My Favorites: Bonanza

Like many before me, I grew up on reruns of this classic western. The show lasted for fourteen seasons—from 1959 to 1973—during which it depicted the often-heroic exploits of the rich, ranching family of the Ponderosa, headed by patriarch and three-time widower Ben Cartwright and his three sons, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe (later the series added on ranch-hand Candy Canaday and adoptive son, Jamie Hunter-Cartwright to increase viewership). Barring some first-season aggression, the Cartwrights soon came to embody the best of the Old West, namely the hospitality and progressiveness of good men in the pre-Civil War era.

Ben is the definition of a self-made man, turning from sailor to settler in a bid to establish a mutual relationship of give-and-take with the land he came to love in the Nevada territory. His eldest son, Adam, represents the coolness and confidence of a stern, learned mind; he was the only one to attend college and eventually disappeared from the show after six seasons to go to sea and beyond (as Adam’s actor, Pernell Roberts, wanted off the show). Middle brother Hoss is big and benign, a good-natured animal-lover who was absent from the show’s final season due to actor Dan Blocker’s untimely death; the show literally could not survive without its heart. Joe evokes the sharpness and vivacity of youth all the while being a “daddy’s boy”—as a “mama’s girl” myself I can relate to the warmth and vulnerability one reserves only for one’s same-sex parent, and it makes Joe all the more endearing (not that he needed help in appearing endearing, especially to the ladies…).

There’s really only one reason I love Bonanza. It’s not for the action and it’s darn sure not for the time period (keep your expectations for dynamic female characters low even though there are a couple here and there, eh), it’s because I love the characters; I admire their courage and their compassion, their cleverness and their work ethic, but to delve deeper into the family dynamics and why I love the characters requires me, for one, to mention how much I love the relationship between them, particularly that of Hoss and Little Joe.

Though six years apart the duo is very close, often entangling one another in crime-prevention schemes or outlandish ways to make money or claim livestock. They tease and test each other at the same time they’re so ardently protective over one another, with Hoss looking out for Little Joe especially. Hoss instinctively knows when to give Joe space, when to shut him down, when to let him go and when to move him along and away from swindlers, brutes and “loose” women, my goodness. There’s just something that touches me about the “protective big brother” archetype even though I know nothing of sibling dynamics, having been raised as an only child. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because on this show it’s done a couple of different ways. While Adam often proves protective of both Hoss and Joe, he goes about his mentoring with rigid rationality whereas Hoss and Joe put a different kind of feel into it. They both wear their hearts on their sleeves and share an unabashed bond of mutual care, and it’s beautiful to see, especially when the atmosphere is so rough and other men are so ruthless.

To me these characters epitomize what love between men should look like. There should be passion, there should be humor, there should be expression, even fight, and there should be respect and a will to compromise. That’s what a good man is to me, and I would love to be able to create with my writing bonds featuring the kind of love and strength they portray in each episode. I fear that I won’t be able to, though, because I don’t have a lot of experience being around men. Sure, I had a grandpa who loved me, excellent teachers, coaches and role models in high school and I have close male friends, but that doesn’t mean I understand a homosocial atmosphere. Or maybe I should treat my male characters less like “this is what a man should or shouldn’t be” and more like “here’s a three-dimensional character with this type of personality and this type of story—stop genderizing and tell it.” Hmm.

But in case I need a base for my idea of a man’s man, I’ll always have Bonanza to turn to, thankfully, ’cause I’m gettin’ this series on DVD, woot!

Which classics move you? Why? Feel free to leave a comment below if you’d like to share. Thanks!

-BP

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