OK—if you at all remember Little House on the Prairie, the name "Sylvia" will surely ring a bell. Maybe a few bells. One of the most controversial and racy episodes the show ever aired (well, maybe it's next to Albert becoming a morphine addict and vomiting on screen--but that's another season) "Sylvia" was the two-parter in which the growing-up-fast Albert (Matthew Laborteaux) falls in love with a girl who's raped, impregnated and…well, I won't reveal the ending for you.
Yes it's Melrose Place on the Prairie, Michael Landon style, with the very early '80s Seventh Season of the popular family drama being amped up with enough extra juice to spread water cooler talk into the realms of rape, racism and the importance of agriculture--you think the show would forget its roots ever?
The show kicks off with Laura (Melissa Gilbert) marrying the love of her life Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler). She's a teacher and they live in a cute house much larger than that iconic shack her father Charles (Landon) and mother Caroline (Karen Grassle) reside in with Albert and Carrie (Lindsay Greenbush )—a child who never got any play on the show (was she a crappy actress?). Things have changed even more since Half Pint's nuptials. Mean Nellie Olsen (Alison Arngrim) is married also—to Percival (Steve Tracy) and she's not nasty anymore, she's as sweet as can be (we had to wait for Nellie surrogate Bad Seed inspired Nancy to come along later).
Nellie's mother Harriet Olsen (Katherine MacGregor) however, is just as bitchy, putting on airs while her exasperated, henpecked husband Nels (Richard Bull) looks on. Harriet gets some good episodes here—in one more famous one, she goes head to head with Percival's Jewish parents. It's a silly episode but filled with good intentions and some bonafide funny moments (some unintentional). Another has her taking over as Walnut Grove's school teacher during which she makes the kids commit to a flouncy dress code and learn French. Watching Harriet practice French to the annoyance of everyone is both humorous and quizzical. What's wrong with teaching the kid's French? Oh yes...they should all be farmers.
We also deal with the adoption of Cassandra and James (played by little Jason Bateman), Hester Sue (Ketty Lester) calling off her wedding for a proud, sweet boxer (one of the show's corniest but best episodes) and of course, Adam and Mary's (Melissa Sue Anderson) frequent dilemmas. There's a lot here (18 episodes) and going through all of them would take volumes so I'll just say the overall tone of the show became more, well, scandalous. A good thing since it needed a little more shock value (my lord we've all seen Deadwood). But the acting could really be bad. Really. Landon always appeared natural (even when he did his famous Pa's-so-proud-of-you cry) and MacGregor, Bull and Arngrim offer comic relief, but the rest of the cast is so stilted. The guest stars fare better, like James Cromwell (whom Almanzo's spinster sister falls in love with), Moses Gunn as boxer and friend to the blind Joe Kagan and Olivia Barash (Sylvia!) an actress who could have gone further.
I have foggy, weird, even dark memories of Little House primarily because I began watching it at this time of the show--some of this stuff I didn't really understand yet. But re-watching it, I was frequently laughing at the acting and earnest attempts at drama. And yet, even after a steady dose of transgressive cinema and television, "Sylvia" still disturbs me—even if I highly doubt sex offenders wore nylon stocking caps on the prairie.
Goldhil presents Little House on the Prarie The Complete Season 7 in its original full frame format (1:33:1). It looks better than previous seasons though its still muddy at times.
Audio comes in English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The audio is consistently fine. You have no problem hearing Harriet's high pitched voice or the clomp, clomp of horse hooves traveling through Walnut Grove.
There are some decent, though not plentiful features here including interviews with Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Dean Butler (Almanzo) who at one point wishes he would have been a little more of a bad boy while promoting the show. Arngrim does audio commentary for the famous episode concerning Percival's Jewish parents and offers a lot of insight into the faith, the episode itself and personal facts about the actors. Sadly, Steve Tracy died from AIDS a subject Arngrim doesn't shy away from. She also confesses that she and Tracy were the only two who were aware of his homosexuality and in one scene where they are "acting" a big laugh in bed together, she admits that they were laughing over this very secret. Her commentary is a highlight. The Little House trivia is strictly for die-hard fans.
A time capsule for sure—and I don't mean the 1800's time setting—Little House is a frequently entertaining show that suffers from frequent bad acting and sometimes trite writing. Still, there is a charm to its tackling of the issues that come off downright scandalous. Little House was never The Waltons.
Read more Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun