The first regular hour-long primetime series to air entirely in color, Bonanza, is also one of the longest-running series in television history. The show ran for 14 years, the first of which was 1959, and that, if one is counting, makes Bonanza 50 years old. Though the show aired on NBC, it was produced by Paramount and consequently it is Paramount/CBS that is currently bringing the show to DVD. Releasing this week are two volumes of Bonanza: The Official First Season. Each volume contains four discs and 16 episodes of the series, and together make up the entire 32-episode first season (pretty impressive considering today's television seasons tend to be closer to 24 episodes).
Bonanza, which stars Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon, is the tale of the Cartwrights and their ranch, the Ponderosa. Green is Ben Cartwright, father of Adam (Roberts), Hoss (Blocker), and Little Joe (Landon) – all of whom have different mothers (poor Ben is a widower several times over). Together, the four men raise cattle and do their best to protect their precious Ponderosa from the ever-encroaching Virginia City, with its miners and rapscallions. The Cartwrights are quick thinkers (save Hoss, he's the emotional core of the group and the show), often quick-witted (again, save Hoss), and quick to anger towards family, friends, and enemies alike. Family may always come first, but that doesn't mean, even as the beginning of the pilot shows, that they'll back down in front of their loved ones.
Season one of the show takes place (for the most part) right around 1860 and therefore during the approach of the Civil War. While the series does center itself around the world events of the time period on occasion, more often than not the plot revolves around a dastardly scheme to either steal land, cattle, or money from the Cartwrights or the downtrodden – typical Western fare.
While the odds are certainly against this DVD set sparking interest in younger viewers for a show which began 50 years ago, that is certainly unfortunate. CBS/Paramount have done a fantastic job bringing the show to DVD, one would never guess the series' age if it weren't for some of the promos and unrestored footage included along with it. The series also helps hide its age by being a period piece – the 1860s are the 1860s, whether they're depicted in 1959 or 2009. The way in which stories are told about the time period may differ today, but the clothes, speech, and manner of dress haven't (even if Doc Brown did have trouble getting Marty appropriate attire only four years prior to the start of Bonanza).
Even today, Bonanza is compelling. Greene, Landon, Roberts, and Blocker are iconic figures in their roles – even those who haven't seen the show ought to be at least vaguely aware of them – and watching the stories, and the way they unfold, is still gripping. The show does an excellent job of establishing the characters and where they are from – they may all live together now, but all three of the Cartwright kids have very different heritages due to their different mothers. The series also does a great job, especially when episodes are screened back-to-back, of interspersing more dramatic episodes with more comical ones, and the actors are all certainly up to the task of taking on both genres.
That is not to say that the show is without drawbacks – most notably, the famous character of Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) is little more than a poorly drawn and offensive caricature. Additionally, it is hard to imagine creating an episode today which discusses the upcoming Civil War without mention of the issues of slavery as "A House Divided" does. It is in moments such as these that viewers stop considering the series as taking place in mid-19th century and rather consider its production in the mid-20th.
In terms of bonus features, Bonanza: The Official First Season is loaded with goodies that true fans of the series and the Golden Age of television will love. There are numerable episode-specific photo galleries, and some episodes also contain the original episodic promos. Two of them (one in each volume) even have the original NBC network logo, bumpers, and RCA spots. Other included bonuses are short clips with series creator David Dortort reminiscing about the actors and production, an episode of Fireside Theatre from 1953 which helped lead to Bonanza, and an alternate ending to the pilot which features the Cartwrights singing.
It may not be perfect, but Bonanza is, 50 years later, still a wonder to behold. The discs have been remastered and consequently probably look far better than they did when initially received by over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone who ever loved the series will greatly enjoy adding these volumes to their collection and anyone who ever wondered what all the fuss over Hoss and Joe and all the kin was about would do well to check them out.