‘The Waltons’ Fought Back Against Reality TV’s Rising Popularity With This Special Episode

by Alex Falls

The Waltons still stands as an enduring series from a bygone era. It’s a fondly remembered classic TV show from the 70s that helped lead the way to the shows we watch today.

In a 1981 interview as reported by MeTV, the show’s creator Earl Hamner, Jr. reflected on a very special episode he co-wrote with his son Scott. In “The Threshold,” John-Boy lands a job hosting a TV show. Jim-Bob immediately begins building a television set so the rest of the family can tune in. Hamner said this is the very first time the family gets to experience television.

“The episode addresses itself to the potential the medium offers each of us,” Hamner said. “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.”

Hamner wanted to pay tribute to the medium he loved, but at the time he said he felt “sickened” by the early advent of reality TV that began in the 80s. With this episode, Hamner wanted to dissuade audiences from letting reality programming become the future of TV.

“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.”

Keeping The Waltons Pure

Hamner perceived this kind of TV as the polar opposite of what he wanted to accomplish with The Waltons. Seeing such an event glorified on television made him nearly quit the industry 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?”

Instead of leaving the industry he loved, Hamner eventually leaned into his sense of empathy. The same quality that made The Waltons such a popular show in the first place. He promised to make the show a sanctuary on the dial of human decency. A place where viewers could depend on someone to never appeal to the most base of human judgment.

“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.”