Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lessons of Little House

My husband won't like this certainly, but I just added the Season 3 disks of Little House on the Prairie to our Netflix cue.

Why, you may wonder, would I do such a thing.  I know, I know.  For those of you old enough to have watched some or all of the series you are wondering 1) why I would want to watch it again, and 2) why, as I am doing, would I inflict such a thing on my children.

Well, here is the deal.  When the kids were much younger and the reading of books at bedtime was de rigour, I had a notion that I should be reading them story books, not just picture books.  You know, in order to get them used to the eventual reading of chapter and long form books.  Although I hadn't read the original Little House books by Laura Ingels Wilder myself as a child, I picked one up one day at the library and attempted to read it to them that night.  It fell with a big thud.

Cut to several years later - this year some time after I broke my arm - it happened to be my turn to pick for Movie Night (our Friday night ritual) and we were at the library in the kids' video section.  There it was, the pilot of Little House on the Prairie.  Oh sure, there was much moaning, and declarations of intent to leave the room if it proved boring (by mostly my husband, but kids too).  But low and behold, about 20 minutes in (I chain them to the sofa for at least 30 minutes when viewing anything new) they were hooked.  When I told them it was a series and we could get it on Netflix there was much enthusiastic cheering of "get it, get it".

We just finished Season 2 and I was ready to slip the DVD into its red envelope and send it off when I said to the kids that we had to decide whether we wanted to commit to watching the next season of the show, because it was severely cramping Daddy's DVD watching style.  Ang looks at me with this impertinent look and says, "What!".  Oh my, I thought, here we go.  Now I get to hear about how smarmy and stupid it is and of course we don't care about watching it anymore.  But he surprised me with the follow up to his shocked outburst with, "Of course we're gonna watch it!  If there's more, we're gonna watch it. Sheesh"  Oh.  Of course, how dumb of me, mama!

So, Lesson One.  Sometimes it pays to ask, and sometimes it doesn't.  Meaning, if I had been swayed by the shocked and despairing looks when I first picked up that pilot DVD, we never would have gotten this far.  And if I hadn't asked whether we should continue, I might have assumed they had no interest and let it go.

Lesson Two.  I have been vaguely assessing why the kids are so enthusiastic about watching the show.  Now interest in watching an episode is indicated by the humming of the theme song, wherein everyone else comes running.  I get asked, often on school nights, if there is time to watch an episode, but also, I rarely get put off when I suggest a viewing.  I am probably the one who pays the least attention and not because I've seen most of the episodes before (we were viewers, but certainly not devout, and even if I'd seen it my memory is slim on the details).  But having watched now two seasons, some 46 episodes plus the pilot, I have come to realize that it is probably the aspirational quality that we all respond to.

It is smarmy, and probably, even in 1974 terms, and idealistic vision of another time.  But to be overly cynical and to say, oh everyone is so good and everything turns out so well, would be wholly unfair.  I was somewhat surprised at some of the storylines which include such themes as the loss of faith, war, drug use, usury, theft, desperate poverty, loss of a child, desertion, financial devastation and natural and man-made disasters, among others.  They didn't shy away from portraying ugliness, which is often one of those sarcastic assessments of the series - that everything is good and people were wonderful.  One might make a case that the episodes which focus primarily on the girls - Laura and Mary - do tend on the all is well that ends well side.  And punishments metted out to them in the series are, arguably by today's standards, mild.  Can you imagine today's audiences allowing for a "good talking to and embarrassment of exposure" as adequate retribution for the crime of stealing church money?

Yes, what is portrayed in Little House on the Prairie is a kinder, gentler, simpler time.  And maybe that is what we like.  But also what I like is that while the series itself may be aspirational, the writers allowed for their characters to be entirely human, and thus fallible, and even surprising.  It's nice to watch a show where the good people are good and the bad people are only human, and sometimes they are having an off day and do the opposite.  Just like the rest of us.