This serene family drama on NBC, which ran from 1974 well into the 1980s, was based on the popular series of autobiographical books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Michael Landon and Karen Grassle played Charles and Caroline Ingalls, a pioneer couple with three daughters: Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) and Carrie (twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush). For its ninth and final season, the series was Re Tooled as Little House: A New Beginning; this was followed by three TV movies to wrap up the characters' storylines.
This show provides examples of:
Academic Athlete: Laura Ingalls Wilder will get dirty and play baseball as a child but at sixteen she becomes more elegant and gets her first teaching job.
Albert, who plays football in a number of episodes.
Accidental Athlete: In the Baseball Episode "In the Big Inning", as Charles is getting ready for a game against a team from Sleepy Eye, he and Half-Pint are at Jebediah Mumfort's farm, where they both witness Jebediah trying to hit a chicken hawk with a rock. He throws the rock so hard, it puts holes in the side of a barn. After this display, Charles convinces Jebediah to try out for Walnut Grove's baseball team. Of course, he's a natural and helps them win the big game despite all the cheating and poor sportsmanship of those evil people from Sleepy Eye.
Big Screwed-Up Family: The Olesons certainly qualify, between Mrs. Oleson's grating, harsh, manipulative personality and rampant prejudice, Nels' inability or unwillingness to stand up to her, and her children's bratty and manipulative behavior. Once you throw Nancy into the mix, well, it all goes Up to Eleven.
Such a bit character that they simply used the real surname of the actress (Ruth Foster) for the character.
Bittersweet Ending: A railroad tycoon holds the deed to Hero Township because of a legal loophole, but before leaving, the residents of Walnut Grove destroy all of the houses in it, leaving the tycoon with a giant landfill. After the colonel tells the tycoon that this was completely legal - the townsfolk still owned the buildings, the tycoon only owned the land - the mayors of several other towns say they will follow suit if the tycoon tries to use the same trick again. The townspeople then walk off, satisfied that their town's sacrifice was not in vain.
Body Horror: Ma Ingalls and her nasty infection in "A Matter of Faith."
Break the Cutie/Kill the Cutie: Drawn out before enforced, respectively, in "Sylvia," a two-part episode from late in Season 7. Sylvia (Olivia Barash) is a beautiful but mature-for-her-age 14-year-old girl who endures hell after hell throughout her stay in Walnut Grove. She is sexually harassed by the boys at school, viciously raped by an masked man (and impregnated as a result), emotionally abused by her distant father (who also forces her to conceal her adolescent development) ... and then scandalized by Mrs. Oleson when she claims that Albert Ingalls is her baby's father. Albert seems to be her only friend, but even his parents are concerned that his association with her will bring nothing but trouble. In the end, Sylvia dies, her fatal last incident coming when she falls from a rickety ladder in a ramshackle barn to escape the rapist – it was the previously unseen town blacksmith – who had come back to rape her again.
California Doubling: The harsh winters of 1800s Minnesota were actually filmed in Simi Valley, California.
Calling the Old Man Out: Willie does this to his mother when she tries to keep him from marrying the girl he loves.
Actually, it's mentioned that they moved away from Walnut Grove. The Edwards' oldest son, John, is in the second episode of the fourth season, and the rest of the Edwards family appears in a Season Six episode (when Laura and Pa visit them), and Mr. Edwards turns up again in Season Eight and becomes a regular after he moves back to Walnut Grove.
Class Clown: Willie Oleson. He even has his own corner.
Defrosting Ice Queen: As she gets older, Nellie matures and gets nicer, though she still has her moments.
Though later in the series, most of her wrath is directed towards her mother.
Demoted to Extra: Carrie went from having several lines an episode and even a few small subplots to a background character who was lucky to get one line per episode.
Lucky to get a line? Carrie was essentially a mute well before the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove.
As the actresses grew, neither bothered to learn to act, so they quit giving her lines because they didn't want to kill the character off.
Her delivery was also infamously unclear. TV Land would do a joke spot years later: "Thank you, Carrie Ingalls, for whatever it was you just said."
Deadly Nosebleed: Albert's Leukemia spells certain doom as he begins to have nosebleeds in "Look Back to Yesterday".
Designated Victim: Poor, poor Mary. If something bad had to happen, it was going to happen to her.
