One of the salesmen in Barry Levinson’s Tin Men (1987) has a brief monologue about the so-called TV classic Bonanza. ”I’m beginning to think,” he says, ”that there’s not a lot of reality to that program.” That’s pretty good criticism for an amateur, and I can add only this caveat: These Bonanza tapes (Bullet for a Bride, The Cheating Game, and The Trap) are unlikely to rivet you to your TV set unless you’re the type of Nick at Nite addict who’ll watch anything reminiscent of your childhood.
Bonanza (which ran for what seemed like millennia, but actually aired from 1959 to ’73) was probably the most actionless Western series in TV history, eschewing horse opera shoot-’em-ups for tepid familial conflicts between Lorne Greene’s patience-of-Job patriarch Ben Cartwright and his three slightly thick sons. It was also relentlessly square, with none of the Freudian Western pretensions or subversive humor of Have Gun Will Travel or Maverick.
Fortunately, the tapes are not without interest on a historical level. It’s always fun to spot supporting actors (volume 3’s Kathie Browne) and outdoor locations from such other, better shows as Star Trek. The workmanlike directors who helmed these episodes are a virtual Hollywood Who’s Who (Tay Garnett’s credits, for example, include the original The Postman Always Rings Twice.)
But finally, whatever charm Bonanza retains stems from its hermetic Technicolor unreality, the sense that you’re eavesdropping not on life but on actors on a soundstage. That being the case, the superb print quality here is a real plus; you can see every anachronistic prop (plastic barrettes in 1859) and improbably neat crease on Little Joe’s pants with spectacular clarity.
All three episodes are more or less interchangeable. C+