When Bonanza debuted on NBC in 1959, the show didn’t appear to be on track to run for 14 years, let alone to finish in the top five in the Nielsen ratings for nine years straight. Scheduled opposite the Saturday night powerhouse Perry Mason, Bonanza looked like just another TV western, at a time when the tube was packed with them. Its main distinguishing feature was that it was in color. But Bonanza hung in, and grew on audiences thanks to well-delineated characters and a premise that allowed for a wider range of stories than the usual cowboy fare. Set on a big Nevada ranch near a silver-mining boomtown, Bonanza starred Lorne Greene as thrice-widowed entrepreneur Ben Cartwright, working his property alongside his three grown sons: shrewd, steely Adam (played by Pernell Roberts), big-hearted brute Hoss (Dan Blocker), and hotheaded dandy Little Joe (Michael Landon). These weren’t unruly frontiersman; they were worldly fellows living on a well-appointed estate, and dealing with sibling rivalry, romance, and the vicissitudes of big business. Bonanza quickly became less of a western than a corporate melodrama with sidearms.
Bonanza’s first season isn’t as strong as what would come later, when the production loosened up a little and allowed some talented writers and directors to leave their mark. (None other than Robert Altman helmed eight fine episodes in the second season.) Bonanza always offered a “prop department” version of the old west, where even the dirt in the streets looked clean, and people could gun each other down with no blood or regrets. And in the early going the show was especially stiff, with the characters wearing their motivations and emotions right on their faces. (Landon would look doe-eyed, Blocker confused, and so on.) Yet even from the beginning the Cartwright clan was an easy bunch to spend time with, as they lounged around their elegant ranch house, eating meals prepared by their skilled Chinese cook. And season one introduced the themes that would continue to define the show: primarily the conflict between the rapaciousness of industry and the more sophisticated, humane kind of progress represented by the Cartwrights. Bonanza won over TV fans the way the Cartwrights swayed their reluctant neighbors: by representing the kind of dogged, un-splashy quality that endures.
Key features: A 1952 anthology series episode that helped inspire the show, plus multiple interviews with producer David Dortort.