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Family Values, or, Curse You, Michael Landon!
March 2004

Freaks and Fanatics

What with all the God-fearin’ that goes on out there on the prairie, it’s no surprise that some people get a little nutty with it. In fact, there are more religious fanatics around Walnut Grove than even the Hypocrite High School administration. My absolute favorite was Miss Peal (played by the unfortunately-named Anita Dangler), the freaky woman in the total backwoods shantytown (did you know that Walnut Grove is, apparently, right on the boarder of Appalachia?) where Mary takes her first teaching position. See, since Mary is young and blond and purty and gots book-learnin’ and talks about politics and wears pink dresses with ruffles around the neck, no one in the place trusts her, especially not Miss Peal, who inexplicably has a hold on the ultra-conservative-super-chauvinistic community. I can’t help cackling with glee when Miss Peal catches one of Mary’s students trying to steal a kiss, and of course blames nubile young Mary and starts shaking her fist at Mary and screeching, “Jezebel! Flauntin’ yer flesh in temptation’s raiment! You will burn! Oh yes! You will burn!” (It’s equally as funny when Mary shows up in church later and, when Miss Peal accuses her of smelling up the town with her sinnin’ ways, Mary snaps, “Soap! And! Water! The only odor I brought into this place was plain soap! And! Water!” See also: “Repeated Sentences.”)

But with the exception of Miss Peal and Keezia the Town Weirdo (for three shows, anyway), most of the freaks and fanatics in Little House Land are men… oppressive, patriarchal, abusive men. Like the various faith healers, or the traveling medicine guy who holds Matthew the Dumb Wild Boy hostage. But beyond that, there’s the interesting repeated motif of the Fanatical Father with the Post-Pubescent Daughter (offspring of a Whore Mother). There’s the “Be My Friend” bug-eyed pregnant girl’s father who doesn’t recognize that his daughter is pregnant or in labor, but thinks that she’s possessed by demons instead. The really fun part is when she has to rush out of the house on the pretext of getting water from the creek –  in a violent thunderstorm no less – and gives birth in the mud and cold and pouring rain. (What imagery! What symbolism!) Even Gimpy Olga’s Papa, all “God made Olga the way she is and we accept that,” smacks of Religious Fanaticism (so I guess we should be glad Pa saved Olga before puberty, or she never would’ve been able to Return from Witch Mountain because her Papa would’ve locked her in the barn to protect her from The World or something).

And, of course, there’s Sylvia’s father, the lord of all LHOTP Freaks, who thinks that his daughter’s developing breasts are a sign of impiety, and keeps calling her a “whore” and, when she’s raped by the town blacksmith in a clown mask (eyeeeew) and gets pregnant, says “You reap what you sow.” Because vaginas and breasts are basically links to Satan, and Sylvia brought it all on herself, the slut.

Of course, Sylvia was in love with Albert, so maybe she was a little nutty, too.

Hard Work on the Farm Cures Everything

Neglect, abuse, alcoholism, brain damage, old age… you name it, a week or two out on the farm will help it. Pa and the whole Ingalls family can rescue the bratty, spoiled little rich nephew of Mrs. Oleson’s by taking him in for a couple weeks to help out with farm chores. As the kid develops his first sore muscles and bloody blisters, so does he develop a strong character! Amen!

Farm work is particularly helpful in curing alcoholism/drug use: Mr. Edwards, Todd the previously mentioned drunk violent boy, Graham’s alcoholic father, Albert the Morphine Addict. Or if the mountain won’t come to Michael Landon, Pa’s got no qualms about moving in with a family and making them do the Restorative Farm Work right at home, like he did with the Graham’s Drunk Father. And once Pa finally leaves the prairie, the work ethic is so firmly entrenched in the soil itself that even Laura’s fake niece Jenny can be cured of brain damage when she almost drowns with the help of some old retired doctor/gardener dude (who, predictably, never shows up again after the Stuttering Brain Dead Jenny episode).

Hell, I’m surprised Pa didn’t put Mary to work chopping and cording wood to help her get over her blindness.

Hysterics, hysterics, hysterics!