Also Laura's niece Jenny. Her first appearance had her so devastated by her father's death that she tries to drown herself in the lake, arguably not fully realizing the implications of suicide, but still getting an angry lecture from Laura. One of her last appearances involved her contraction of brain damage as a result of nearly drowning—again—while going after a treasured locket. Apparently, the writers were bent on trying to drown this character but weren't allowed to actually do it.
"Remember Me," a two parter from midway through the second season. The Sanderson children are faced with separation when a family wants to adopt the boys as farmhands, while Harriet's wealthy cousin wishes to adopt little Alicia. At the last minute, Mr. Edwards and Grace Snider marry, and adopt all three.
"A Silent Cry," from early in Season 7, saw Houston (the cantankerous landlord of the Harriet Oleson School for the Blind) make a successful attempt to adopt two orphaned brothers. Before the adoption takes place, the requisite drama sees numerous families want to adopt the older, stronger of the two boys, but not the younger one, a tiny boy who has multiple disabilities, including muteness. (The episode itself is a rewrite of a Bonanza script Michael Landon wrote late in that series' run; the major changes involve crossing out names and replacing them with newer ones.)
Drugs Are Bad: In the two-parter "Home Again," Albert is shown to have become addicted to morphine while living in the city; the episode pulls no punches in showing the consequences of drug use, and Albert's excruciating withdrawal.
Expository Hairstyle Change: Laura gets this in "Sweet Sixteen" when she gets her first teaching job. Never again will we see Laura wearing her signature braids. This is also the episode where Almanzo begins to see Laura as a young woman, and potential love interest, instead of as a child.
Family Theme Naming: With the exception of Harriet, the Olesons. Nels and Nellie are both derivatives of "Nels" or "Danielle" (Wordof God says this is Nellie's real name). Willie, as a derivative of William, is within the same family. Adopted daughter Nancy, with an "N" first initial, fits in, too.
Flash Back: Done twice, the first showing Charles's boyhood and the second showing how he and Caroline met.
Flash Forward: Also done twice. The first time shows a young couple in the late 1970s buying a table created by Charles. The second shows a young girl at the library, the book she picks out being Little House on the Prairie.
Gilligan Cut: In "The Campout" Charles happily agrees to let Nels, Nellie and Willie come along on the Ingalls' camping trip (the kids must all gather leaves for a school project). When Harriet invites herself along, Charles complains to Caroline and says he refuses to go camping with "that woman". The next scene shows Charles and the other Ingalls walking towards their campsite with the Olesons, including Harriet, bringing up the rear.
Gosh Hornet: One episode in Season 6 has Albert selling Mrs. Oleson and Nellie a tree trunk filled with bees. They remain docile until Oleson's wagon begins to rock while they transport the hive home, causing the bees to angrily sting both the women as they lose control of their horses.
Hot Teacher: Averted in "Back To School, Part One". Albert dresses in his Sunday clothes on his first day of school, in anticipation of meeting the new teacher, Miss Wilder. Then he gets a look at her.
Although, in the previous season's episode "The Sound of Children" Albert does get a crush on substitute teacher Miss Elliott.
Hollywood History: Although set in the 1870s (at the series' start in 1974), many of the stories reflect the values and morals of the 1970s and early 1980s. Michael Landon's hairstyle is clearly the thick, bushy style of the 1970s. Reverend Alden's usual preaching style and temperament reflects the changing, liberal views of the Bible that were coming into vogue in the 1970s, compared to the then-standard fire-and-brimstone style.
Hourglass Plot: Laura and Nellie to some extent. In the early seasons, Laura is a likable heroine but becomes less nice when she grows up and gets married (attacking a woman she believes is having an affair with her husband, constantly snipping at her students, picking fights with her husband). On the other hand, her Alpha Bitch rival Nellie mellows out considerably when she grows up and gets married.
Laura always had a short fuse and an attitude problem. She actually mellowed out as she got older.
I Am Not Pretty: Laura feels this way, especially in comparison to her sister Mary.
If I Were a Rich Man: When Laura thinks she's found gold, she dreams of her family being extremely rich. They are dressed in beautiful clothes, own every business in town, and live in a castle.
She can't resist adding a sulking Nellie Oleson and family glaring at her in sheer jealousy, all of them wearing dusty feed sacks and living in a ramshackle hut.
Improbable Hairstyle: This was filmed in the 1970s, you say? Michael Landon's massive perm is the most noticeable giveaway, but the longish, feathered 'dos on the younger men and boys sure don't help much.
Plus, Landon is always freshly shaven, even when he spends several days somewhere without a razor. The real Charles Ingalls wore a full beard.
