Lionsgate // 1974 // 9842 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 13th, 2011
Experience all nine seasons of the Emmy-winning television series that continues to bring families together.
Nellie: "Half the time, you don't even smell like a girl. You're either
sweaty or you stink of fish."
Laura: "Well, I sweat a lot and I fish a lot."
After their unsuccessful attempt at living a solitary life in the middle of the American wilderness, the Ingalls family takes up residence in the simple town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Over the course of nine seasons, we watch as manly patriarch Charles (Michael Landon, Bonanza), kind-hearted matriarch Caroline (Karen Grassle, Wyatt Earp), quiet daughter Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson, Dark Mansions) and spunky daughter Laura (Melissa Gilbert, Babylon 5) engage in a wide variety of challenging situations, humorous misadventures, romances, rivalries and friendships.
When you spend a few moments thinking about it, you realize what a deceptively bleak show Little House on the Prairie is. Over the course of its long run, it dealt with many grim themes, killed off numerous characters, blinded one of its primary cast members, and concluded the entire saga with a sad made-for-TV film in which Charles Ingalls led a group of oppressed townsfolk in the unhappy mission of blowing Walnut Grove to smithereens. Sheesh. Still, we remember the series as something warm and innocent, because the characters were so likable, the writing and direction was so reliably tender and the tone was always delicate (except for when they blew up the town -- nothing delicate about that).
I plowed through a great deal of Little House on the Prairie on television as a kid, but it had been a long time since I had watched an episode when I sat down with this massive box set. I suspected that the episodes might seem excessively cheesy to my grown-up eyes, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that the show is still holding up enormously well after all these years. Yes, there are times when the show shamelessly tugs at heartstrings, but there's a level of sincerity that seems almost like a relic of a bygone era. There's plenty of shameless heartstring-tugging on television today, but it often feels driven by test marketing rather than a desire to tell a particular story. You can tell that Michael Landon and co. put their heart into this show; there's an infectious warmth present that makes Little House on the Prairie feel like the TV equivalent of hot chocolate and a comfy blanket.
Though the series borrowed quite a few key elements from the autobiographical book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (most of the characters, Mary's blindness, Laura's marriage to Almonzo Wilder, etc.), the show generally felt free to wander off in its own direction. That's almost certainly for the best, as adhering to the books faithfully might have added a sense of tedium for those who were already familiar with the details of Laura's life (though one of the show's few crucial mistakes was transforming the reasonably intelligent Almonzo into an, "aw, shucks" hayseed).
Like nearly everything Landon had a hand in, Little House on the Prairie was family-friendly television with a religious undercurrent. However, the series had (and still has) a measure of broad appeal shows like Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven never reached, largely because the series almost always puts good characterization and storytelling ahead of heavy-handed messages (though there certainly are some). Even though the show's moral compass contains very little room for gray areas (if you have any credit card debt, Charles Ingalls is undoubtedly looking down from above and shaking his head at your failure to adhere to his strict "cash on the barrel" principle) and the show undeniably contains some overtly Christian content, it feels like an organic part of who these characters are and the world they live in. Sunday church services are as much an essential part of this show as visits to The Bada Bing! are to The Sopranos.
Most important, the quality of the writing, direction, and acting is remarkably high throughout the entire run (well, the last season flags a little, as Landon departs the series and the focus shifts to Laura and Almonzo's marriage). After digging through a batch of episodes, I took a break and watched the latest episode of ABC's Once Upon a Time. I was struck by how childishly written and poorly acted the newer show seemed in contrast; after sitting through hours of television that felt so effortless and naturalistic it was jarring to drop in on something so clumsy and forced. It's an ideal family show, not because it merely avoids content that would be inappropriate for younger viewers but because it's actually the sort of show which viewers of all ages can enjoy without feeling like they're doing anyone a favor (well, at least viewers of most ages -- some younger viewers may find the relaxed pace a little dull).
