the music business. His wife Toni (Lisa Harrison) feels that their marriage is in trouble.

Middle sister Erin (Mary Beth McDonough) is divorced and working as a substitute teacher. Assistant Principal Jeff Dulaney (Steven Culp) is impressed with her work and offers her a full-time teaching position. But Erin isn't sure the job would allow her time to raise her three kids. Jeff is in a troubled marriage (his wife cheated on him & left) and there's a mutual attraction between he and Erin.

But their personal dramas pale in comparison to what happens a few days before Thanksgiving. President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. The entire family is shocked and crushed. John-Boy is called to report on the aftermath in DC. Janet and the family are worried he won't make it back in time for Thanksgiving.

I mentioned in a previous post that my younger self was a fan of The Waltons...up to a point. I quit watching around the time that Richard Thomas departed and Will Geer died. I never saw A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion until now, it has several problems.

First off, the continuity is screwed up. For example, based on comments made during the series, John-Boy would have been 47 years old in 1963. He's obviously not. Grampa died in 1941,John says he's been dead 15 years. The "1963" fashions are inconsistent at best. Some characters look like they could have stepped off the set of Mad Men, others have very 90s hair and clothes.

The silly thing about this "sliding" continuity is that it's done strictly to tie the story to the Kennedy assassination (FWIW, this movie aired the day before the 30th anniversary of the assassination). I guess the writers/producers thought that they needed to have John-Boy report on the tragedy. It was an unnecessary choice, because The Waltons series didn't need to bring in major world events to tell good stories. While some episodes focused on issues and historical topics (Segregation, the Great Depression, World War II, Pearl Harbor), the show was at it's best when it told smaller, personal stories. There's enough inter-personal conflict to carry this story without bringing in JFK's assassination. The storyline involving the selling of the Walton family house could have provided enough drama all by itself (SPOILER ALERT:They don't sell the house), and that wouldn't have required any historical gymnastics.

One other problem was the acting. Several members of the cast hadn't worked in film or tv since the previous Waltons reunion movie 11 years earlier (imdb doesn't lie!). I won't name names, but you can tell that some of their acting chops are a bit rusty, especially when paired up with cast members who never stopped acting.

But it's not all bad. I think hardcore fans of the series will appreciate this movie (at least one viewing). It was interesting to see the older versions of the ensemble interact, and this was Richard Thomas' first appearance as John-Boy in 15 years (he quit and John-Boy was recast in season 9). Some of the cast has passed away since it was made (most notably, Ellen Corby), so it's nice to have some more footage of them all together. In addition to the Waltons themselves, we get subplots and cameos that feature the Godseys, the Baldwin sisters, Verdie Grant and Yancy Tucker.

A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion reminds of Gene Siskel's test for some movies he didn't like:Is this better than a documentary of the cast having lunch? I think a reunion of the cast & creative team would've been more entertaining than what we got here. If you need a Waltons Thanksgiving fix, re-watch The Thanksgiving Story instead.

(November 20, 1993, TV Guide)

An emotional holiday get-together.

This 1993 TV-movie reunites some of the original cast members from The Waltons, the Emmy-award winning series that aired on CBS from 1972 to '81. Back then, the drama revolved around a large, close-knit family in rural Virginia, getting by on hope, togetherness and a modest income through the Depression and the onset of World War 11.

Now, however, it's November of 1963, and a Thanksgiving celebration at the Virginia homestead beckons the far-flung clan, including John-Boy (Richard Thomas) once an aspiring novelist, who has become a national TV commentator in New York. But the homecoming is darkened by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, whose death changes the course of some lives in the family.

(November 19, 1993, Variety)
Review: "A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion"

"A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion" suffers from the problems that plague most movies of the genre: The two hour time limit gives an artificial feel and pace, forcing both exposition of everyone's past and present and overly simplistic resolution of contemporary situations.

Pic has the Walton clan gathering on the eve of John F. Kennedy's assassination. ('Why everyone is coming home eight days before Thanksgiving is never explained -- it would have been more effective to have the clan gather afterward.)

While tying a reunion movie to a major historical event is a novelty, it doesn't work: One of the themes of the series was how the Waltons were basically impervious to the influences of the outside world.

The country could have been going to hell in a handbasket -and was; remember, the series was set in the Depression -- but the family was never affected. The writers may have touched upon outside events during the series' run, but those events never really influenced the Walton s' lives.

The Kennedy plot device seems most effective for establishing John-Boy's (Richard Thomas) career as a journalist and setting up the conflict between him and his girlfriend, Jamet (Kate McNeil), who thinks his first priority is his work. He leaves her with his family while he goes off to Washington to cover the president's funeral. Only really moving, credible moment that centers around the assassination has Verdie (Lynn Hamilton) mourning JFK's death because of his stand on Civil Rights.

Virtually everyone from the original cast reprises their roles. Many of the cameos seem forced; most entertaining are Mary Jackson and Helen Kleeb as the moonshining Baldwin Sisters.

Under Harry Harris' lackluster direction, a number of flat performances are given. Thomas, Ralph Waite and Michael Learned (as Ma and Pa Walton) are all exceptionally good, however.

A few era-related gripes: Most of the women have makeup, hairstyles and clothes that are not faithful to the period; and "workaholic' and "junk food" were not part of the lexicon in 1963.

Despite the flaws, fans of the immensely popular series will probably enjoy the trek up Walton's Mountain. And since Pa Walton announces at the end that he is going to run for county commissioner, and John-Boy and Janet get engaged; the stage is set for another movie.

But for those who found the series treacly and unbearable, the pic will seem the same way.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by the Lee Rich Co. and Amanda Prods. in association with Warner Bros. Television. Exec producers, Earl Hamner, Lee Rich, Bruce Sallan; producer, Sam Manners; director, Harry Harris; writers, Claire Whitaker, Rod Peterson.

Crew: Camera, Chuck Arnold; editor, Bob Bring; art director, Ray Markham; sound, Mark Ulano; music, Alexander Courage.

Cast: Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, Michael Learned, Ellen Corby, Jon Walmsey, Judy Norton, Mary McDonough, Eric Scott, David Harper, Kami Cotler, Joe Conley, Ronnie Claire, Tony Becker, Steven Culp, Lisa Harrison, Kate McNeil, Peggy Rae, Leslie Winston, Mary Jackson, Helen Kleeb, James Karen, Stanley Grover, Christian Cousins, Lynn Hamilton, Emily Ann Lloyd, Robert Donner, Peter Fox, Rachel Longaker, Joseph Chapman.

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