Infant Immortality: This trope is averted with the show being true to the infant mortality rates of the harsh frontier. Several babies and children die on this show.
The Ingalls' first son, Charles Jr., dies of what seems to be leukemia before he even turns a year old.
Mary's infant son is killed during a fire at the blind school.
And she miscarried a year before that.
Laura and Almanzo's unnamed newborn son dies suddenly during the night after becoming ill a few days before. (It is believed that he was conceived too soon after his parents recovered from diphtheria causing his illness and death.)
Later the couple's hired handyman's infant dies and Laura and Almanzo attend the funeral. Laura later admits that the thing that really broke her heart was hearing the child's name being spoken due to never having the chance to name their own before he died. (The child's real life grave-marker reads Baby Son Wilder)
Laura and Mary's friend Ellen drowns while the three are swimming together.
It Will Never Catch On: Mrs. Oleson's view of a southern colonel's idea of opening a restaurant that only serves fried chicken.
Interesting in that the colonel was supposed to bring about the notion that this colonel was Colonel Sanders or at least that Mrs. Oleson was offered a chance to get in on the ground floor of a highly-successful restaurant idea, but she was too dumb/ignorant to realize it. Never mind that Colonel Sanders wasn't born until 1890 and that his idea only worked because of some clever marketing, a specific recipe, specific cooking techniques, and the fact that he could appeal to travelers who would otherwise not want to stop long enough to wait for chicken to cook (the cooking techniques took care of this problem).
"Too dumb/ignorant"?? Her outright refusal of the colonel's offer is very understandable given that she had just been released from an unreasonable contract with another operator of a chain of restaurants. Also, the colonel's "gimmick" is that only fried chicken will be served, and Mrs. Oleson's last venture was unsuccessful in part due to her customers wanting more variety than the three or four choices offered. If anything, the lesson of the day was more that having been "burned" by a bad experience can blind one to legitimate opportunities.
Also, at the time the books and series are set, the concept of "restaurant" wouldn't have applied in a community that size. Outside of big cities, restaurants fell into two primary categories: saloons and workingmen's diners, or the Harvey House chain of railroad-station eating houses. The concept of a family restaurant would not come along for several decades.
Rachel Brown also qualifies as this, since she marries Willie in the penultimate regular episode and was never seen before this.
Longest Pregnancy Ever: While most characters on the show announced their pregnancy and gave birth in the same episode, Laura's pregnancy lasted almost a year in real time. In "I Do Again", which aired in March 1981. she announces she's pregnant. She doesn't have her baby until a February 1982 episode.
Mandatory Line: Happened frequently due to the show having Loads and Loads of Characters. Supporting cast members and sometimes even the lead cast members would appear briefly in an episode where they served no real purpose, just to comment on the plot.
May-December Romance: There are two. The first is between Dr. Baker and Harriet's niece Kate Thurvald. The second is between Isaiah Edwards and Laura's friend Jane Canfield. Neither one ends well.
Mean Character, Nice Actor: Katherine "Scottie" MacGregor, who was easily the sweetest woman of all of the female leads, highly respected and beloved by all. Nothing at all like her haughty, mean, snobbish Mrs. Oleson character.
Misplaced Wildlife: Owing to its being filmed in California, the calls of the California Quail can often be heard. The show is set in Minnesota.
Missing Mom: The reason for why Nancy, the orphan with a severe behavior disorder who is adopted by the Olesons, is orphaned. However, Nancy's sob story explanation (she had loved her mother and couldn't figure out why she abandoned her) conflicts with the actual explanation: Her birth mother had died while giving birth to Nancy (today, the condition is known as preecclampsia); since a Disappeared Dad was also at play – authorities were unable to determine and/or track down her biological father (given that DNA testing was more than 100 years from being perfected) – she was sent to an orphanage. Eventually, Charles uncovers the truth and reveals it to both Laura and the Olesons, and it is Mrs. Oleson, the series anti-hero, who helps Nancy come to terms with the truth.
N-Word Privileges: The word "nigger" is used outright in at least three episodes, each dealing with racism. These include:
"The Wisdom Of Solomon," where a young African American boy named Solomon (played by a pre-Diff'rent Strokes Todd Bridges) remarks to his classmates what he hates about being black: "Being called a nigger."