The acting is solid all around, but three performances in particular buoy the show. First up is Melissa Gilbert's turn as Laura, which begins as adorably precocious but eventually evolves into something more. The fact that she's often playing off the more mild-mannered Caroline and Mary make her seem all the more spirited, and Gilbert develops into quite an impressive actress over the course of the series. The most entertaining performance unquestionably comes from Alison Arngrim (The Love Boat) as Laura's snooty rival Nellie Olsen. While it could be argued that the show relied a little too heavily on the conflicts between the two at times, Arngrim's delicious, hiss-inducing performance is never less than terrific. Finally, there's Michael Landon, whose tender-yet-firm work as Charles provides an unshakeable anchor for the series. He's the sort of TV dad one rarely sees anymore: kind, resourceful, intelligent, masculine, sensitive, helpful and fundamentally decent. Sure, he has his inconsistencies and flaws, but generally manages to be the sort of guy who makes life a little better for everyone around him.
Now, if you're a longtime Little House on the Prairie fan, you're probably wondering whether the problems present on previous DVD releases have been corrected with this set. No, they haven't. The episodes are still the versions used in syndication rather than the original broadcasts, meaning that some episodes have been edited for time (sometimes seamlessly, sometimes clumsily) and some of them are sped up a little bit (making everyone walk a little faster and speak in a slightly higher voice). The latter flaw in particular can be very distracting at times; it's a horrific practice that should never be used under any circumstances (editing for time is bad enough, but simply compressing an entire episode is even worse). If that's going to be a problem big enough to prevent you from picking up this set, I certainly understand, but the only way you'll get around this issue is to watch the VHS releases of the show (all DVD releases and television broadcasts of the series suffer from the aforementioned problems). Perhaps someday, another company will pick up the rights to the show and invest in a proper release, but that seems unlikely.
It's also clear that these episodes could use a good remastering, as there are quite a lot of scratches and flecks present. The image is soft and grimy at times, which is a shame when you consider how lovely much of the set design and cinematography is. Audio is also middling, with some dialogue which sounds pretty rough and music which occasionally sounds a little wobbly. Supplements are actually pretty thin considering the size of the collection -- a 55-disc set really ought to be able to make a boast more impressive than "over three hours of bonus features!" Here's what you get: commentaries by Alison Arngrim on two episodes (seriously, that's all they could manage?), behind-the-scenes featurettes on seasons three and four featuring journalist Patrick Loubatiere, interviews with a handful of supporting cast members (Arngrim, Dabbs Greer and Dean Butler), a featurette on Laura Ingalls Wilder's legacy, cast member bios, character profiles, photo albums and a series of interactive quizzes.
The key differences between Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Nine Season Set and the Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Television Series box set that came out a few years ago are simple. First of all, this set does contain the original feature-length pilot episode (a very fine start to the show, I might add), which was absent from the previous "complete" collection. However, missing from this set are the three made-for-television movies that were included in the former set (including the aforementioned "let's blow up the town" saga). It's roughly an even trade, but it's frustrating that everything isn't available in one collection (fortunately, both the pilot and the made-for-TV movies can be purchased separately). More important, this set runs about $80 cheaper than the previous collection. That would seemingly make this set the obvious choice, but you should know that you're getting pretty crappy packaging: a somewhat flimsy folder containing cheap sleeves that house all 55 DVDs is placed inside an equally flimsy cardboard box. At least it does a decent job of preventing the discs from getting scratched up, even if it does look awfully crummy. If a slicker-looking package (the early collection was a nice-looking box with wagon wheels attached) is worth an extra $80 (or if you'd much rather have the TV movies than the pilot episode), get the previous set. Otherwise, go with this collection.
Little House on the Prairie remains a delightful, touching show. Unfortunately, it's been treated pretty poorly on DVD thus far, and this new box set does nothing to change that. If you just want to watch the series in the best format available, this is probably your best bet. Even so, it's a shame that such a beloved show has been handled so carelessly.
The Ingalls family is free to go, but this collection is guilty of failing to give this series the love it deserves.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 9842 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Interactive Quizzes
* Cast Bios
* Character Profiles
* Photo Albums