Revisiting The American Western Historical Drama Series
History isn’t everyone’s favorite subject, but Little House on the Prairie is an underrated television classic that deserves viewers’ attention. The hit NBC drama ran from 1974-1983 and is based on writer Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about growing up in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. This historical classic follows the lives of Laura (Melissa Gilbert) and her family as they endure the happiness and hardships of life on the prairie. Granted, the initial description isn’t immediately gripping, but what made Little House on the Prairie great was its relevance in telling stories that happened 100 years before the show aired.
Laughter in Little House on the Prairie
Little House may be a historical classic, but it’s certainly not irrelevant or boring. One of the ways that the show managed to keep itself interesting and entertaining was to provide the audience with tons of laughs. With all of the drama, the show was by no means a comedy, but its cast was composed of characters capable of delivering some hilarious episodes. Early on, some of the humor of Little House came from Wilder’s childhood innocence. She had her fair share of crushes and heartbreaks as a little girl – it’s impossible to forget the dreamy expression in her big brown eyes when she utters, “Johnny Johnson….” In a later episode, Laura wants to appear more womanly in the eyes of another crush, so she puts apples down the front of her dress only to have one fall out when she is up at the blackboard solving a math problem.
Most of the laughs on Little House come from Walnut Grove’s resident bad guys: Nellie (Alison Arngrim) and Harriet Oleson (Katherine MacGregor). Fans love to watch as Laura, Albert (Matthew Labyorteaux), Andy (Patrick Labyorteaux), and even Ma, Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grassle), best the Oleson family. In one episode, “The Lake Kezia Monster,” Laura, Albert, and Andy construct a giant monster (complete with firecrackers) to rise out of Lake Kezia to frighten the Olesons off the land and restore it to its former owner.
The Laura-Nellie rivalry also never fails to supply laughter, probably because it’s so relatable. Everyone has that one jerk at school they hate; Laura and Nellie take things to another level. The audience loves the two enemies wrestling in the mud, watching Laura push Nellie down a hill in a wheelchair, and putting Cayenne pepper in the Cinnamon Chicken when Nellie tries to impress Almanzo (Dean Butler) with her cooking. The list of stellar comedic moments between these two and otherwise goes on and on, but what’s important is that the show’s comedy was always grounded in the now. It presented relatable scenarios that connected the audience to the characters and pulled this historical classic into relevancy.
Life or Death on the Prairie: Revisiting the Drama
Little House was often a funny show, but, as a historical drama, it regularly had its tense moments. The 1870s setting made every storm, illness, and broken bone consistently direr. Because of the time and how the show handled its drama, the stakes were always high, and the show was always exciting.
Walnut Grove suffered plagues, a pack of wild dogs, fires, and a terrible blizzard. Pa, Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon) always “acted in haste” and regularly got in fights, which always seemed to end in him breaking his ribs. In one episode, Caroline gets Tetanus, slowly goes mad, and almost cuts off her leg. In another, Laura accidentally shoots Charles while they’re out hunting, and she must run through the forest to find help before her father bleeds to death. The Ingalls family consistently copes with life-or-death problems, but that’s life on the prairie. Among their most consistent is their lack of money flow. Despite the family’s unfailing hard work, they never have much money. They live on the whims of the weather because they have to have a good harvest. But, no matter what, the Ingalls family always finds a way to make things work, even if that means Caroline has to take a job working for Nellie Oleson. Again, aside from making the show riveting to watch, these hardships make it relevant and provide a wholesome, uplifting message: If they all work hard and support one another, a family can get through anything together.
How Little House Taught Us Life Goes on After Heartbreak
Sometimes, though, the folks on Little House would suffer tragic events they could not fix. In season three, Laura’s older sister, Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson), goes blind (just as she did in real life). It happens gradually, but it’s impossible to forget Mary’s heartbreaking screams for her Pa the day she wakes up and can’t see. No amount of hard work or familial togetherness can fix Mary’s eyes. But life has to go on. In the first part of the episode, Mary stops trying to live and be productive. She becomes convinced she can’t and won’t try. But Ma and Pa send her to a blind school, where Mary learns how to move forward and live happily despite this tragedy. At the school, Mary learns to read again — her favorite pastime, and becomes a teacher, which was her ambition before her blindness. She even meets her future husband, Adam (Linwood Boomer).
Mary’s blindness is the first of many tragedies the characters in Little House must face. Andy’s mother, Johnathan’s (Merlin Olsen) wife, Alice (Hersha Parady), dies in a fire, and Mary’s first baby dies before it is born. Many of the tragedies these characters face are not exclusive to the time of their setting on the prairie. The show uses the setting, where tragedies like these were more common, to create these scenarios again and again. The purpose is not to look back at how bad things were back then. It’s to show the audience that its messages are still relevant and that, even now, hard work, community, laughter, hope, and resilience are crucial in life.
Check out Little House on the Prairie. All seasons and films are streaming now on Peacock.
Little House on the Prairie 40th Anniversary Trailer 2014
|Syd Sukalski attends Sarah Lawrence College and studies television writing and production and fiction writing. Syd aspires to write novels that she will adapt into a television series. She recently finished a draft of her first novel and is hard at work on her second.|