"Blind Journey," a two-part episode depicting a journey students and staff of the School of the Blind take from Winoka to Mr. Hanson's old house near Walnut Grove; although Mrs. Oleson is revealed to be strongly bigoted with hints of racism (revealed in her disappointment over African American teacher's aide Hester Sue Terhune (1950s pop vocalist Ketty Lester) not being an elite social lady), even she never utters the n-word (in fact, Harriet has a change of heart during the trip and comes to view the black children in a positive light). This is left to racist farmer Judd Larabee (Don Barry, the former title hero in the "Red Ryder" westerns) when he sees the Ingalls and other Blind School folks treating Hester Sue as a friend.
"Barn Burner," where Larabee uses the epithet several times in an episode framed around African American farmer Joe Kagan (Moses Gunn, in a post-Good Times role). First, the farmers form a cooperative and on Charles Ingalls' persuasion invite Kagan, over Larabee's strong objections; later, when Larabee is accused of setting Jonathan Garvey's barn on fire and could hang for his crime, Kagan serves on the jury. Ironically, Kagan is the only one who believes Larabee is innocent, and manages to continue his arguments long enough for Garvey's son, Andy, to admit he left a lighted lantern too close to the barn. Larabee is acquitted and upon finding out that Kagan thought he was innocent, doesn't even thank him. (Larabee made his final appearance in this episode, as it is soon revealed that he dies not long afterward, his family having left him and the townspeople shunning him.)
No Accounting for Taste: Nels and Harriet Oleson argue constantly, and more than once, they've even separated, but the show makes clear on more than one occasion that it is a love match.
No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the episode "Harriet's Happenings", Sterling Murdoch, who runs a newspaper in Walnut Grove that prints malicious gossip, is a thinly veiled Rupert Murdoch. At the end of the episode, Charles publicly berates Sterling and Harriet for their actions. Michael Landon was very vocal about his dislike for tabloids and the stories printed about his personal life, hence the premise of this episode.
Nuclear Candle: In one episode, one of the girls is kidnapped and trapped in a pitch-black cellar; when her captor checks on her while holding a small candle, it's suddenly as if a spotlight was shining down.
Obfuscating Disability: Nellie Olson fakes paralysis after falling off a horse so her parents will give her presents and Laura will be her slave out of guilt.
Covered Up: Laura proves Nellie is faking it by rolling Nellie down a hill to a pond, which looks just like the rolling-down-a-hill scene in Mac and Me shot 15 years later. Guess which one got the Memetic Mutation?
In the episode "Family Tree", Albert tricks his biological father into letting the Ingalls adopt him by pretending to be blind.
In "Blind Man's Bluff" a boy injures himself and pretends to be blind to keep his parents from divorcing.
Inverted in "Dearest Albert, I'll Miss You" when Albert's pen pal, Leslie, hides the fact that she uses a wheelchair from Albert.
Obnoxious In-Laws: Harriet doesn't take it kindly that her daughter married a Jew, and Percival often enjoys snarking about Harriet's pompous personality.
In addition, big time between the Olesons and Percival's family. Though Harriet and Percival's mother get along better, the Jewish father not so much.
Series Fauxnale: The last episode of season four was intended to wrap things up, since Michael Landon and Co. didn't know if the show would return for season five. It's interesting that the fauxnale focused on Mary, instead of Laura, who is ostensibly the main character.
Shotgun Wedding: Inverted. Nellie Oleson and Luke Simms actually get a shotgun annulment, before they have a chance to consummate their marriage.
Sibling Team: Laura and Albert
Smoking Is Cool: Charles smokes a pipe in many episodes (Michael Landon was a real-life smoker).
Despite the apparent glamorization, Charles does discourage Albert from taking up the habit in a segment played for laughs (Albert is sitting by the fireplace, mimicking his adopted father). However, Albert does trying smoking a pipe again, with much more dire consequences; this comes in the 1980 episode "May We Make Them Proud," where Albert and a friend sneak into the basement of the School for the Blind to smoke, are shooed out and in haste, stuff a still-burning pipe in a box of towels. Later that night, the fire spreads to the upstairs, and ultimately traps and kills Alice Garvey (mother of Albert's best friend, Andy) and baby Adam Kendall (son of Mary and Adam Kendall).
Snowed-In: Several episodes, often set around Christmas, including 1976's "The Blizzard" and 1981's "A Christmas They Never Forgot." The former was moreso an effort by worried parents to find their children who were about to be lost in a fast-moving blizzard; the latter featured the family (along with their friend, Hester Sue) sitting around the table sharing Christmas memories. Laura's Christmas memory includes flashback clips from the original pilot movie, where they meet Mr. Edwards.
