I rather suspect every person has their comfort shows; that is, shows that he or she watches whenever he or she is depressed or under stress or simply feeling blue. I must confess to having several comfort shows I will watch when I am feeling down, among them being Bonanza. Much of the reason that Bonanza is a comfort show for me is quite simple--I rather suspect it may well have been my parents' favourite TV series. Every Sunday night we would watch Bonanza on NBC. Indeed, after Bonanza had ended its network run, my parents would even watch it in syndicated reruns. I rather suspect that if they had lived long enough to see the advent of DVDs, it would have been the first (maybe the only) TV show they would have bought on DVD.
Bonanza was the creation of David Dortort. Dortort had written for such series as Climax ande Studio 57. He had also been a producer on the Western series The Restless Gun, which aired from 1957 to 1959 (initially on NBC, then on ABC). While The Restless Gun was one of a number of Westerns in the Fifties chronicling the adventures of a loner wandering from place to place, Dortort's new Western would break with most of the many, many Westerns which aired in the late Fifties. The most obvious difference between Bonanza and previous Western TV shows was that it was in colour. Indeed, not only was it the first Western to be filmed in colour, but it was the first American TV series to have every one of its episodes filmed in colour.
There were other major differences between Bonanza and previous Western TV shows as well. Quite simply, Bonanza was the first Western series to centre on a ranch (the massive Ponderosa). Prior to Bonanza, most Western shows focused on lawmen or loners wandering the West (The Rifleman was an exception--it centred on homesteader Lucas McCain). With its success, then, Bonanza was important in giving shape to the Western TV show of the Sixties, most of which centred on a family living on a piece of land rather than an unmarried sheriff living in town or a wanderer with no roots. In other words, without Bonanza, there would have been not have been The Virginian, The Big Valley, or The High Chapparal.
Another thing which set Bonanza apart from many of the Westerns in the Fifties was that it generally avoided traditional Western gunfights. The lead characters would generally try to resolve any conflicts which arose through words rather than bullets. In this respect, Bonanza was following the lead of such Western TV shows as Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel, which also sought to resolve conflict without resorting to shootouts.
Bonanza centred on the Cartwright family, who owned the vast Ponderosa. The head of the household was Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), who had the misfortune of outliving three different wives. Fortunately, Ben had a son by each wife, giving him plenty of help on the ranch. Adam (Pernell Roberts) was the oldest of the boys and the most serious, although he did have a bit of a temper. Hoss (Dan Blocker) was the middle son and easily the most popular character. Large in size, he was also amiable and gentle, with a gift for handling animals. Little Joe (Michael Landon) was the youngest of the sons, romantic and somewhat impulsive. The Cartwrights lived on the Ponderosa not far from Virginia City, historically an important mining town in Nevada.
Bonanza debuted Saturday night, September 12, 1959. It was hardly an immediate success. During the 1959-1960 season, it only ranked #45 out of all the series on the air. Fortunately, its ratings rose in its second season. For the 1960-1961 season Bonanza ranked #17 for the year in the Nielsens. It would be in the series' third season, however, that it became one of the top rated American TV shows of the Sixties. NBC moved Bonanza from Saturday nights to Sunday nights--the time slot it would occupy for the next eleven years. The move benefited Bonanza immensely--for the '61-'62 season it was the #2 show on the air. Bonanza would remain in the top five show for each season from the '61-'62 season to the '69-'70 season--a remarkable feat for any show. What is more, Bonanza spent three of those years as the #1 show on television.
If Bonanza was one of the biggest hits of the Sixties, it may well have been because it was simply a very well done show. For its time Bonanza had some of the best photography of any TV show, and often times it reached motion picture photography. Beyond the look of the series, it must be pointed out that the characters were well written and well acted. This was not simply true of the Cartwrights, but the rest of the cast as well. From Sheriff Coffee to Doc Martin, even the secondary characters were well developed. Bonanza was also among the best written of any series in the Sixties. Indeed, it addressed such issues as racial discrimination, religious tolerance, and political corruption before most series did.
