How does the little house on the prairie hold up?


Photo: Lions Gate Home Entertainment

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring feature of Vulture in which we revisit a movie, TV show or album that reflexively testifies to an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response from a certain demographic because it was printed to them very early on. Now, years later, we’ll take a look at these classics in a more objective and ruthless light for adults: are they really the best of all time? How are they resisting now? We have already reconsidered a number of formerly popular entertainment. This week we consider the classic seventies television series Small house in the meadow.

Background: Following his longtime role as Little Joe Cartwright on Bargain, Michael Landon has teamed up with producer Ed Friendly to adapt Laura Ingalls Wilder’s best-selling children’s novels for television. In March 1974, the pilot of Little house in the meadow aired as a two hour film on NBC. It was a faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name, about young Laura Ingalls and her tight-knit pioneer family, who travel by covered wagon to Kansas where they build a log cabin. Landon played the role of Charles Ingalls (alias “Pa”), husband of Caroline “Ma” Ingalls and father of Laura (alias “Half-Pint”, played by Melissa Gilbert), Mary (alias “the one who goes blind”) , and Baby Carrie (aka “the one that falls in the opening credits”).

The series was chosen for NBC’s fall 1974 programming – in part because the equally basic family series The Waltons had become a surprise hit on CBS. Little house The set was moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and the cast expanded to include neighbors and townspeople whose lives intersect with the Ingalls family. The show abandoned the script of the books almost immediately – a point of contention between Friendly, who wanted to stay true to the novels, and Landon, who wanted to write his own scripts. Landon’s vision prevailed and the show continued for nine seasons and through a myriad of sensational twists and other adopted Ingalls children. By the early eighties, ratings for the show had dropped and it was canceled in 1983. The following year, three post-series TV dramas were shown, including Little house: the last goodbye, in which the people of Walnut Grove outwit a greedy landowner by blowing up every building in town with dynamite. (Apparently, it was Michael Landon’s idea to destroy the sets for the Simi Valley series as a challenge to NBC.)

Demographic nostalgia: About 40 women who watched the show in their seventies, before or after reading the series of books; their baby boomer parents; thirty and twenty who have listened during the three decades (and counting) of syndication on networks like TVLand and Hallmark Channel; homeschooling families.

Checking the facts: I watched my first full episode of Little house in the meadow long after reading and loving the Little house books. In fact, I have no idea how that’s been a long time, except that it was eons in the time of the kids – long enough that I didn’t really mind Pa Ingalls TV having her face bare and wearing her hair like Andy Gibb, and instead Moving west to Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family remained in Minnesota to raise a small herd of adopted orphans. This probably helped that by the time I logged on, the show was in its final seasons and had already strayed dramatically from its original premises, as only TV shows from this period the could. The plot of the episode I watched involved Ms. Oleson’s plan to turn her restaurant, Nellie’s, into something of a franchise operation. Even back then, I knew it was a dubious story (were restaurants even a thing in rural Minnesota in the 1870s?), but it was just the TV. The other nights I would watch BJ and the bear, who had a chimpanzee sidekick, or This is boomer, where a mystery-solving terrier could befriend basketball star Meadowlark Lemon. Remember when prime time was awesome like that?

Little house in the meadow has always been the idea of ​​remembering (the first episodes, in fact, start with a voiceover from Laura saying, “If I had a book of remembrance …”). But there is also a disconnect between the Little house we all know it as a cultural touchstone and the Little house we actually saw. Whenever I talk about the show with friends who have watched it, I feel like we collectively recover from a repressed memory of nine seasons. Superficially we think about Little house like a family show about olden times, but what we remember deep down are bizarre, searing visions of masked rapists, drooling morphine addicts, and Shannon Doherty in pigtail braids. If you grew up watching Little house, you know those flashbacks well: one moment you remember Laura and Mary walking to school across the meadow swinging their lunch buckets and the next day your mind is screaming AND THEN MY ALMOST CUT HIS OWN LEG. Because it’s true: Ma almost cut her leg. And Dad built a stone altar to bring Jason Bateman back to life. And there was anthrax in Walnut Grove. It all happened.

By today’s standards, that sounds incredible for a family show, but in the days leading up to cable, there were plenty of prime-time shows that attempted to provide an absurdly large assortment for all tastes. It was the days of variety shows, anthology-format shows like Love boat and Fantastic islandand programming adapted to families literally meant “something for the whole family”. Thanks to its sprawling distribution and small town setting as a microcosm, Little house could be something different every week. Depending on the supporting characters who carried the episode – like Doc Baker, Reverend Alden, Mr. Edwards, the bickering Oleson family – the series could play out as a sitcom or historical drama or medical procedure or classic western or a soap opera, all in Victorian. get up. Additionally, at least once a season, the show aired “very special” two-part episodes with sensational, audience-hungry storylines masquerading as important topics. These culminated in some of the show’s most traumatic moments, including the scenes in which Albert Ingalls convulses and vomits during morphine withdrawal, as well as the episode titled “SylviaWhich I can’t even begin to describe to those who haven’t seen him except to say he’s popularly known as the one with the rapist in the mime mask and there’s an entry dedicated to him on a site entitled “Kindertrauma. “

A lot of the show’s supposedly “important” posts turn out to be creepy and misguided now, but a lot of other stuff still stands the test of time. One is Nellie Oleson: Alison Arngrim’s performance as Nellie combines Little Bo Peep drag with a scathing mean girl reality, and all of her scenes act as if directed by John Waters. As for the main characters of the show: Melissa Gilbert plays a completely believable and non-disgusting child character like Laura; Michael Landon as Dad can be a bit self-righteous, but he can at least be relied upon to rightly hit someone in almost every episode. The Ingalls family have great chemistry with each other, and they all manage to convincingly look like a pioneer stock while being telegenic.

Of course, the truth is that Little house is really about the seventies and early eighties. Plots visit topics such as working mothers outside the home and drug addiction, and everyone is remarkably connected with their feelings – even men tend to cry a few tough tears behind the stake. The good settlers of Walnut Grove are hawkers and blacksmiths, laborers and farmers, but they harbor dreams of the first world middle class of the late 20th century: to earn graduate degrees and spend quality time with their children. At the same time, the inherent primitivity of the 19th-century decor provides a lot of unvaccinated fun and gives the show a great excuse for terrible things to happen every week.: plagues, blizzards, countless dead babies, the horse that kicks Mary, the stagecoach wrecks, kidnappings (many kidnappings) …

I know: I keep coming back to all the weird stuff! But who can forget the fire at the school for the blind, the appearance of the guests of Ernest Borgnine, the orangutan? in season nine? Besides, who the hell remembers anything The Waltons, other than “Goodnight John-Boy”? You sentimental types are just going to have to admit that all of those truly heartfelt Ingalls family Christmases are swaddled in a protective layer of over-the-top TV craziness that made it possible Little house in the meadow to endure in our minds. Three decades later, now in perpetual reruns on the Hallmark Channel (which broadcasts marathons of the show several times a year), Little house continues to honor the promise of something for everyone, serving up at least a dozen different strains of nostalgia for almost every taste and belief, from red state aspirations to a simpler America , indulgences of guilty pleasure for classic TV kitsch, or Nellie Oleson spanking fetishes.

And for all its sunbonnets and covered wagons, Little house in the meadow turned out to be a much more enduring artifact of television in the seventies and early eighties than anything that featured feathered hair and a roller disco. All that calico costume gives the show a certain sincerity that allows us to watch without the ironic distractions of retro cheese. (When was the last time a friend of yours tweeted, “Dude, there’s a Fantastic island marathon! Never.) Little house still provides a fascinating look at the good old days, although now they’re different from the ones he claimed to remember. In the best and worst ways, the show is impossible to forget.

Wendy McClure is the author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, now available in paperback.

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