Barely a month after the release of Season One comes Little House on the Prairie: Season Two. A spectacularly good bargain of a set, more than half-off on Amazon as I write this. The set restores the 1975-76 season to its original broadcast length (and without the ruinous time-compression of earlier home video releases) with vastly improved high-def picture and DTS-HD Master Audio sound, 22 episodes with a total running time of 18 hours.
Adapted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's famous series of Little House memoirs, the program became synonymous with wholesome family entertainment, and solidified the reputation of TV powerhouse Michael Landon, who not only starred as Charles "Pa" Ingalls but also produced, wrote, and frequently directed episodes (87 in all). It was a Top 20 show for most of its run, and is still fondly remembered today.
As noted in my earlier (as in a few weeks ago) review of Season One, the early seasons of Little House remain impressive achievements. The show in its early years was a grittier, more realistic depiction of 19th century pioneer life, and thus much darker. As it progressed, at least based on nearly 40-year-old memories, the series gradually became schmaltzier, more melodramatic in the bad sense. But its second year retains most of the same qualities of the first.
Lionsgate has done an excellent job bringing Little House on the Prairie: Season Two to Blu-ray. Shot on 35mm film and correctly presented in its original 1.37:1 format, the series looks far better than it did when it first aired. Moreover, the set includes the second part of an apparently series-long retrospective documentary, this one an improvement over the first segment.
The series starred Landon as Charles Ingalls, a farmer who, following the feature-length pilot film, moves his family to the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota (played by the very un-Minnesotian countryside of the Paramount Ranch in Malibu). The family consists of devoutly religious mother Caroline (Karen Grassle), their seven-year-old tomboy daughter Laura (Melissa Gilbert), her straight-laced older sister Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson), and their kid sister Carrie (alternately played by twin sisters Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush).
By Season Two the Ingalls are firmly ensconced in Walnut Grove, becoming friendly with most of the town's residents: mill owner and Swedish immigrant Lars Hanson (Karl Swenson) schoolteacher Miss Beadle (Charlotte Stewart), local physician, Doc Baker (Kevin Hagen), Rev. Robert Alden (Dabbs Greer), and Nels Oleson (Richard Bull), owner of Walnut Grove's general store.
Kindly Nels, alas, has the family from Hell, who are also the source of much conflict with the Ingalls, though usually as lighter, "B-story" material. With good reason Laura and Mary dislike the two Oleson children, insufferable Nellie (Alison Arngrim) and slightly dim-witted Willie (Jonathan Gilbert, in real-life, Melissa's adopted brother). Worst of all is pompous, sanctimonious Harriet Oleson (Katherine MacGregor), a shrew to poor Nels.
Early in season one, Victor French as unrefined but salt-of-the-earth Isaiah Edwards, an important character in the pilot film, was brought back as a continuing role, and season two intertwines Edwards's sweet romance with widow Grace Snyder (Bonnie Bartlett, real-life of actor William Daniels) with a moving two-part show about a terminally ill widow (Patricia Neal, The Waltons' original matriarch) desperately trying to find a good home for her three children. Season Two also introduces town banker Ebenezer Sprague (Ted Gehring) in a self-contained show focusing on that character.
As before, what makes the show so compelling, at least in this second season, is its uncompromisingly honest portrait of prairie life. The Ingalls family face one life-threatening hardship after another and that, in order to survive, the family and oftentimes the entire community of Walnut Grove must pitch in and work together to solve these seemingly insurmountable and never-ending crises. In, for instance, the season-opener, Hansen's Mill closes its doors for a time, with Mr. Hansen unable to pay Charles two months worth of back pay. The entire family works together to try and make up the difference.
Season Two also expands its efforts to tell many stories from Laura or Mary's point of view. In one show Mary's gradually failing eyesight forces her to wear glasses, and she faces being picked-on at school. In one of my all-time favorite episodes, Laura and her friend Jonah stumble upon what they think is a rich vein of gold in a local stream. They undertake the back-breaking labor of mining the gold in secret, Laura wanting to surprise her family with newfound wealth, fantasizing all the while about how much better their lives will soon be. Of course, the gold is actually worthless iron pyrite, but the show wonderfully captures the hopes, disappointments and imaginations of youth.
Video & Audio
Little House on the Prairie is presented in its original 1.37:1 standard format and looks extremely good. The image is sharp and the color excellent, though I did notice that on one episode at least the color timing was completely botched. (A day-for-night scene was not corrected, and on the Blu-ray the scene appears as the broad daylight in which it was shot.) Shows are uncut and not time-compressed, and the menu screens are well designed and easy to navigate. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master audio is strong and 2.0 Dolby Spanish and French tracks are offered as well as English SDH subtitles. The disc is region A encoded.
"The ‘Little House' Phenomenon Part Two: In the Beginning" is an improvement over Part One, which nauseatingly leaned heavily on the series' "family values" and its place as an oasis of entertainment the whole family could enjoy amidst all the real world turmoil that was 1974. This featurette instead focuses on the contributions of series producer Ed Friendly and star-director Landon. Interestingly, it points out that Landon had originally been offered to direct rather than star in the pilot movie, based on his work helming a superior episode of Bonanza. (He did fourteen shows in that capacity beginning in 1968.)
Interested viewers will most definitely want to start with Season One but Little House on the Prairie: Season Two is more of the same show in its peak years, and is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.