Another factor in the success of Bonanza may well have been the versatility of the series. And its best episodes almost always departed from the traditional Western. The third season episode "The Jury" is a classic murder mystery, in which Hoss's doubts about a culprit's guilt leads Adam to find the real killer. "The Flannel-Mouth Gun" came close to a traditional Western plot, pitting Adam against a range detective hired by Virginia City's Cattlemen's Association. The fifth season episode "Peace Officer" examined abuse of power when Sheriff Coffee is temporarily replaced by lawman Wes Dunn (played by Eric Fleming of Rawhide fame). Of course, in my opinion Bonanza was at its best when it did comedy. Among the funniest episodes is "Joe Cartwright, Detective," in which Little Joe becomes obsessed with detective novels and tries to prevent the bank from being robbed. The episode parodied detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Peter Gunn and even featured a fight scene which spoofed those from the then popular show Batman. Another great comic episode was "Queen High" from the tenth season, in which Little Joe and Candy (David Canary) become rivals for a beautiful blonde who has inherited a stamping mill.
Of course, none of this is to say that Bonanza was without flaws. It did have quite a few. While Bonanza did address the issue of racism, it also featured a number of racist stereotypes, particularly early in its run. Most people today would consider the Cartwrights' cook, Hop Sing (played by Victor Sen Yung, perhaps best known as Charlie Chan's #2 son), to be something of a sterotypical Chinese servant. Other episodes featured stereotypical Mexican banditos and Native American stereotypes as well. Even when Bonanza was attempting to point out the dangers of racism, as in "The Beginning," in which the Cartwrights try to help a boy raised by Native Americans adjust to European American society, racist stereotypes would sometimes appear. It must be kept in time that Bonanza was largely a product of its time and, sadly enough, racist stereotypes were still common in American culture.
A more glaring flaw where Bonanza is that after some time on the air the show developed its own share of formulas--stock plots which would provide fodder for a number of episodes. Anyone who has watched even a small number of Bonanza episodes will soon notice that there are several episodes in which one of the Cartwrights will meet a girl, fall in love with a girl, and even come close to marrying the girl, only to have that girl either contract a deadly disease or suffer some horrible death. This plot was used so often on Bonanza that Michael Landon joked that about the Cartwrights having to be careful that their horses didn’t trip over all the graves of all the women who had died on the show! Another plotline that became a formula on the show was one in which one of the Cartwrights would be accused of murder. This plot appears as early as the first season, in the episode "The Sisters" in which Adam was arrested for murder. It was still being used in the ninth season (in the episode "Judgement at Olympus," in which Candy is arrested for murder) and the tenth season (in which Hoss is arrested for murder...again...in the episode "Child"). Taken individually these episodes in which the Cartwrights fall in love, only to lose the girl to death, or in which a Cartwright is accused of murder can be quite enjoyable, but after seeing several of these sorts of episodes one can't help but have a sinking feeling of deja vu.
Bonanza would undergo various changes over the years, perhaps the second biggest being the departure of Pernell Roberts as Adam. Roberts had been dissatisfied with the show for some time, questioning the quality of its writing and even referring to it as "Junk TV." He left at the end of the '64-'65 season and Adam's absence was explained through having the character move to Australia. Sadly, Roberts' career spun into such obscurity that he became a running joke for Johnny Carson--he would not attain fame again until starring in Trapper John M.D. in the Eighties (whose writing I don't see as being superior to that on Bonanza...). David Canary would join the cast in its ninth season as ranch hand Candy. He left the show in 1970 due to a salary dispute, only to return in 1972.
