Judge P.S. Colbert is calling out The Good, The Bad and The Altman.
Our reviews of The Best Of Bonanza: Volume One (published October 22nd, 2003), Bonanza: The Official Fifth Season (published April 20th, 2013), Bonanza: The Official First Season (published October 7th, 2009), Bonanza: The Official Fourth Season (published December 16th, 2012), Bonanza: The Official Sixth Season (published July 27th, 2013), and Bonanza: The Official Third Season (published September 16th, 2012) are also available.
"I make big pot Mulligan Stew."—Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung), chief cook and bottle washer on the Ponderosa Ranch.
And no more representative a dish (originally improvised by hobos as a stew including whatever they could scrounge up to throw in and mix together) could there be for the dynastic Western that ran for thirteen and a half seasons, during which time it ran the gamut from high drama to low comedy with all stops in-between, including many fine examples of every genre it plundered.
The batch of programs that comprise Bonanza: The Official Second Season, Volume 2 are especially askew, (which is not to say inferior) no doubt due to the fact that nearly one third of the sixteen episodes included are helmed by Robert Altman (Gosford Park) who, after seven Oscar nominations for Best Director, finally nabbed an honorary Academy Award for "A career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike."
Truer words were never spoken, as even a cursory glance at this filmmaker's oeuvre can confirm. Not every one of Altman's cinematic forays worked (in fact, he's balanced some of the screen's finest work with some of the medium's most unendurable) but every one of his works was uniquely, indisputably…Altman.
In "Bank Run," the director pipes a strangely discordant slapstick tone into this tale of a town facing financial collapse, while in "Sam Hill," he channels Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments) for a proposed spin-off pilot starring Claude Akins (The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo) as the seemingly mythical title character, a blacksmith singlehandedly fighting to save his land from takeover by the U.S. army while at the same time getting to know his rotgut-pickled, long lost but recently returned father, wonderfully played by Edgar Buchanan (Petticoat Junction). These two episodes bookend the half-season presented here, and both are jarring, uncomfortable, and fascinating; as only Altman's work can be.
And yet, distinct as they may be, these episodes are just another pair of patches on the sprawling narrative quilt of the Cartwright clan's adventures.
For those players requiring a scorecard, the Cartwrights are: Ben (Lorne Greene, Battlestar Galactica), proud papa and virtuous head of the ranch; Adam (Pernell Roberts, Trapper John, M.D.), the darkly dressed, serious and practical eldest son; Hoss (Dan Blocker Lady In Cement), arguably the biggest bodied and biggest hearted character in television history; and Little Joe (Michael Landon, Little House On The Prairie), the feisty, rambunctious runt of the litter, with the bedroom eyes and the killer left hook.
• "The Fugitive"—Adam visits a small Mexican town to investigate the death of a childhood friend, apparently gunned down in cold blood with the cooperation of local law enforcers. James Best (The Dukes of Hazzard) guest stars.
• ""Vengeance"—Hoss accidentally kills town drunk Willie Twilight (Keith Richards, NOT of the Rolling Stones!) and is torn up with guilt, which isn't nearly enough to satisfy Willie's blood-thirsty brother, (Adam Williams) and so it goes. A taut, well-acted story, expertly directed by Dick Moder (Hawaii Five-O).
• —"The Tax Collector"—How does shiftless Jock Henry (Eddie Firestone) go from Virginia City's sweetest sad sack to the target of a town-wide lynch mob? He gets a job…as a tax collector.
• "The Dark Gate"—Adam's best friend Ross (James Coburn) has undergone a change recently. He's started consorting with cut-throats and beating his wife in a jealous rage, manifestations of mental illness, for which there is yet no treatment available. A grim, unrelenting episode, with Coburn's performance eerily foreshadowing the one that won him a much deserved Oscar for Affliction. The rest of the cast (Pernell Roberts in particular) is equally good.
• "The Duke"—Director Altman builds to a brutal climax involving a bare-knuckled brawl between Hoss and the title character (Maxwell Reed), an undefeated world champion boxer.
• "Cutthroat Junction"—Accompanied by a husband and wife sharpshooting team, the Cartwrights ride into the law-forsaken town of Latigo, in order to clean things up. Secret weapon: Flint-eyed guest star Robert Lansing (The Grissom Gang).
• "The Rival"—Another Altman turn, this one examines the varied meanings of rivalry: romantic, sibling and most importantly, the rivalry between right vs. wrong, and the havoc they play on a conscience. A four star episode all the way.
• "The Infernal Machine"—A horseless carriage? That's the catalyst for this fun-filled episode featuring Oscar-winner George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke). Don't miss guest star Nora Hayden's audio commentary; it's as priceless as the actress is beautiful.
• "The Thunderhead Swindle"—Depression hits Virginia City after the Comstock mines run dry, and, as Little Joe says, "Hungry men can cause a lot of trouble."
• "The Dream Riders"—Special guest star Sidney Blackmer (Rosemary's Baby) adds much-needed gravity to this enjoyable but otherwise feather-brained saga of fancy flying machines, with Altman at the helm.
• "Elizabeth, My Love"—Geraldine Brooks (Possessed) plays Adam's late mother in this flashback tale, which also features the first of three guest appearances made by Ted Knight (Too Close for Comfort) during the series' run. This episode features an optional commentary track by its writer Anthony Lawrence (Paradise Hawaiian Style).
• "Sam Hill"
The packaging is no muss, no fuss: four discs per volume, housed in flippers inside a plastic snapcase, with the episode guide printed on the inlay card on the backside of the slipcover.
The discs themselves are single-sided and generously heaped with extras, consistent with those featured on the sets from Season One.
These episodes first bowed a half-century ago and, while some betray the ravages of time (color washout and debris), they still look amazingly good. The Dolby 2.0 Mono mix passes muster with my age-battered ears, though the English SDH subtitles are always welcome (and in this judge's opinion, should be a minimum requirement).
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