Note: This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.
After two years, it's long past time that Comfort TV saddled up for a visit to the old west.
I know that for some classic TV fans, westerns are the only comfort viewing that resonates. The genre thrived in the 1950s, survived the turbulent ‘60s and all but faded out by the disco era. But as with comedies and legal procedurals and medical dramas, its best shows – like Bonanza – are as enjoyable now as in those thrilling days of yesteryear.
America first met the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa on September 12, 1959. Back then there were 27 other westerns airing on the three major networks, which may explain why their adventures were initially lost in the shuffle. But ratings soared after a time slot switch to avoid competition from Perry Mason. Bonanza became television’s second longest-running western (after Gunsmoke), lasting 14 seasons and 430 episodes. From 1964 to 1967, it was television’s top-rated program.
What made this particular western so popular? It starts with appealing characters, portrayed by an outstanding ensemble cast.
Eric Cartwright, better known as Hoss (Dan Blocker) was the series’ heart and soul, and despite his imposing presence he was particularly beloved by younger viewers. Ben (Lorne Greene) was a rock of stability, faith and optimism, despite being three-times widowed. Adam (Pernell Roberts) was the intelligent but brooding eldest son. Handsome Joe (Michael Landon) was the youngest, the most hotheaded, and the Cartwright most often left heartbroken by a girlfriend’s death or betrayal.
But Little Joe wasn't alone at being unlucky in love. The inability of any Cartwright to hold on to a girl for more than one episode became a running joke among fans. The series even had its own variation on Star Trek’s doomed red-shirted crewmen; if a woman appears on Bonanza in a blue dress, she will almost certainly disappear or die before the closing credits.
But it wasn’t all romance and loss on the Ponderosa, nor was it always the same old saloons and shootouts. Bonanza mixed comedies and tragedies, action-packed outings with social commentary. Viewers never knew what type of story they’d find from week to week, which helped the series avoid the formulaic stories of some TV westerns and contributed to its remarkable longevity.
As evidence of Bonanza’s consistency and versatility, I’ve selected one classic episode from each of its 14 seasons – watch for them on MeTV.
Season 1: “The Henry Comstock Story”
Written by series creator David Dortort, this flashback episode features a memorable performance from Jack Carson as prospector Henry Comstock, one of the founders of Virginia City.
Season 2: “The Gift”
Martin Landau and Jim Davis guest star in this adventure in which Joe is attacked by Comancheros while returning from Arizona with a special present for his father.
Season 3: “The Crucible”
Pernell Roberts is featured in what is arguably the series’ best episode. Robbed and left for dead in the desert, Adam is apparently rescued by prospector Peter Kane, played by Lee Marvin. Adam’s relief turns to terror when Kane is revealed as a madman, who seeks to prove through torture that a morally upright man can be driven to murder. Their twisted battle of wills is riveting.
Season 4: “Any Friend of Walter’s”
Hoss, en route to see his girlfriend Bessie Sue, is forced to take shelter in a rundown shack that is home to Obie, a mangy prospector (yes, the Cartwrights met quite a few prospectors in their day) and his dog, Walter. Obie insists that the mutt is one of the smartest dogs in the West, but when bandits attack Walter proves he ain’t no Lassie.
Season 5: “Calamity Over the Comstock”
The Cartwrights meet western legends Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane (played with va-voomish appeal by Stefanie Powers).
Season 6: “Old Sheba”
There’s an elephant on the Ponderosa, and no one is quite sure how to get rid of him. This is one of the better comic outings to feature Lorne Greene.
Season 7: “The Other Son”
The Wages of Fear, Bonanza-style. Ben hires an explosives expert to help transport nitroglycerin across a mountain range to the site of a mine disaster. This is one of the series’ most suspenseful episodes.
Season 8: “A Christmas Story”
I’m always a sucker for holiday episodes – this one has Hoss playing Santa Claus and Wayne Newton singing “Silent Night.”
Season 9: “Showdown at Tahoe”
Ben and Candy (David Canary) square off against an outlaw gang on a paddle-wheel steamboat.
Season 10: “The Wish”
Michael Landon wrote and directed this episode, in which Hoss helps an African-American family (headed by guest star Ossie Davis) fix their farm and deal with racist threats from a neighboring town.
Season 11: “Caution: Easter Bunny Crossing”
This choice will likely tick off a few fans, but I can’t help it. While it’s been years since I’ve caught this episode, I have never forgotten the sight of Hoss, dressed as a giant bunny, throwing Easter eggs at a gang of stagecoach robbers.
Season 12: “Kingdom of Fear”
The Cartwrights are abducted and forced to work on a chain gang by a sadistic judge. Shot in the week following Robert Kennedy’s assassination, this Michael Landon-penned episode was originally deemed too brutal for broadcast and didn’t air until 3 years later.
Season 13: “The Lonely Man”
The series’ best Hop Sing episode finds the Cartwrights’ loyal cook in love. Sadly, his romance doesn’t fare any better than those of his employers.
Season 14: “Forever”
A heartbreaking story written and directed by Michael Landon that serves as an unofficial tribute to Dan Blocker, who died prior to the season’s start. When Ben and Joe grieve for the latest in a long line of Joe’s ill-fated love interests, their tears were really in memory of their departed costar and friend.