This Valley ain't big enough for Judge Cynthia Boris.
"This valley is gold and every son of a jackal is going to put his filthy mitts in it and try to grab it."
A single mother struggles to raise three distinctly different sons in the unforgiving and quickly changing climate of the Wild West. It may sound like a feminized version of Bonanza, but there's something different about these stories. From girls in blue jeans to a bastard son, this show has more in common with its soap opera cousins than it does with westerns of the time. Hitch up the buggy and pack a lunch, we're on our way to The Big Valley.
Facts of the Case
It's 1870 and California's lush San Joaquin Valley is alive with orange groves, cattle ranches, and gold mines. Widow Victoria Barkely (Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number) is in charge of one of the largest spreads in town and she does it with the help (and sometimes hindrance) of her children. The eldest, Jarrod (Richard Long, Nanny and the Professor) is a lawyer, the practical businessman of the bunch. Nick, (Peter Breck, Maverick) is the cowboy; he's the ranch foreman and believes in the power of a good fistfight. Audra (Linda Evans, Dynasty) is the little sister who is as at home in blue jeans as she is in a ball gown. Baby brother Eugene (Charles Briles) is the amazing disappearing boy who leaves for college after the first season due to his being drafted in real life by the US army.
The Barkley's are the most respected (money), powerful (money) and well liked (money) family in the state and because of that they're often beset upon by jealous, greedy and villainous folks who want their piece of the pie. Enter Heath (Lee Majors, Six Million Dollar Man). Heath shows up with a chip on his shoulder and a powerful belief that he is the bastard son of the late Barkley patriarch. And while there is no logical reason to believe this is true, the family, eventually, welcomes him with open arms and sets him a place at the dinner table.
The Big Valley premiered in 1965, just about the time when Westerns were winding down on TV. When the show started, there were ten Westerns on the three major networks. One year later half of them were gone. Still, being part of a dying genre didn't hurt this picturesque series, and I suspect that has much to do with the actors involved. Like Lorene Greene before her, Miss Barbara Stanwyck (as she's credited on screen) commanded attention as leader of the clan. A true classic movie star, her role in the series made the show elegant and oh so melodramatic, and I mean that in a good way. Audra's kidnapped, Heath's been shot, Nick is shanghaied, Victoria is trapped in a cave in—these poor people led very dangerous lives. And when they weren't on the verge of dying they were on the verge of falling in love with all the wrong people.
Jarrod, Nick and Heath are a great trio. Brains, brawn, and puppy dog pathos, they fight for dominance when they're all on screen together. You will find that most episodes involve a rotation, that is the plot centers on one character with the others taking a back seat until their own plot rolls around. There's good and bad here in that if you're not all that fond of Jarrod, just wait until next week when Heath takes center stage, or Nick the week after that. I imagine this type of plotting was necessary in order to complete thirty episodes in one season. Personally, my favorite scenes are the ones that include all three brothers together.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Big Valley is a product of its time, meaning you shouldn't try to compare it to the action packed episodes of today's TV. Current TV shows lean toward eliminating the opening credits because viewers might take that time to switch channels. The Big Valley takes its time with slow, scene-setting landscape shots and a more gradual build toward the action. It's how TV was made at the time, so go with it and resist the urge to fast forward—you'll find it cathartic over time.
As for the DVD itself, I have a few minor complaints. The packaging and navigation screens are well done and appropriate but there are no extras on this set. Also, I found the colors to be muted and washed out and with a slight flicker in some of the scenes. Not enough to keep me from enjoying the show, but enough to make me notice.
The Big Valley is a large TV series, with sweeping landscapes; rich, detailed costumes; and over the top story telling. Friends and neighbors die in a gun battle, but it's okay because they died for the cause. As I watched, I found myself thinking of Dallas, Dynasty and The Yellow Rose. Between the wild women, the bastard son, and the black butler mixing cocktails for Ms. Barkley and her boys, The Big Valley would have made an excellent soap.
This court finds The Big Valley: Season 1 guilty of land grabbing, counterfeiting, theft, kidnapping, and murder. Ain't life grand.
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