Monday, February 11, 2008

Thoughts on Pa and 1/2 Pint

I just watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie on the when-you-care-enough-to-send-the-very-best Channel. The preview guide told me I was watching a re-run and the episode aired for the first time in 1978.

Holy crapola.

For half of 1978, I was 4 years old, and the other half, I was five years old. It was an episode with Albert living on the farm with the Ingalls family, but before Almonzo ("Manly") was in the picture and before Mary and Adam relocated the blind school from Winoka to Walnut Grove.

(All that and much more about Little House is stored in a quick-recall file in my brain. But for some of the details below, I have turned to Google...)

Apparently, the show ran for 9 seasons, September 11, 1974 until March 21, 1983.
I always thought that I had seen these episodes in real time, but I realize now that I was watching them in syndication in the 80's.

The show is THIRTY YEARS OLD!!!

What's remarkable is how timeless this series is. Because it's a period piece, it doesn't get outdated. There are no special effects or costumes that they might do better now with since-invented computers or new technology. Also, the point of reference is skewed. No one was alive back then. Unless you are a major history freak- not someone who "likes" history, but someone who has made it her/his life's work to read obscure texts and research the subtleties of daily life of the prairie- you watch the show without fighting the contextual details. When Jonathan Garvey and Pa are excited at the prospect of getting $3 a week, you just assume that was a lot of coin 150 years ago. It doesn't bother you in the way it would if you found out that George Jefferson was living on easy street, pulling in $80 Grand a year.

In contrast, a 12 year old episode of Touched by an Angel (which follows Little House on Hallmark daytime programming) dated itself in the first 20 seconds when the main characters were complaining about the fact that stamps were a whopping 37 cents.

SIDE BAR: It is ironic that Angels make small talk about the cost of anything and don't recognize that money is a subjective and erratic symbol of the quantitative value of goods and services determined by the market's relative health and the context of the governing economic system of a particular time and place. (It's supposed to be a run-on.)

Also ironic, but more in line with the topic of this post, I was forced to nearly injure myself rolling my eyes after this line was delivered by Della Reese: "I told Ben Franklin this would happen." By the way, Angel-played-by-Della, if Charles Ingalls could mail a letter for- like, a PENNY and a week's wages were $3, than surely the inflation of $0.37 as compared to our current weekly pay averages show what a bargain the USPS provides (and I would think angels would understand that!) Furthermore, if you explained to Ben Franklin about airplanes and the role they have taken in eliminating the Pony Express, and the fuel planes require and the wars we have to fund to secure that fuel I bet after his brain exploded, he would suggest that 37 cents is not very much money to pay to mail a letter.

But I digress. TouchedBAA lost me in that first 20 seconds because, "STOP YOUR BITCHING, PEOPLE ANGELS, first class stamps now cost 49 CENTS!!!" TouchedBAA did a lot to extend the assertion that since angels are timeless, ageless, travelers, perhaps the show itself is also timeless and can live on in syndication forever. But have you seen the cell phones these people used? How can you trust the primary messages of a show where Angels didn't even know about technology that was only a decade away?

Thing is, I am astounded at how easy it is to still watch a 30 year old episode of Little House. I get lost in the loving messages because I am not distracted by how outdated the show is. I dare you to try this with any other show. (Possible exception: Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman which I've never really seen.)

Little House didn't shy away from modern day topics. I watched (and still watch) the people of Walnut Grove deal with racism, war, divorce, single parenting, rape, incest, bullying, loss of faith, abuses of police and government, poverty, and on and on. They found ways to comment on world wars and holocausts that happened after the deaths of the show's characters because hey, there have always been wars and atrocities that humans have committed against other humans and the pros and cons don't really vary that much from era to era. The show I saw today, "Harriet's Happenings" made points about the freedoms and responsibilities of the press, social justice, and class structure.

I think my only regret that this show wasn't produced more recently is there exists no episode about some "Carl and Jeb" cowboy types who lived alone together, loving one another, bothering no one, and farming their farm. If that episode existed, Charles would have to lead the town in a live-and-let-live, 19th century stand for gay rights.

Michael Landon's son is gay, and i think if the series started even 10 years later than it did, there would have been some don't-use-the-olden-days-as-an-excuse-to-pick-on-the-gays tolerance content. In fact, the show was so progressive and modern and pro-family* it seems odd that there never was a gay-farmer episode. It's practically the only way the show dates itself- thought there were certainly gay people living in the 1800s, there simply was not a place for gay people on TV in the 70's and early 80's.

* "Pro-family" as in, "love, protect, and take care of your family." Not "hold up a 'god-hates-fags' posters at a soldier's funeral, 'pro-family' "

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