Spelling Bee: One of these happens during the episode "Harriet's Happenings"
Street Urchin: Albert, before the Ingalls take him back to Walnut Grove with them.
Sudden School Uniform: When Mrs. Oleson took over the school. Yes, she owned the only store in town that sold clothes. Or cloth, for that matter...
John Carter for Charles Ingalls. Not only does John move into Charles’ old house, but he also takes Charles place at the mill and on the town council. He also stands up to the greedy railroad builders much the way Charles would have.
Sweet Polly Oliver: In "Oleson Versus Oleson" Harriet disguises herself as a male ranch hand in order to spy on Nels and the other men at the mercantile, since the women in town have all moved into the hotel, leaving the men to take of the children and run the households themselves.
Small Name, Big Ego: Mrs. Oleson never really catches on that her pompous, arrogant behavior does not enhance, and in fact diminishes, her family's standing.
Television Geography: Note the title, taken directly from the book, with its reference to the lush, rolling grasslands characteristic of much of central North America. The TV series is specifically set about midway through the trek, in Minnesota. Anybody surprised that the onscreen scenery routinely featured Southern California-style mountains, trees, scrub-brush, chaparral, etc? Didn't think so.
You might find some people convinced the show took place in Kansas. This perception wasn't helped by the fact that the Wichita NBC station ran promos that stated the Ingalls were "Kansas' first family."
Trash the Set: The whole town was destroyed in the final movie as a final Take That to the tycoon who had bought it out from under the residents. In reality, Michael Landon didn't want the set to be reused, so the movie was written around the town's destruction.
Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: Nellie gives birth to twins, Jennifer and Benjamin. This is especially convenient, since she and her husband, Percival, thinking they were only having one child, agreed to raise the baby Jewish if he was a boy, and Christian if she was a girl, to appease Nellie's mother and Percival's father.
Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Charles and Caroline Ingalls never adopted sons. Their daughter Mary (who really did go blind) never married. (Visitors to the town cemetery to this day regularly mis-identify the grave of Charles and Caroline's son, dead in infancy, as that of Mary Ingalls's fictional baby.) And, a trivial little point, the town was never blown up.
Would Hurt a Child: Several episodes dealing with child abuse feature cutaways or adults punching a stunt double/mannequin/at the camera, with the child actor never taking any blows. One episode — "The Lost Ones" (featuring Jason Bateman in one of his first regular roles) — saw Bateman's character, James Cooper, beaten off-screen, although his screams as he took a whip were heard as his sister, Cassandra, cries. (James and Cassandra had been sent to live with a hard-drinking farmer, and James had been framed by the farmer's biological son for stealing.)
Written-In Infirmity: Alison Arngrim broke her arm right before filming of the episode "Bunny" was to begin. Since her character, Nellie, was injured in the episode anyway, the broken arm was incorporated into the script as an additional injury. Arngrim wore nineteenth-century style wrappings to cover her very real 1970s cast.
Averted in the episode "Be My Friend". Melissa Gilbert had broken her arm. Shawls and camera angles were used to hide the cast.
You Look Familiar: Matthew Laborteaux (who plays young Charles in flashbacks) later plays the Ingalls' adopted son, Albert.
Kyle Richards played Recurring Character Alicia Sanderson-Edwards and guest character Samantha Harper.
E.J. Andre played a whopping five different characters. He played Amos Thoms in "His Father's Son", Mathew Simms in "Going Home", Zachariah in "Gold Country", "St. Peter" in "The Godsister", and Jed Cooper in "The Lost Ones" and "Uncle Jed".
William Schallert played Snell in "Centennial" and Russell Harmon in "The Preacher Takes A Wife".
Katy Kurtzman played Anna in "The Music Box" and Young Caroline in "I Remember, I Remember".
Jack Ging played Marshall Anders in an early episode "Survival". He would later go on to play Willie Oleson's father-in-law in "May I Have This Dance".
Cletus Young played antagonist Harlan in both parts of "As Long As We're Together" and Cole Parker in "Goodbye, Mrs. Wilder"
Leslie Landon played the recurring role of Etta Plum (the town teacher after Laura) toward the end of the series, but also appeared in earlier seasons as Laura's fellow dishwasher Pam in "A Wiser Heart" and the pregnant woman riding in the ill-fated carriage with Mary in "The Third Miracle."