If Pa’s likely to start bawling his curly-lock’d head off at getting a hug from Half-Pint, it should surprise no one that hardcore hysterics are a benchmark of all the townsfolk of Landonland. There’s the stuff one would expect major histrionics with, like when Pa gets the letter that his mother’s died, and starts blubbering “It’s my mama!” There’s the heart-tugging (*snicker*) moment when Dying Dillon/Dylan finally gets to the Pacific Ocean, and Pa, Laura and Albert all sob in tandem while Dillon /Dylan weakly stumbles to the water and holds his arms up in triumph (and later, Pa has even more Quiver Lip when “William Randolph Hearst” gives them money for train fare home). But c’mon… there’s over-the-top can-barely-get-the-words-out sobbing when, like, Mary reads Laura’s Braille birthday card, or when Laura shows Albert’s calf Fagan (Fagan!) at the local fair. Gads.

People tend to freak out easily in Walnut Grove, and if slapping is the supposed cure for hysterics, I can only surmise that everyone in town has had a couple backhands across the face to bring ‘em to their senses. For instance, when Albert goes off to find his Real Father, and is running all over the farm screaming “Mister Quinn! Mister Quinn! MISTER QUINN!” Or when Mary and Adam are in the stagecoach accident and Mary is all screaming “Driver! Driver! DRIVER! DRIVER!” My favorite, though, is the little blind girl who gets lost in a dust storm and Mary and Adam find her because she’s under a porch screaming “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!” and they crawl under the porch and the kid keeps screaming “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!” and Mary starts hugging her and crying and telling her she’s safe and the kid is STILL screaming “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!” and is clinging to Mary and sobbing and STILL KEEPS SCREAMING “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!”-

I would’ve shoved the brat back out in the dust storm to shut her up. Jiminy.

When Michael Landon isn’t Enough, God Lends a Hand

Obviously a guy who’ll later cast himself as an angel on earth has a pretty high regard for his abilities and his connections with the Big Guy upstairs. But even Pa falls short once and a while, and needs Heavenly Intervention to make things right. So Jonathan the is-he-or-isn’t-he-an-angel shows up when Laura runs away from home after baby Freddie dies, and helps reunite Laura with Pa. Praise Ernest Borgnine!

Prolly the worst atrocity of all is when James is accidentally shot and Pa… Pa… takes James up into the mountains, acting much like the Sylvia’s Father type of delusional religious fanatic, and builds and alter and puts James on it and… a bolt of lightning strikes it and heals James. For pity’s sake! That’s not “heartwarming” … that’s freakin’ DISTURBING!


Pa has the most annoying habit of calling every male youth in Walnut Grove “boy” as a term of endearment. Except, thankfully, for Solomon the Noble Negro Kid. Although, come to think of it, he prolly called Solomon “son.” Because Pa did that a lot, too.

Albert’s Upper Lip and Cassandra’s Twisty Face

Extreme Facial Contortions are annoying enough, but Matthew Laborteaux and Missy Francis have Bad Features on their side as well. First, there’s Albert’s prehensile hook of an upper lip, not unlike a black rhino, that makes his quavering and snurffling and crying particularly irksome. Of course, Albert doesn’t stand a chance, because I always hated him, even before I found out he was a big fat fake, but his upper lip seriously grossed me out for the better part of my childhood. How could he EAT with that thing hanging there?!

It's not just me, is it?

And then there’s Cassandra’s mouth, which is too long, like a jack-o-lantern cut up and gashed all wrong, and makes her look like she’s smiling and laughing hysterically when she’s actually crying. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Or both. Anyway, when her face crumples up and she starts fake-sobbing earnestly, it’s really grody.

Oh, quit sniveling!

In a similar vein, when little Shannen Doherty was playing Jenny Wilder, she had her share of squiffy-faced moments. My favorite was when her father dies of a heart attack, she proclaims, with her little wrinkly mouth, “I kiowed him! I kiowed him!” (see also “Repeated Sentences”) That kills- ahem, “kiows” me every time.

It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that all three actors grew up to be very attractive adults. Hell, even buck-toothed lil’ Melissa Gilbert is gorgeous. But that’s not what this here is all about, now, is it?


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