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A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion

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One reason we remember The Waltons (1972-81) with such fondness is that it made a virtue of simplicity. The story of one big family in rural Virginia, the series told small stories with great care. The problem with A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (CBS, Nov. 21, 9-11 p.m.) is that its plot is anything but simple. Not only does this new TV movie have to find room for a subplot for just about every member of the aging Walton clan, but its central drama turns on an event that draws attention away from the Waltons themselves. Set in 1963, the reunion is marred by news of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Richard Thomas’ John-Boy has, it seems, not turned into the full-time novelist the series always promised he would. Instead, he’s become a Washington, D.C.-based TV commentator, a crafter of ponderous video essays. This is deeply unnerving. Everyone else has turned out pretty much the way you’d expect. Pushy big sister Mary Ellen (Judy Norton) is a pushy doctor; moody Ben (Eric Scott) cuts lumber with un-moody Papa Walton (Ralph Waite); Jason (Jon Walmsley) is a professional musician with the best story line — he sells one of his songs to Elvis Presley(!); Erin (Mary McDonough) is a lovely schoolteacher; Jim-Bob (David Harper) is a pilot; and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler) is inspired by JFK to join the Peace Corps. Michael Learned’s Mama dispenses wisdom while cooking a massive turkey.

Written by Claire Whitaker and Rod Peterson, Reunion reduces Kennedy’s death to a plot twist — will John-Boy be able to write a moving TV valedictory and still make it home for dinner? It’s fun to see how these familiar actors have aged, but we didn’t need a tragic world event to intrude upon the warmth of Walton nostalgia. B-