The TV series Little House on the Prairie turned 40 this year. Some might date its debut to the airing of its pilot (a made-for-TV movie) in March of 1974, but the first regular airing of the show, which would run nine seasons, came on Sept. 11, 1974. The show was a massive hit for NBC, at a time when the network was in need of hits; even by the time it was canceled, it had yet to fall out of the Nielsen top 30. Based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels, it was one part coming-of-age series, one part small-town show, and one part Western in the vein of something like Gunsmoke.
It was also, particularly as it got older, completely bugnuts.
The books Little House was based on weren't terribly easy to adapt for television at the time — particularly since its protagonists, the Ingalls, were always moving around. The series took a few incidents and ideas from Wilder's writing, but for the most part, it started constructing its own world more indebted to ‘70s and ‘80s TV drama than anything else.
And it loved melodrama. Loved it. It never missed an opportunity to tell a story that involved as much weeping and misery as it could muster. And as it got older, that love of melodrama combined with the general lack of stories any TV show faces in its old age — and the show just completely lost its mind.
Here are nine episodes of Little House that will remind you what a whacked-out masterpiece this could be, and display just how frequently TV shows used to run out of plotlines about three seasons in.
1) "As Long As We're Together" (season five, episodes one and two)
Were there crazy episodes on this show prior to the season five premiere? Sure. But this two-parter — in which the vast majority of the show's characters just up and move to a new town, because why not? — is where things started to spin off their axis. Yeah, pioneers would occasionally follow the gossip of those they had once known to new towns. But rarely did they do so in what amounted to late '70s caravan road trips. Even odder: everybody would be back in the show's more familiar setting of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, within a few episodes.
2) "The Odyssey" (season five, episode 24)
Episodes where the characters took incredibly unrealistic road trips, like they were the Brady Bunch or something, were surprisingly common. In this one, Laura helps a dying boy fulfill his wish of seeing the ocean by hopping a train. Along the way, she receives some help from William Randolph Hearst.
3) "Annabelle" (season six, episode five)
Another thing that was always happening on this show: the circus coming to town. In this one, Nels Oleson goes to the circus, only to find out the morbidly obese sister he's always been ashamed of is its fat lady. It has a reasonably sweet conclusion (and plays into the show's general calls for tolerance), but it's hard to imagine what writers' room discussion possibly led to this storyline.
4) "The Halloween Dream" (season six, episode seven)
Little House did a surprising number of horror-themed episodes, particularly ones where somebody dresses up like a monster, as though they were a cut-rate Scooby Doo villain. But this one — which involves young Albert dreaming he's somehow confused for an Indian — takes the cake, both for sheer oddity of its existence and utter lack of racial sensitivity.
5) "Sylvia" (season seven, episodes 17 and 18)
This is the one that seems have left psychological scars on most Little House fans. The series' star Michael Landon had long written and directed many of its episodes, and it's evident he wanted this one to be a serious discussion of sexual assault. But by putting the rapist in a creepy mime mask and masking his identity, Landon inadvertently created a Little House slasher movie homage.
6) "He Was Only Twelve" (season eight, episodes 21 and 22)
Little House was both obsessed with the Judeo-Christian notion of God and with orphans. Ma and Pa Ingalls took in more and more of them over the years, as their girls aged out of being cute, telegenic children. In this one, a young boy who's been living with the Ingalls is accidentally shot in a bank robbery, and then Pa takes him out into the woods to place him on an altar and demand God heal him. Even weirder: this was Landon's last episode on the series as a regular.
7) "The Wild Boy" (season nine, episodes six and seven)
There's a boy who's been imprisoned in a cage and is brought to Walnut Grove by a peddler selling magical elixirs? Sure. That sounds like two full episodes of this show.
8) "For the Love of Blanche" (season nine, episode 19)
One of the last episodes ever to air, this one features Mr. Edwards, gregarious pal of the Ingalls clan, agreeing to take in a baby — only to learn that baby is an orangutan. Presumably, this happened all the time in late-1800s Minnesota. Or someone on the writing staff had just seen Every Which Way But Loose.
9) Little House: The Last Farewell (special five)
The greatest thing Little House ever did was end its run with a two-hour, made-for-TV movie (the last of a handful of specials produced after the show's cancellation) that concluded with the residents of Walnut Grove blowing up their town with dynamite, rather than let an unscrupulous developer get hold of their homes and buildings. Because now, presumably, he can't build anything else on the land? It seems they didn't really think this one through. (And NBC didn't either, actually airing this special second to last in the series run.)
Much has been gained from TV shows having shorter runs — on both a season and series level — but we've also lost the days when those shows just needed to fill out their episode orders with any old thing they could think of. And, look, that's great and all, but isn't a little part of you sad we'll never get an episode of Mad Men where Don Draper has to care for an orangutan?