All Quiet on the Western Front: Learning Relationship Building from ‘Bonanza’

Bonanza relationship building

Ben Cartwright Bonanza show Cartwright Family
In our hustle and bustle lifestyle, we often forget about the necessity of quiet and serenity. Without them, we can lose our imagination, our focus and our relationship skills.

Every week I go and visit with my 90-year-old great-uncle. He is not fond of ‘gadding about’ (as he would put it), preferring instead to spend his time watching television. In particular, he likes the show, Bonanza. Consequently, sometimes in lieu of conversation (with his hearing loss, talking tends to be difficult), we watch the show together.

Bonanza is a western show that ran for 14 seasons from 1959 to 1973. It centered on the Cartwright family (a widowed father and his three sons), who lived near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. In addition to the horrible acting and cheesy dialogue, I think what amazes me most about the show is how quiet it is. Although sometimes there is action (people do tend to get shot at and punched), a lot of the episode is spent in dialogue or relationship building. For example, in the last episode I saw (The Last Hunt for anyone who cares), Hoss and Little Joe, two of the main characters, spend a lot of time talking, hunting for food and caring for a Native American woman who was giving birth. Not a lot actually happened, but you really understood the relationship between the characters. It was calm.

Apparently I am not the only person who noticed this. Wikipedia noted that Bonanza was considered a very uncharacteristic western, as its storylines focused less on the typical shoot-em-up type of plots, and more on the Cartwrights, the relationships between them, their friends and neighbors, and social justice. People seemed to respond to this as, in 2002, Bonanza was listed as number 43 on “TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”

Contrast the quiet of Bonanza, though, with much of today’s television programming. On most shows, a lot happens. Crime is detected, things are invented or built, court cases are won, games are played, evil is destroyed, songs are sung and characters talk. A lot. Compared to the calmness of Bonanza, today’s television shows proceed at an almost frenetic pace. This is true of adult programming, but it is particularly true of children’s programming. Although I can think of a few wonderful exceptions, like Sesame Street, most kid’s shows are incredibly fast-paced. Just look at some of the top shows for kids, like SpongeBob SquarePants, Phineas and Ferb, iCarly, Victorious, Big Time Rush, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and you will see what I mean. Not a minute goes by where the scene doesn’t change or someone isn’t talking (and, to get really nitpicky, I would argue that even when they’re talking, they’re not saying much). Although all these shows depict relationships between the characters, there is very little quiet development, or even quiet at all.

People claim that the reason for the lack of quiet is that the shows need to keep kids’ attention and the world of today’s kids is a frenzied place. Of course, there is no denying that there is some legitimacy to that claim, but if we never seek to instill silence and serenity into our lives, we will never get it. In addition, I do not believe it is coincidental that so much of what I see as a psychologist these days is anxiety and difficulties with concentration.

Although television is just a medium, it does seem to be a barometer for where we are as a culture. And just like all those characters on television, where we seem to be is racing through our lives as fast as possible, rarely enjoying the now and focusing instead on what is to come. In other words, to our detriment, we are a future-oriented society rather than a present-oriented one.

How does such a hurried pace affect us? For one thing, it takes away our ability to focus. If you have to concentrate on something for a certain period of time, you learn how to maintain a high level of attention. If, however, you are never required to concentrate for more than a few seconds at a time (like you do not have to do with the current crop of televisions shows), then you quickly lose that ability and start getting bored. This is one reason why electronic games are so counterproductive for people with ADD.

And it isn’t just schoolwork where lack of focus is a problem. It also has to do with life, because we don’t know how to just be. For example, I can sit outside and do nothing for hours at a time. I can entertain myself by looking for shapes in the clouds, feeling the breeze on my face and watching birds, bugs and other animals as they go about their day. I enjoy letting my mind wander and being relaxed. It is a quiet experience, one that takes a willingness to concentrate and not be searching for the next adrenaline rush. I fear that a lot of people do not know how to have such an experience, and we as a culture are the poorer for the loss of this skill.

Another casualty of our fast-paced lifestyle is our relationships. Just as we see on our television shows, we often don’t take the time to really get to know each other. For example, in my last blog post, I used Glee as a vehicle for encouraging the tough parent-child conversations. However, in order for this to work, families actually have to talk for more than a few minutes at a time, and a lot of us seem to have trouble with that. What with all the homework, sports, and numerous extracurricular activities, many families barely have time to breathe, much less talk. When that happens, relationships suffer.

The Bonanza episode showed what the lost art of relationship building can look like. In the episode, Hoss and Little Joe were able to just be together. They teased, laughed, talked, and showed each other trust and caring. Their relationship deepened because they were able to work on it. Although it may be out there, I cannot think of a television show in which I see such relationship building occurring. That is not to say that current television characters do not grow; we just don’t see it.

Yet another problem with hurrying on by is that imagination gets left behind. If we are constantly shown things, and struggle just to keep up, there is little room to think on our own. This inability to leave anything to the imagination has long been an obstacle for television shows.

For instance, in her wonderful 1986 book, And So It Goes, journalist Linda Ellerbee talks about how no one in the news business writes ‘silence.’ Instead of letting pictures show the story and giving our imaginations room to work, we are just told (I won’t even get into how dangerous that is when it comes to politics). The same is true of television shows as well. However, there was at least one exception. In Hush, an incredible episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was a mind-expanding 27 minutes of silence. Because there were no words, our imaginations were inspired to ratchet up the horror and the viewing experience was greatly enhanced.

So, given the level of problems inherent in our super-fast television shows, is there anything to be done? We can always write to the producers of shows and ask that they slow things down, but I kind of doubt that it will have much impact. We can also support shows that are quieter. However, the main thing is that we occasionally turn off the television, shut down our lives, and allow ourselves the gift of silence and quiet community. Maybe, like Hoss and Little Joe, we can go camping and see how it is to just be. I’m willing to bet that we’d have just as good a time as they did.

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