The greatest gift: 'Father Knows Best' got back-to-back reunion movies for Christmas in 1977
This one-two punch of perfect reunion specials was the proper send-off for one of TV's earliest favorite dads.
For fans of Father Knows Best, there was perhaps no greater gift following the series' abrupt conclusion than back-to-back reunion movies that popped up out of nowhere in 1977. The popular sitcom ran from 1954 to 1960, stretching six seasons where viewers were welcomed into the home of the charming Midwestern family and their thoughtful, charming patriarch Jim Anderson (played by Robert Young).
The show's final episode aired in May 1960, following Young's decision to move on to a role in a new, unfortunately short-lived series, Window on Main Street. In that series, he traded his family and insurance job to become a writer who heads back to his hometown to tell stories that revolve around its colorful characters. Young would have more success years later with another radically different series, becoming a doctor for Marcus Welby, M.D.
It was that show that certainly helped Young win back TV audiences, and you could say the success of his starring role as Marcus Welby set the stage for the Father Knows Best reunion movies that would come the year after Marcus Welby, M.D. concluded in 1976. No doubt Young's fans saw him back on the screen and were reminded of his earlier role. It was the perfect time for NBC to plan Jim Anderson's return.
So 17 years after Father Knows Best left the air, the whole family came back to their very same TV home in May 1977 to celebrate The Father Knows Best Reunion. The 90-minute NBC special was contrived to celebrate Jim and Margaret's wedding anniversary, and it gave viewers a chance to check back in with where each kid ended up. For some fans, the results were not exactly what they expected, based on typical Father Knows Best fare.
Jim and Margaret are, of course, just where we left them: Jim in his insurance job and Margaret the ever-attentive housewife, making dinners that made us drool just by staring at her table on the screen. It's the kids that have changed. The oldest, Betty, is a widow, left with two kids of her own and an uncertain future that has her torn between two cities: Chicago or New York? (Father knows, you know he does.)
Bud's got a son of his own now, with a lovely wife and a wild career racing motorcycles. Kathy's right on the brink of starting a family of her own, too, or rather, joining one. She's just gotten engaged to a single dad with two kids of his own. She's still a jock, just like the tomboy with the smiling eyes we knew back then, with a job as a physical education teacher.
That's a wrap for the first reunion movie. Now let's look at the Christmas special that came along seven months later in December 1977.
Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas corrals the cast back for one big, important reason: Jim and Margaret are considering selling the house. Their reason why is pretty heartbreaking: None of the kids has decided to come home for Christmas. While we've all likely been there in some way or another, it's still a shock to imagine one of TV's most ideal families not together on the most special day of the year. How ungrateful!
Featuring a bunch of nostalgic flashbacks that cycled through old footage from Father Knows Best, the Christmas special really hit home in ways the previous movie didn't have a chance to really go. In that way, it makes sense that the first reunion movie was a vehicle to catch us up with the kids, and then the Christmas reunion was intended to give us a chance to say goodbye, complete with a really great cry in the end for the most tender fans in the audience.
That's why it's easy to say that Father Knows Best always did right by its fans, even when it came to reunion specials. As we watched the family come together one last time, it was the natural end for one of TV's most sentimental early sitcoms.