The Big Hold-Up

I just received the first season of Bonanza, which CBS/Paramount is releasing in the split-season format — two half-seasons released at the same time. I guess it’s better than what they do for other shows (releasing one half and then the second half of the season months later). Episodes of Bonanza have been released on public-domain DVDs before, but with the theme song removed — since that’s not public domain. These sets have the all-important theme song, uncut episodes, good picture quality if not up to Paramount’s best. (Though they are, in terms of picture quality, probably the best TV-on-DVD studio; they may then cut these prints to shreds to eliminate any expensive music, but the prints are usually good.) The special features include some 2002 interviews with the creator/producer of the show, David Dortort, promotional pictures and network promos, as well as the original NBC logo and commercial for the pilot, with an announcer blaring at you about all the great electronics gadgets RCA — NBC’s owner — has on the market. A good reminder that in 1959 we were just as obsessed with technology as we are now, maybe more so.

I haven’t had a chance to go through a lot of the episodes yet, though I am reminded that one reason Bonanza was so popular was that it was more visually interesting than most hour-long TV shows of the era, with the directors doing as many interesting camera moves or angles as they could get away with on the low budgets and short shooting schedules. If Paramount gets to the second season, it will include many episodes directed by Robert Altman, one of a number of directors who honed his craft on TV Westerns. (Another was Sam Peckinpah, on Gunsmoke, Zane Gray Theatre and his own show, The Rifleman.) Westerns were considered to be symbolic of the “bad” side of TV, shot in California rather than New York, on film rather than live, and related to B-movies rather than Broadway, but in some ways they were more imaginative and had a better impact on television (and film) than the Golden Age shows they helped to kill off.

Also, this isn’t something I’ve really tried to study, but it seems to me like there are a bunch of shows that started around this time — between 1959 and 1961, say — that have shown an incredible amount of resilience, thriving in syndicated re-runs, influencing other shows, and just “holding up” remarkably well. Bonanza (1959), The Twilight Zone (1959), The Flintstones (1960), The Andy Griffith Show (1960), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961, part of an otherwise weak season), are all shows whose popularity seems almost inexhaustible. (And the last four series all got their complete runs released on DVD, a sign of a show that is still very popular to this day.) Is there something about late Eisenhower/early Kennedy television that is particularly timeless, or is it just that a bunch of shows with enduring appeal happened to premiere within the space of a few years?

Update: Just to clarify (how many times have I said “just to clarify” in this space?), I’m not saying that shows from this era inherently hold up better than shows from before or after. There are always a few shows in any era that have an unusual amount of staying power — I Love Lucy, Star Trek, M*A*S*H, The Simpsons. Then there are other great shows, maybe even better shows, that don’t have the same kind of unkillable popularity. It just seems like a bunch of these shows, the ones that can be rerun endlessly, come from this brief late ’50s/early ’60s period.

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