Goldhil Home Media // 1979 // 1140 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Lacey Worrell (Retired) // November 17th, 2004
"Though I didn't know it at the time, I'd just met the man I would some day marry."
Because later seasons featured a young Shannen Dougherty and countless other superfluous characters that were merely a product of Michael Landon's imagination, this is the last good season of the Little House on the Prairie television show.
Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert, The Miracle Worker) has an obsession with being considered a woman, despite the fact that she still wears pigtails, dresses up for Halloween, and gets into mud-drenched smack-downs with Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim) over Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler, The New Gidget), the brother of the new teacher in town. This season revolves around Laura's instant, one-sided attraction to Almanzo (featured in the two-part episode "Back to School") and ends with their courtship ("Sweet Sixteen") and eventual engagement ("He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not").
In between are signature episodes that are characteristic of the Little House brand; this show often focuses on newcomers to the town of Walnut Grove as well as strife within the families who live there. Most notable in the latter category is "Annabelle," which focuses on the conflict Nels feels at admitting that the visiting circus's fat lady is actually his sister. In "The Werewolf of Walnut Grove," Laura and Albert give the newly arrived town bully a reason to be scared when they pretend that Albert is actually a werewolf. A comic episode revolves around the installation of telephones in Walnut Grove homes, which gives the gossipy Mrs. Oleson an opportunity to eavesdrop on others' conversations.
There is melodrama this season as well. In the two-part episode "May We Make Them Proud," the school for the blind is accidentally burned to the ground, resulting in the death of Alice Garvey (Hersha Parady) and Mary's newborn baby. In "Faith Healer," an evangelist convinces the townspeople that he can make people well, until Charles (Michael Landon, Bonanza) discovers that the purportedly healed are none other than actors who travel from town to town. In "The Angry Heart," the son of an abusive alcoholic wreaks havoc on his grandparents' lives until Charles teaches him the value of good old-fashioned hard work.
There is still plenty of focus on the main character of Laura, however. In "Silent Promises," Laura teaches sign language to a deaf teenager, in the process bringing him closer to his father; at the same time she mulls over the prospect of returning the teenager's affection, considering that Almanzo is still ignoring her. When Almanzo's irresponsible younger brother, Perley Day, comes to town in "Wilder and Wilder," Laura uses his interest in her to make Almanzo jealous, but Perley Day's careless wagering on and handling of Almanzo's horses brings Almanzo new respect in the eyes of Charles Ingalls.
The most enjoyable episode of the entire season is the first, which is split into two parts and features Almanzo's introduction to Walnut Grove; his arrival makes Nellie and Laura instant rivals for his attention. Nellie appears to have the upper hand when her parents build a new hotel and restaurant for her to run, but when Nellie pretends to cook a meal for Almanzo after enlisting Laura's help, Laura is able to turn the tables temporarily on Nellie. Their conflict provides the comedic highlight of the season.
"Annabelle" is especially touching as it explores the estranged relationship between Nels and his overweight sister. This episode gives the character of Nels the opportunity to demonstrate his sensitive side as he agonizes over whether to admit his and Annabelle's real relationship, which would risk incurring the wrath of the image-conscious Mrs. Oleson. In a supporting story, Laura is given the opportunity to disguise herself as a clown and surprise Almanzo with an anonymous kiss at the circus.
"Sweet Sixteen" is also a great episode, for it is the culmination of Laura's longing for Almanzo. She is offered a teaching position in a nearby town, and her romance with Almanzo finally blossoms as he drives her home each weekend. It is too bad that following "Sweet Sixteen," the two-part concluding episode for the season, "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not," is basically a nonstop fight between the two, as Laura wants to respect her father's wish that she wait to be married, and Almanzo disagrees. (The Season Seven opener, "Laura Ingalls Wilder," which is included in the set slated for release in February 2005, involves even more bickering until the marriage finally occurs in a rather anticlimactic -- and historically inaccurate -- fashion.)
This brings up a major inconsistency in Charles's attitude toward Laura's desire to marry Almanzo. When young Mary becomes blind and marries one of her teachers in an earlier season (something that never happened in the "Little House" books), Charles has no problem with the hasty marriage. Not to mention the fact that Mary's character had already been previously engaged to boy named John when she was around the age of fourteen! Yet despite the fact that Laura has known Almanzo for quite some time, Charles objects on the basis that Laura is only sixteen. Why was it okay for Mary, but not for Laura?
These discs, which feature picture and sound restoration, are a vast improvement over the episodes that run in syndication; over the years the increasing distortion in sound and picture quality of the syndicated episodes has become quite distracting. On this collection, if they are not exactly perfect, both are still much improved. As releases of popular television shows are becoming increasingly stingy with special features, the producers should also be commended for the hysterically funny commentary by Alison Arngrim on "Back to School, Part 2" as well as the surprisingly comprehensive quiz on trivia related to this season. Fans should also note that Dean Butler and the lovable Dabbs Greer (Reverend Alden) are also interviewed.
I never cared for Dean Butler's interpretation of Almanzo Wilder as a hayseed. Although both the real Almanzo Wilder and the television version were farmers, it is well known that the real one came from a well-to-do, cultured family from upstate New York. Butler's aw-shucks performance is a distraction, and at times it is difficult to see what the character of Laura, known for being feisty and upbeat, would see in him.
Although I loved this show when I was growing up and even emulated Laura by wearing braids for many more years than I should have, I have always been troubled by the fact that the television show strayed so far from Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. The extra characters and townspeople, the melodrama surrounding Mary's fictionalized life, Laura and Almanzo's drawn-out and tumultuous courtship...none of this rings quite true. Another major departure from the books is the decision to make the character of teacher Eliza Jane Wilder a kindly woman. In "These Happy Golden Years," Laura Ingalls Wilder described the real Eliza Jane as mean-spirited and cruel, someone who singled Laura out for humiliation at school. In the series, she is sweet and quite nice.
This season is supremely entertaining if you can overlook the very Hollywood interpretation of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life.
Judgment in favor of Season Six, with wistful acknowledgement that it was all downhill from here.
Review content copyright © 2004 Lacey Worrell; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Goldhil Home Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1140 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by Actress Alison Arngrim on "Back to School, Part 2"
* Interviews with Actors Dean Butler and Dabbs Greer
* Interactive Quizzes
* Review of Season 5