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Bonanza

Bonanza

The television series Bonanza was more than just another western in an age that had an abundance of them; it was also a clever marketing idea. First aired in 1959, it was especially developed to be filmed for color viewing, in order to compel Americans to buy color televisions. The series' appeal derived from Bonanza's gentle, family orientation, which, of course, differed from Gunsmoke and most other westerns. In most westerns, writes literary scholar Jane Tompkins, the west "functions as a symbol of freedom, and of the … escape from conditions of life in modern industrial society." Bonanza met this basic criteria, but it also contained more fistfights than gunfights and centered around the occurrences of the Cartwrights, a loving, loyal family. Many episodes dealt with important issues like prejudice at a time when such themes were not common on television. In sum, Bonanza used the touchstones of the western genre to package a family drama that ran for fourteen years, until 1973.

Typical of westerns, Bonanza sought to detail the male world of ranching. Untypical of the genre, Bonanza had a softer side to most of its plots that combined with attractive actors to allow the show trans-gender appeal. The Cartwrights, of course, began with Ben, played by Canadian Lorne Greene. Generally serious and reasonable, Ben kept the ranch running. Thrice widowed, he raised three boys on his own with a little help from the cook, Hop Sing. There were no women on the Ponderosa. Bonanza, like My Three Sons and Family Affair, created a stable family without the traditional gender roles so palpable in 1950s and 1960s America. Part of the popularity of such series derives from the family's success despite its lack of conformity.

Each Cartwright brother served a different constituency of viewers. Adam, the eldest son, was played by Pernell Roberts. More intense than his brothers, Adam had attended college and was less likely to be involved in wild antics or love affairs. Dan Blocker played Hoss Cartwright, gullible and not terribly bright yet as sweet and gentle as he was huge. When not providing the might to defeat a situation or individual, Hoss faced a series of hilarious situations, often created by his younger brother, Little Joe. Michael Landon, who played Little Joe, proved to be the most enduring of these 1960s-style "hunks." The youngest member of the family, he was fun loving, lighthearted, and often in love. The care-free son, Little Joe brought levity to the family and the program. He was looked on by his father and older brothers with affection, and was usually at the center of the most humorous episodes. Landon came to Bonanza having starred in feature films, including I Was A Teenage Werewolf, and he wrote and directed many of the later episodes of Bonanza (though the series was primarily directed by Lewis Allen and Robert Altman).

The West, of course, would always be more than backdrop to the program. The general activities of the Cartwrights dealt with maintaining control and influence over the Ponderosa, their vast ranch. "Conquest," writes historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, "was a literal, territorial form of economic growth. Westward expansion was the most concrete, down-to-earth demonstration of the economic habit on which the entire nation became dependent." The West, and at least partly the genre of westerns, become a fascinating representation for assessing America's faith in this vision of progress. The success of the Cartwrights was never in doubt; yet the exotic frontier life consistently made viewers uncertain. The greatest appeal of Bonanza was also what attracted many settlers westward: the Cartwrights controlled their own fate. However, though plots involved them in maintaining or controlling problems on the Ponderosa, the family's existence was not in the balance. The series succeeded by taking necessary elements from the western and the family drama in order to make Bonanza different from other programs in each genre. This balance allowed Bonanza to appeal across gender lines and age groups.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Brauer, Ralph, with Donna Brauer. The Horse, the Gun, and the Piece of Property: Changing Images of the TV Western. Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular Press, 1975.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York, W.W. Norton, 1988.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot the Sheriff?: The Rise and Fall of the Television Western. New York, Praeger, 1987.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major and Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., 1987.

Yoggy, Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., 1995.

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