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TV Westerns once ruled the primetime range, inspiring Jonathan Winters to joke at the time, "I like Westerns, I just don't like 15 of them in a row." The Big Valley came along near the end of the trail. Premiering in 1965, it ran for four seasons and earned an Emmy for "Miss Barbara Stanwyck," who stars as widowed matriarch Victoria Barkley. Her brood is a breed apart: Jarrod (Richard Long), the eldest son, who returns to the sprawling Barkley home in the San Joaquin Valley to practice law; excitable Nick (Peter Breck), who is in charge of the family enterprises, youngest son Eugene (Charles Briles), an inconsequential character who would ride off into the sunset by season two; and "shameful" and "spoiled" daughter Audra (Linda Evans), who, in the first episode, is a real kitten with a whip. As a family saga, The Big Valley is more Bonanza than Dallas with one groundbreaking, soap opera twist: the arrival of Heath (Lee Majors), the self-proclaimed "bastard son" of deceased community pillar Tom Barkley. This first season's most compelling dramatic arc is Heath's struggle to be accepted by his brothers (particularly the hot-headed Nick) and determination to stake his claim to "a name, heritage... what's mine." The Big Valley rounded up a stable of great character actors, several at the beginnings of their careers. The episode "By Force and Violence" alone offers Bruce Dern as an escaped convict whom Victoria compels at gunpoint to help rescue Heath, who is trapped under a disabled wagon, and L.Q. Jones and Harry (Dean) Stanton as the bounty hunters on his trail. Several of the episodes cover some of the same ground: an old family friend is revealed to be less than trustworthy; Audra falls for the wrong guy; someone's got a grudge against the Barkleys. One of the season's most memorable episodes is a tale of redemption, "The Guilt of Matt Bentell," in which the man the Barkleys have hired to oversee their logging operations is the former warden of an apparently Abu Ghraib-like Civil War prison where Heath was incarcerated. Now that network television has put Westerns out to pasture, fans of the series and Western buffs who wouldn't be caught dead in Deadwood can enjoy The Big Valley's more traditional pleasures, including breathtaking cinematography (no painted Ponderosa backdrops), great Western action (the fight scenes pack a real punch), and involving stories.

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FX2234092 Big Valley Season 1 DVD (1965/Barbara Stanwyck/Lee Majors/Linda Evans) $19.98