The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider the seventies classic old-timey TV show Little House on the Prairie.
Background: Following his longtime role as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, Michael Landon 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 on the Prairie aired as a two-hour movie on NBC. It was a faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name, about young Laura Ingalls and her close-knit pioneer family, who travel by covered wagon to Kansas where they build a log cabin. Landon starred as Charles Ingalls (a.k.a. “Pa”), husband to Caroline “Ma” Ingalls and father to Laura (a.k.a. “Half-Pint,” played by Melissa Gilbert), Mary (a.k.a. “the one who goes blind”), and Baby Carrie (a.k.a. “the one who falls down in the opening credits”).
The series was picked up for NBC’s 1974 fall lineup — in part because the similarly down-home family series The Waltons had become a surprise hit on CBS. Little House’s setting was moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and the cast expanded to include the neighbors and townspeople whose lives intersect with the Ingalls family. The show abandoned the story line of the books almost immediately — a point of contention between Friendly, who wanted to stay faithful to the novels, and Landon, who wanted to write his own scripts. Landon’s vision won out, and the show continued for nine seasons and through myriad sensational plot twists and additional adopted Ingalls children. By the early eighties, the show’s ratings had slipped and it was canceled in 1983. The following year, three post-series TV movies aired, most notably Little House: The Last Farewell, in which the residents of Walnut Grove thwart a greedy landowner by blowing up all the town’s buildings with dynamite. (Reportedly it was Michael Landon’s idea to destroy the show’s Simi Valley sets as a defiant gesture to NBC.)
Nostalgia demographic: Fortysomething women who watched the show during their seventies childhood, either before or after reading the book series; their Baby Boomer parents; thirty- and twentysomethings who tuned in during the three decades (and counting) of syndication on networks like TVLand and the Hallmark Channel; homeschooling families.
Fact-check: I watched my first full episode of Little House on the Prairie long after I’d read and loved the Little House books. Actually, I have no idea how long it was, except that it was eons in kid time—long enough that I didn’t really mind that the television Pa Ingalls was barefaced and wore his hair like Andy Gibb, and that instead of moving west to Dakota Territory the Ingalls family stayed in Minnesota to raise a small herd of adopted orphans. It probably helped that by the time I tuned in, the show was in its final seasons and had already strayed spectacularly from its original premise in the way only TV shows of that period could. The plot of the episode I watched involved Mrs. Oleson’s scheme to turn her restaurant, Nellie’s, into some kind of franchise operation. Even back then I knew it was a dubious story line (were restaurants even a thing in 1870s rural Minnesota?), but it was just TV. On other nights I’d be watching BJ and the Bear, which had a chimpanzee sidekick, or Here’s Boomer, where a mystery-solving terrier could befriend basketball star Meadowlark Lemon. Remember when prime time was awesome like that?
Little House on the Prairie has always been about the idea of remembering (the earliest episodes, in fact, begin with a voice-over of Laura saying, “If I had a remembrance book … ”). But there’s a disconnect as well between the Little House we all know as a cultural touchstone and the Little House we actually saw. Whenever I actually talk about the show with friends who watched it, it feels like we’re collectively recovering from a nine-season repressed memory. Superficially we think of Little House as a family-friendly show about the olden days, but what we remember deep down are bizarre, searing visions of masked rapists, sputum-drooling morphine addicts, and Shannon Doherty in pigtail braids. If you grew up watching Little House, you know these flashbacks well: one moment you’re recalling Laura and Mary walking to school through the prairie swinging their lunch pails and the next your mind is screaming AND THEN MA ALMOST CUT HER OWN LEG OFF. Because it’s true: Ma almost cut her own leg off. And Pa 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, this seems incredible for a family show, but in the days before cable, plenty of prime-time shows attempted to serve up an absurdly broad smorgasbord for every taste. This was the era of the variety show, anthology-formatted shows like Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and family-friendly programming that literally meant “something for the whole family.” Thanks to its sprawling cast and small-town-as-microcosm setting, Little House could be something different each week. Depending on which supporting characters carried the episode — like Doc Baker, Reverend Alden, Mr. Edwards, the squabbling Oleson family — the show could play like a sitcom or a historical drama or a medical procedural or classic Western or soap opera, all in Victorian getup. Moreover, at least once a season the show aired “very special” two-part episodes with sensational, ratings-hungry story lines masquerading as important topics. These resulted in some of the show’s most trauma-inducing moments, including the scenes in which Albert Ingalls convulses and pukes his way through morphine withdrawal, and also the episode called “Sylvia,” which I cannot even begin to describe to those who haven’t seen it, except to say that it’s popularly known as the One With the Rapist in the Mime Mask and there’s an entry devoted to it on a site called “Kindertrauma.”
A lot of the so-called “important” messages on the show come off as creepy and misguided now, but plenty of other things still stand the test of time. One is Nellie Oleson: Alison Arngrim’s performance as Nellie combines Little Bo Peep drag with scathing mean girl realness, and all of her scenes play like they’re being directed by John Waters. As for the show’s principal characters: Melissa Gilbert plays an utterly believable and non-cloying kid character as Laura; Michael Landon as Pa can be a little self-righteous, but he can at least be counted on to self-righteously punch someone in almost every episode. The Ingalls family has great chemistry with one another, plus they all somehow manage to look convincingly of pioneer stock while still being telegenic.
Of course, the truth is that Little House is really about the seventies and early eighties. Plotlines visit topics like moms working outside the home and substance abuse, and everyone’s remarkably in touch with their feelings — even the men tend to cry a few tough tears behind the woodshed. The good settlers of Walnut Grove are peddlers and blacksmiths, mill workers and homesteaders, yet they harbor late twentieth-century first-world middle-class dreams of earning advanced degrees and spending quality time with their kids. At the same time, the inherent primitiveness of the nineteenth-century setting provides plenty of unvaccinated fun and gives the show a great excuse to have terrible things happen every week: epidemics, blizzards, countless dead babies, the horse that kicks Mary, stagecoach wrecks, the kidnappings (multiple kidnappings) …
I know: I keep coming back to all the freaky stuff! But who can forget the fire at the blind school, the Ernest Borgnine guest appearance, the orangutan in season nine? For that matter, who the hell remembers anything whatsoever about The Waltons, other than “Goodnight John-Boy”? You sentimental types are just going to have to admit that all those genuinely heartfelt Ingalls family Christmases are swaddled in a protective layer of over-the-top TV crazy that has allowed Little House on the Prairie to endure in our minds. Three decades later, now in perpetual reruns on the Hallmark Channel (which airs marathons of the show several times a year), Little House continues to honor the something-for-everyone promise, serving up at least a dozen different strains of nostalgia for nearly every taste and creed, whether they’re red-state yearnings for a simpler America, guilty-pleasure indulgences for classic TV kitsch, or Nellie Oleson spanking fetishes.
And for all its sunbonnets and covered wagons, Little House on the Prairie has proven to be a much more durable artifact of TV in the seventies and early eighties than anything featuring feathered hair and roller disco. All that calico garb lends the show a certain sincerity that allows us to watch without the ironic distractions of retro cheesiness. (When was the last time one of your friends tweeted, “Dude, there’s a Fantasy Island marathon on!” Never.) Little House still provides a fascinating look at the good old days, though now they’re different days than the ones it purported to remember. In both the best ways and the worst, 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 out in paperback.