Little House on the Prairie: The Pilot introduced viewers to the Ingalls family, a pioneer family headed out west to find a home and a secure life. In what would eventually become a ten-year run, Season 1 picks up with the story as the Ingalls settle in the small town of Walnut Grove, where Pa (Michael Landon) intends to make a living as a farmer, while Ma (Karen Grassle) takes care of the family: feisty Laura (Melissa Gilbert), her well-behaved older sister Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson), and her little sister Carrie (Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush).
Little House on the Prairie, loosely based on the beloved series of children's books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is a family show in the best sense of the word: starting with likable characters and an interesting setting, it tells entertaining stories that have something in them to appeal to both adults and children. The stories tend toward the sentimental end of the spectrum, and certainly there are plenty of sappy moments, but on the whole, the series stands up to the test of time better than you might expect it to.
Perhaps it's because the characters are drawn genuinely enough that even when the sweetness becomes sugary, the show doesn't become cloying. This is a show that ultimately takes a positive, cheerful look at life, but its generally happy tone still allows for the recognition that life (especially in an 1800s pioneer town) has its low points, as in the thin line that Pa is forced to walk between "making it" and losing everything in "Harvest of Friends," the death of a child in "The Lord Is My Shepherd," or even the fact that Laura has to put up with obnoxious Nellie Oleson.
It's interesting to note that the episodes in Season 1 tend to focus more strongly on Laura, and show things more often from Laura's perspective, than later seasons. For instance, we continue to get some voiceover comments from Laura as we did in the pilot episode, but these are later discontinued; in later seasons, the other members of the family also tend to take on larger roles, with Laura receding somewhat into the background. I'd classify Laura as the most interesting character in the family, so it's nice to see her featured prominently here.
I've commented in my reviews of later seasons that attention to historical detail isn't always a strong suit of Little House on the Prairie. Season 1 demonstrates that the series actually started out even weaker in that department, and shaped up a bit later on. A few of the weak points are understandable in terms of practical production issues: for instance, it's laughable that the Ingalls, who are explicitly described as being dirt-poor in the opening episode, would put wooden floors and glass windows in their house when they don't even have money to buy a plow or seeds, but it's likely that the producers wanted to have a consistent set built ASAP. Other anachronisms are more amusing, such as seeing Pa eating a sandwich that is obviously made of floppy 20th-century Wonder Bread. One does have to wonder who had the bright idea of running "Survival" (in which there's a blizzard) immediately following "Money Crop," in which the farmers are doing their spring sowing. The influence of Hollywood is evident in the very fake snow; did the southern California climate make them forget which order the seasons went in, too?
At any rate, Season 1 offers a set of charming stories, introducing characters who would go on to become regulars, such as Dr. Baker, the Reverend, and of course the Oleson family. Fans of Little House on the Prairie will enjoy this set, and it's solid family viewing even without the nostalgia factor.
Little House on the Prairie: Season 1 is a six-DVD set, packaged in a cardboard fold-out holder inside a glossy paperboard slipcase. All 23 episodes from the show's first season (1974-1975) are included, but viewers should be aware that the pilot episode is not included. It's available as a separate DVD.
The image quality is below par here, for a variety of reasons. While the print is free of noise, there are quite a few scratches appearing throughout the image, and many instances of shimmering. The contrast is too heavy, with detail lost in darker scenes. Colors look lousy much of the time, with a brownish tint to the image in many scenes, and a generally wan and lackluster appearance overall.
On the bright side, the soundtrack here is better than the dismal track that appears on the stand-alone pilot episode. It's still below average, and worse than in subsequent season sets. The sound is flat overall, with a distinct tinny quality whenever the characters raise their voices. A faint hiss is also audible in quieter scenes. The music is also rather obtrusive here, partly because the volume tends to be a shade too high in the music-only scenes, but largely because the soundtrack is really terrible: it's 1970s-era in the worst possible way, and whoever composed it didn't have a clue what the show was like, as the musical cues sound like they came from a cheesy suspense/thriller program.
DVD sets like this one make me realize that "chapter stops" really are considered "bonus features" at some studios. At any rate, they're not to be found here: each episode is a single chapter. The introductory credit sequence appears in the first episode but not in subsequent episodes. (Fortunately, in later season sets the credits appear in all episodes, and chapter stops are provided.)
There aren't many special features here. A booklet with episode synopses is included inside the set, but there's no episode list printed on the box as in later sets. A misleadingly titled section of "character profiles" is really a set of filmographies for selected actors in the show. We also get a 30-second photo gallery of the Ingalls family, and an interactive quiz on the contents of the first season. A word to the wise: if you linger over the first question on the quiz, it crashes the DVD. I kid you not. However, if you choose one of the answers ASAP, the rest of the quiz behaves itself properly.
On the basis of content, Little House on the Prairie: Season 1 merits a "recommended" rating, as it's a pleasant family show that has held up to the passing years better than most 1970s television programs. I've downgraded it to a "rent it," though, because the transfer quality is really not up to standard, and the lack of basic DVD features like chapter stops makes for a user-unfriendly experience. Dedicated Little House fans will probably still want to pick it up, but unless it's a "must have" set, I'd suggest renting this one and saving your purchases for later season sets that have better transfers.