It was the twelfth season that would see some of the biggest changes to Bonanza. The departure of David Canary saw the addition of Mitch Vogel as orphan Jamie Hunter and Lou Frizzell as ranch hand Dusty Rhodes. The theme was also changed this season. Since its beginning the show had opened with the classic Bonanza theme written by legendary songsmith Jay Livingston. For the twelfth season, the show boasted a new theme, "The Big Bonanza," written by David Rose (most famous as the composer of "The Stripper"), who had been responsible for the show's music since its first season. "The Big Bonanza" was not well received by fans and the original theme would be reinstated for the show's fourteenth and final season. The Twelfth season also saw Bonanza move from the Paramount lot, where it had been shot since it had debuted, to the Warner Brothers lot.
It would be the fourteenth season that would see what would perhaps be the show's biggest change. Prior to shooting on the show's final season, Dan Blocker died from a blood clot in his lungs. Bonanza would then see its first and only season without Hoss, easily the most popular character on the show. In an attempt to fill the gap left by Dan Blocker's death, David Canary returned as Candy and Tim Matheson joined the cast as Griff King.
Sadly, as much as I love Bonanza, I have come to the conclusion that it is a show that did outstay its welcome. The series was showing cracks as early as the eighth season, with such episodes as "To Bloom for Thee," in which Hoss is engaged to yet another woman he will inevitably lose, and "The Greedy Ones," in which the Ponderosa is overrun by prospectors looking for gold without changing the ranch one bit. For me the turning point of the series was probably the twelfth season. Perhaps it was the change in the theme song, perhaps it was yet more changes in the cast, but somehow Bonanza seems to have lost its way. The season saw several episodes that were just truly wretched in my opinion. Indeed, the season opener, "The Night Virginia City Died," featuring Angel Tompkins as a beautiful pyromaniac, is perhaps the worst Bonanza episode of all time. "The Weary Willies," featuring Richard Thomas (John Boy from "The Walton") as the 19th century version of hippies--War Between the States veterans who turned their back on society because of their experiences in the war (the episode does have some basis in history)--was nearly as bad. While Bonanza was still capable of producing good episodes, there would be more and more episodes of low quality as the show progressed. By the fourteenth season many of the episodes simply weren't watchable.
While I think Bonanza declined in quality, I don't think that was what was primarily led to its cancellation after fourteen seasons on the air. The fourteenth and final season of Bonanza saw the series drop in drastically in the ratings. While the season opener, "Forever," ranked number four for the weekly Nielsens and the next few episodes also performed well. Sadly, the series sank steadily in the ratings until it ranked only #52 in the ratings in late October. Bonanza was cancelled on November 3, 1972. Like many, I think the show's declining ratings were due primarily to two factors. . The first was that NBC moved the series from the Sunday night time slot it had possessed for more than ten years to a new Tuesday night time slot. This placed the show directly against Maude and Hawaii Five-O on CBS--both hit series at the time. The second, and perhaps the primary reason the show's drop in ratings was the death of Dan Blocker. Hoss was easily the show's most popular character throughout its run. I have little doubt that many longtime viewers simply could not bring themselves to watch the series any longer. Between a new time slot and the loss of its most popular, Bonanza had little hope for survival in its final season.
Bonanza would go onto one of the most successful syndication runs of all time. The series would run on local stations throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Later it would be picked up by the Family Channel, the Goodlife Television Network, Pax, the Hallmark Channel, and TV Land. Initially, the seventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth seasons were not made available for syndication, although they would later surface on various cable channels. Interestingly, Bonanza would sometimes face censorship form cable channels. When the series aired on the Family Channel, Pat Robertson refused to air five episodes on the grounds that they offended his religious sensibilities. The ill-fated Pax network also refused to air some episodes.
Regardless of its faults, regardless of the fact that it stayed on the air much too long (something it shares with The X-Files and The Simpsons), I still love Bonanza. Much of this is due to the fact that, for whatever flaws it has, Bonanza was among the best series of the Sixties. Much of it I must also admit is due to the fact that it reminds me of my early childhood. To a large degree, then, Bonanza gives me a sense of home and family and belonging. It was, after all, my parents' favourite TV show.