Westerns were a huge part of 1950s and 1960s television and film alike, as stars like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Nick Adams, and Robert Conrad, among others, galloped across screens all over America. However, during the mid-1960s, the Western genre started to show its obsolescence, and Westerns began to die out. And while it’s true that shows like “The Wild Wild West” and “Gunsmoke” continued to enjoy popularity after the golden age of Westerns, the genre for the most part was abandoned. So it’s surprising that “Little House on the Prairie” was able to attract such a large audience given that it was a Western in the 1970s and 80s. How did it maintain such popularity? Let’s take a look.
“Little House on the Prairie” (LHP for short) began in 1974 with a pilot movie, focusing on the life of the Ingalls family, and specifically Laura Ingalls, the middle child of three girls. The movie and show focused on the life and times of the Ingalls family and the other residents of small-town Walnut Grove, oftentimes showcasing the tough life in the West at the end of the nineteenth century. The series was based off of the book series of the same name, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, though most of the episode plots did not come from the books. In short, LHP was a Western, through and through. So why did viewers of the 70s care at all?
Michael Landon, who formerly was a main character on “Bonanza”, played Charles Ingalls on LHP, the father of the family, and was also influential in running the show. He set great store by the authenticity of the show’s portrayal of Western culture, even stating that it was the best Western ever, which surprisingly would mean that he thought more of it than “Bonanza”, his alma mater of TV. But there’s more behind the Ingalls family in LHP than just history and gunfights. And that’s what made it popular.
LHP ran for nine seasons, and when it started, the audience was introduced to pretty much everyone in Walnut Grove. There was a school, a general store, a hotel, a mill, and later, a restaurant. Everybody knew everybody, creating a community that the audience could share in. And being that the show covers nine years, we see new characters enter the show’s continuity (like Albert Ingalls, Nancy Olsen, or Almanzo Wilder, to name a few), we see characters leave Walnut Grove or even die (such as Nellie Olsen or Lars Hanson), which either tug at the audience’s heart as they say farewell, or it fills them with suspicion as they hesitate welcoming a new character to the fold. This level of continuity is not something that was too often present in the 60s, but by the mid-70s, audiences, and particularly families, were willing to commit to a continuing show like LHP, especially if it was a family affair. But this isn’t all that kept the show afloat.
In turn-of-the-century Western America, it was very common for couples to marry in their teens, and furthermore, the transition from childish to adult behaviour was generally more rapid in that day and age. This means that all the children the audience is introduced to at the beginning of the show grow up on-screen. So we can see a little brat like Willie Olsen at the beginning of the show turn into a married well-to-do businessman by the end of the show. Similarly, we see Laura’s older sister Mary have a wonderful childhood, but halfway through the show, become blind, which affects her for the rest of the series. Even Laura starts out as a crooked-toothed little girl at the start and by the end is married, owns a house, and is a schoolteacher. But even while all this change is happening, the older characters, like the Ingalls and Olsen parents, have a personality all their own, which remains as a constant throughout the series, so the audience members don’t disconnect due to all the change in the children.
As for style, LHP wasn’t really contemporized to fit the 1970s. The main adult characters were mostly accomplished actors from the 1960s (Michael Landon from “Bonanza”, Richard Bull from “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, Kevin Hagen from… everything), and their style didn’t change just because the culture of the 70s had changed from that of the 60s. The show’s popularity was accomplished almost exclusively from emotional connection with the audience, even episode-by-episode, with realistically twisted villains, life-threatening situations (some of which main characters actually died from), and watching different emotions play out on the faces of the characters that by this point the audience had grown to love.
There’s been a couple of these TV Showcases in which I’ve talked about making something old new, and how to make a modern audience fall in love with an old idea. But “Little House on the Prairie” serves a great example of doing something old in an old-fashioned way. LHP didn’t make the idea of a Western new again, it just expounded on what was already there: emotion and continuity. And that’s why it’s still so popular. What do you think?