Highway to Heaven and The Waltons TV Movies Shed Light on Nostalgia’s Newest Tactic

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Highway to Heaven and The Waltons TV Movies Shed Light on Nostalgia’s Newest Tactic

Television has gone a little reboot/remake crazy.

Among the many, many (many!) familiar properties currently airing are new versions of The Wonder Years (ABC), Head of the Class (HBO Max), iCarly (Paramount+) and Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (Disney+). The new Saved by the Bell is returning for a second season on Peacock and Disney+ has turned The Mighty Ducks and Turner & Hooch into TV series.

But you know what? The world has gone a little bit crazy too. Look no further than the group that gathered expecting John Kennedy, Jr. to not only return from the dead but to serve as Trump’s Vice President. It’s long been known that rebooting and remaking familiar properties offers viewers a great deal of comfort. Not only do they know what to expect when they watch a show but the shows of their youth also offer the opportunity to bring them back to a simpler time—or at least a time they remember as simpler. For networks, studios and streaming platforms it also makes a lot of sense. It’s a lot less work to draw viewers to something with a familiar name with a built-in fanbase.

Now the era of reboots is entering a new phase. This month finds two TV movies based on beloved television properties that haven’t been on the air in decades. Lifetime premiered a new version of Highway to Heaven on Saturday with Jill Scott taking over Michael Landon’s role of an angel who travels from place to place helping people with their problems. The late Michael Landon was the creator and executive producer of the original series (which ran on NBC from 1984-1989) and Landon’s estate is among the executive producers of this new iteration.

In the movie, Angela (Scott) arrives at a junior high school to help Cody (Ben Daon), an eighth grader whose mom recently died. Cody is acting out and failing math while his grieving dad Jeff (Robert Moloney) struggles to open the dream restaurant he and his late wife had planned. With the help of the school principal Bruce (Barry Watson), Angela helps Cody and his family begin to move on. Of course before the movie comes to an end, Angela has told Bruce her secret and the two set off on their next mission. Lifetime has said this is the first of several planned Highway to Heaven movies. Like its predecessor, this Highway to Heaven is full of problems that can be solved in two hours or less and Scott simply radiates joy. For all the edgy programming this streaming era of TV has brought us, there’s a real demand for kinder, gentler television. Just look at all the made-for-TV holiday movies airing right now. Highway to Heaven checks all the boxes with its sweet, hopeful message.

Later this month, The CW premieres The Waltons’ Homecoming. The two-hour movie finds Richard Thomas, who played John Boy in the original CBS television series, introducing and narrating the movie. The original series, which premiered in 1972, ran for nine seasons on CBS. After the series was cancelled, there were six more movies on NBC. And the series was launched by a 1971 CBS movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. The Waltons have come full circle!

The Waltons’ Homecoming follows Olivia Walton (Bellamy Young) and her six children, including her oldest son John Boy (Logan Shroyer), as they anxiously await the return of family patriarch John Sr. (Ben Lawson) who is travelling home from Charlottesville during a snowstorm. Unlike Highway to Heaven, which is set in the present day, The Waltons’ Homecoming stays true to its 1933 origins and follows the plot of the 1971 movie. As Thomas tells us at the start of the movie, “mostly it’s a story about human kindness and compassion and love.”

Even if you were born long after Thomas first uttered the words “Goodnight John Boy,” you probably know the reference. Just hearing the iconic phrase that ended every episode of The Waltons harkens back to a simpler time. When kids had no limits to screen time because there were no screens. When there was no such thing as social media or fake news. When one general store had everything you could possibly need. Of course times weren’t actually simpler in 1933, as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, but looking back it feels like it might have been.

When Watson was asked about Highway to Heaven during a press conference in August he said, “Everything that’s been going on in the world…it just feels like the world needs something like this.” Certainly wistfulness and a longing for the way things used to be is behind this current reboot-a-palooza, and perhaps these movies—which require less of a time commitment from both the viewers, the networks, the actors and production—are the next wave. It’s also a great way for networks to pilot test if there’s a demand for a property. It cost a lot less money to do one Highway to Heaven movie than an entire series. Many reboots, including the recent Punky Brewster, have failed to gain any traction.

This trend is not stopping any time soon. Don Johnson and Cheech Marin are reprising their roles in USA’s upcoming Nash Bridges movie. After the abrupt cancellation of the adored but low-rated Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the NBC dramedy will get some resolution to its many cliff-hangers when Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas airs on Roku. The third Psych movie Psych 3: This is Gus will premiere on Peacock.

The television properties that would be ripe for the made-for-TV movie treatment are seemingly endless. Little House on the Prairie and Eight is Enough come immediately to mind as other cherished dramas viewers might love to see again. You can almost smell the nostalgia…and the dollar signs.

Highway to Heaven is currently on demand on Lifetime.
The Waltons’ Homecoming premieres November 28 at 8 PM on The CW.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).

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