Monday, December 23, 2013

Room for Both in This Polarized Age

It’s Christmas: classic holiday movie and television show time. If the sheer number of times that I’ve watched it is the barometer, then my personal favorite is The Homecoming by Earl Hamner, Jr., a TV movie that inspired The Waltons, which debuted as a weekly series a year later. 

I remember watching The Homecoming when it first aired in 1971, just days before Christmas. I was more apt to be mesmerized back then and this movie did it for me. I appreciated its starkness. It looked especially good. One could believe this was a family living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1933, when times were pretty tough. When I first watched the movie in December 1971, I recall thinking how 1933 was such a long, long time ago—another world altogether from the perspective of a nine year old living in the Bronx. Thirty-eight years had, in fact, passed from when The Homecoming story occurred to when it was made into a television movie. Since it debuted, forty-two years have passed. Forty-two plus thirty-eight equals eighty.

The Walton family of The Homecoming lived in simpler times for sure—genuinely hardscrabble but simpler on a whole host of fronts. And 1971, from where I sat at least, was a lot simpler than today. All these years later, it’s interesting to witness how a fair number of folks, who just loved The Waltons as a weekly TV drama—but who had until recently never before seen The Homecoming—found the ipso facto pilot movie off-putting. A small percentage even became hostile on the message boards, as if The Homecoming was somehow sacrilege with its tough-as-nails mother played by Patricia Neal and decidedly less saccharine friends and neighbors on Walton's Mountain than seen on the subsequent television show. While lovably eccentric in the TV series, the bootlegging Baldwin sisters, for one, are certifiably crazy in The Homecoming.

We live in such a polarized age now. But you know: There really is room for The Homecoming and The Waltons—for diversity. I like them both, but I especially get into the former because, I suspect, it is closer to the way things really were. Had the TV show starred Patricia Neal instead of Miss Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, it might not have fared too well. After all, there are movies and there are TV shows. Coming into our living rooms week after week, she might not have played on the small screen. It’s hard, though, not to love The Homecoming once a year with its memorable cast of characters and unforgettable dialogue. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, which I watched one time and one time only—way too intense for holiday fare as far as I’m concerned. No, it’s Scrooge, the musical starring Albert Finney, and The Homecoming that have stood the test of time for me. Very literally, I could perform a one-man Homecoming show. “What are you doing up there behind locked doors?” The answer we discover is writing in a tablet. Anything else, John-Boy? Simpler times and television for sure.

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