Reality in a Television Survivor

Elaine Luddy Klonicki

As the television networks announce another round of “reality programming,” I find myself pining for “The Waltons,” a family show from the 1970’s. Over the years, people have come to either love or hate “The Waltons,” which ran for nine years and received numerous Emmys. I am in the former category. I loved it from the time I first saw the pilot episode, called “The Homecoming,” when it aired as a Christmas special in December of 1971.

I too was a member of a large family, reared by parents with strong values and religious faith. I was the youngest of eight children, and like little Elizabeth on the show, sometimes felt overwhelmed and lost in the crowd. As with the Waltons, money was tight for us and we learned to make good use of the resources we had. When you’re young though, you never quite appreciate the blessings you have, and so I often longed to belong to the Walton family instead of my own. The grandparents were fun-loving, the parents affectionate, the older brothers sweet and sensitive—and everyone really talked about their feelings.

In “The Waltons,” the character of writer Earl Hamner, Jr. was called John-Boy, and he was the oldest son. No matter what John-Boy experienced in a particular story, each episode was wrapped up nicely in Hamner’s own voice, expressing gratitude for his family and the values he was taught growing up in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia during the Depression. Those tributes were often the most touching parts of the show. Critics called “The Waltons” saccharine and unrealistic, but the family members weren’t portrayed as perfect and they faced many challenges. They often stumbled along the way, even the adults, but each family member struggled hard to live life under the framework of the family’s principles and values. Honesty, hard work, respect, responsibility, self-sacrifice, compassion, and kindness—today they package it and call it “character education.”

In dramatic contrast, the “reality shows” of today entertain by highlighting the worst human character traits: temptation, lust, greed, and distrust. Some claim that art is just imitating life here, but surely we know that the imitation goes both ways. Some aspects of life are definitely not worth capturing on film, and particularly not to be offered as a steady diet to young, impressionable minds.

Growing up, I used to wish that I had been born in an earlier time. I imagined that the world was simpler and the people better behaved. I believed my parents and their friends when they bemoaned the state of the world. But I’ve lived awhile since then, and studied some history and psychology and philosophy. I know that good and evil exist in every era, and that how you see the world depends a lot on how you look at it. My kids know that I choose to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

Quite a while back, it seems now, I made a conscious decision that my world would be a good, kind, generous world because that’s what’d I’d be looking for. Everywhere I seek evidence of kind words, kind deeds, honesty, and happy coincidences. And I find it, even on television, on such networks as Arts and Entertainment, Animal Planet, Home & Garden TV, The History Channel, The Learning Channel, The Travel Channel, and on public television.

For as much as I sometimes wished to be in a different family, I realize now that my parents did just fine when it came to teaching us values in a loving way. They did it in the same way that the Walton’s did, one teachable moment at a time, in everyday-life experiences when they admonished us to “do the right thing.” We shared many happy times and rough times, and still do.

Like John-Boy, I’m finding myself increasingly grateful for my upbringing, and for many other things in my life, and increasingly respectful of the natural beauty of this Earth which is highlighted on the show.

So don’t ask me if I’ve seen “Temptation Island” or “Survivor II” or “The Mole.” I’ll be watching re-runs of “The Waltons” on TNN. The fact that thousands of people visit the Walton’s Museum in Schuyler, Virginia ( each year means that I’m not the only one. If you find yourself feeling dissatisfied and disillusioned with the world after watching reality programming, consider that the reality you’re seeing is not the reality you may be looking for.

This article first appeared in The News and Observer, January 10, 2001

It was reprinted in Goodnight John-Boy: A Celebration of an American Family and the Values That Have Sustained Us Through Good Times and Bad, by Earl Hamner, Cumberland House, 2002

It was excerpted in Earl Hamner: From Waltons Mountain to Tomorrow, by James E. Person, Cumberland House, 2005

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