STUDIO: Paramount Home Entertainment
MSRP: $42.99
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 895 Minutes
• Archival interviews with Creator/Producer David Dortort
• Rare behind-the-scenes photos
• Original NBC promo spots for select episodes
• Commentaries

The Pitch

Only in the wild west would landowners have the power of the law. Oh, wait….

The Nutshell

Your grandpa is pissing himself with excitement right now, or maybe that’s from old age. But either way, the long running western and favorite of pipe smokers everywhere finally gets official releases after being shit on by public domain discs for years.

“I should have ordered half an Ernest Borgnine. I knew I couldn’t eat a whole one.”

The Lowdown

Bonanza is one of those endlessly rerun shows that I’ve only seen groggy and at 3 AM. I’ve never paid attention to it, I never even connected the Cartwright’s as a family until I watched this collection, but I was somehow familiar with something about the show. It wasn’t anything about the stories, the show is an anthology of pretty much every story in the oater book, but the general feeling of space and color of Bonanza. It was the first one hour western shot in color, and it was really goddamn beautiful to boot. At the time NBC was owned by RCA and had a vested interest in selling expensive color TVs and Bonanza was one of their premier showcases for the technology. High quality film and a lush Southern California location go a long way to make some very basic shots look gorgeous. There’s probably a lot of nostalgia that factors in too, the stock and color is a long gone relic of a very specific time in television history. It may be kind of cheap to be nostalgic for something that is older than my parents, but I grew up on cable and TV Land has drilled a deep hole in my brain for shows much older than I. Regardless, this is a fantastic looking show that really serves as a showpiece for it’s era.

Really, the lasting nature of the show is a testament to pulp. Bonanza, like most western shows, was nothing more than an anthology show. Every episode the Cartwright’s would fall into a gang of outlaws, a cattle runner owed money, a sexy grifter, or whatever plot device the week brought to their door. It was a simpler time, long before the canon and continuity obsessed television of today, and it’s a very charming little slice of vintage storytelling. For lack of a better term, it’s really comforting to watch the stories unfold. Everything is easy to digest and, for the most part, morally sound. The Cartwright’s ease into these universal and worn stories without a hitch, the family is a diverse group of the men’s magazine stereotypes after all. Around this time, Bonanza smartly started to focus on specific characters and the episodes had a more organic flow to them. The show became the equivalent of picking up a cheap novel, reading it one sitting, and throwing it away. That’s not a slight to the show, I’m not of the mind that disposable entertainment is a bad thing.

“It’s just lawyer mumbo-jumbo for ‘I’m your new pimp’.”

By this time, the cast had already grown confident in their roles. This is a guy’s show and confidence is king. Even a 24 Michael Landan can believably stare down a leather faced gunman. The swagger and weight of the characters is what Bonanza relished in. There isn’t much in these episodes that stretch their characters, but it was 1961 and character development wasn’t exactly the norm. Instead, we have a strong leading cast and a rotating supporting cast that includes some of the best character actors of the time. It’s hardly a losing formula and adds to the overall comfortable warmth of the show. Hoss is going to be a lovable giant, Little Joe is going to try to get laid, Adam is going to be headstrong and firm, and Ben is going to be a loving father. We know this going in and it doesn’t matter that those roles aren’t challenged. On paper, a family that owns a thousand acres and flaunts moral superiority in the old west seems smug and bland. Bonanza rests solely on its cast to fix this, and their humanity goes a long way. The Cartwright’s do sit on a high horse, but they are reacting to the violence in their surroundings. In one episode, Ben guns down a drunken man in self defense complaining about the Cartwright’s high moral ground and ends up taking care of the man’s son, even after the boy tries to shot Ben point blank. Ben goes to great lengths to teach the boy that violence is only to be used for survival, risking his own life to do right on his violent actions. It’s actually hard to catch Lorne Greene acting in his scenes with the boy, something worth noting in a time and place where over acting was considered necessary for the format. Although the cast isn’t always that subtle, the way in which they inhabit and shift the focus of scenes is an invisible art. There is a lot to be said about believable, human characters, and, for vintage genre television,  Bonanza is full of them.

Bonanza is a classic show treated fairly well by a major studio, that in and of itself deserves the attention of a buy. The show isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a remarkable time capsule for one of the golden ages of television. It might be hard to look past the some of the social errors of the time, the race relations have aged better than most shows, still though a lot of things will seem inappropriate and offensive to modern viewers, but that’s just something us media nerds have to deal with. It’s easy to overlook such an overplayed show, but if you have any interest in classic television or the wide breadth of the western genre, this is a no-brainer.

As a final note, Silent Thunder is a major standout episode directed by Robert Altman. For Altman fans there’s a lot of hints of his emerging style and some great unconventional approaches to violence. Plus, it stars a sexy (and amazing) Stella Stevens. It’s definitely a must for Altman fanatics like myself.

This is a guy who understood the point of gun holsters. To
stop all blood flow from your penis down.

The Package

The transfers are mostly stellar, with a few episodes dipping way below quality. Some of the episodes have bright, clean transfers, but the worst of the episodes look like bad analog copies taped off of late night TV. It’s a strange discrepancy in quality that I’m guessing has a lot to do with available materials.

The extras are generous for a classic series. Sadly, most of the features are just actors or creator David Dortort going down memory lane. It’s nice that they included so much, but it holds little excitement except to diehard fans of the show.


8.5 out of 10

Mouse Trap was a much harder game to set up back in the day.