Landmark TV western Bonanza on DVD looks great, gets better

Fans of Bonanza, rejoice. The landmark TV western finally has an official, formal, studio-sanctioned DVD release, with two volumes comprising its first season, which aired 1959-60. Sold separately or as a full-season set, they’re newly available Tuesday, Sept. 15 from Paramount.

Bonanza’s landmark status derives principally from one big thing: It was the first network TV show — ever — to be shot entirely in color. Bonanza led the way for turning NBC into the “peacock” network, brandishing its emblem and its color status for all viewers to know, if not fully appreciate, even while most watched on b&w-only sets.

From the start, the show had strong production values in other ways, too, including handsome exterior shoots and impressive sets. It also recruited top names for guest stars. The pilot episode, for one, has film actress Yvonne De Carlo — in five years bound for The Munsters — as an actress/singer visiting Virginia City.

Want more landmark status? Bonanza was the second longest-running western series ever, with 14 seasons. (Gunsmoke is first with 20.)

Yet on DVD it’s been a no-show till now, aside from 31 episodes bridging seasons one and two which fell into public domain and have been sold on the cheap by a variety of labels. Now Bonanza is getting its due, with beautifully packaged discs (which even list location sites) and prints which include such treats as network bumpers.

Only trouble is, Bonanza from the get-go wasn’t the same show as it came to be. The all-male Cartwright family led by patriarch Ben (Lorne Greene) was a greedy, darkly vigilant, ever suspicious and quick to belligerence bunch. Sons Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon) were quick to pick fights, and despite owning 1,000 square miles (!) of choice Nevada real estate in the mid 1800s,  the ranching Cartwrights didn’t take kindly to anyone crossing their Ponderosa’s massive borders, or selling their lumber for a fair price. These men seemed almost mean.

Fortunately, by season three they’ll have lightened up and become the more benevolent wealthy landowners that later were created from the start for The Big Valley (which had its own token violent hothead in Nick, played by Peter Breck, but was otherwise a kinder, gentler show throughout). In Bonanza seasons to come, it won’t hurt to have a few more women in the mix, too. When a show’s premise is an all-male family where three wives have all died, you have to wonder a bit. Too macho, that’s for sure. And the blithe racism toward Chinese underlings is “velly” tough to take, too.

Sure, Bonanza was a product of its times, and you have to allow for that. But we’re all now products of these times, too, and the show’s initial insensitivity doesn’t wear well. Still, in many ways, and in seasons to come, it’s a quality if not classy production which stands the test of time, so be patient with season one. Evolution is in the works.

Besides, that theme song is one of TV’s greatest ever. It even has lyrics, as you’ll learn later on. “We got hold of a pot of gold Bonanza.” Saddle up!

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