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Television: RERUNS

A Not-So-Little Nightmare on the Prairie


Published: December 14, 2003, New York Times

Between Paris Hilton's exploits and the comedy/tragedy masks of MTV's "Rich Girls," it's been a big year for spoiled girl humiliation. But while these real-life spectacles may be diverting, none can hold a candle to the antics of TV rich girl Nellie Oleson, the sociopathic villainess of "Little House on the Prairie."

As played by the brilliantly scary Alison Arngrim (who went on to parody her character in a one-women show called "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch"), Nellie Oleson was motiveless malignity in petticoats, an expression of every little girl's darkest fantasies. With her sausage curls and pretty sneer, Nellie possessed only three basic modes: haughty, phony and insanely angry. In later years, the writers softened the character, giving her romance and compassion. But I choose to stick with the excellent early seasons, in which Nellie was a real demon doll blissful only when she was grinding some prairie innocent under her fancy heels.

The presence of such a little fascist may seem odd for "Little House on the Prairie," which has a reputation as a schmaltzy, family-friendly show. Yet beneath the show's wholesome Christian surface, it thrived on acts of bizarre cruelty. Certainly, Laura Ingalls Wilder's original series of semi-biographical books had their share of frontier suffering; and a forthcoming ABC miniseries promises to be faithful to the original's tales of sorrowful strength. But the TV series, which ran from 1974-1983, seemed to shove that tendency one notch further, providing gleeful dollops of tears and torture: regular viewers lost count of the terrifying fires, grizzly bear attacks, children dropped down holes, and emergency amputations not to mention disciplinary whippings and, in one particularly egregrious case, a harrowing rape committed by a man in a scary clown mask.

By comparison, Nellie's malicious acts were as sophisticated as the mind games from "Dangerous Liaisons." In "The Music Box" (The Hallmark Channel, Dec. 19, 11 a.m.), for example, Nellie concocts a Prairie Soho House before its time: a private club to show off her toys and exclude losers like Anna, an adorable blond, stuttering moppet new to town (and one of the thousands of characters who inhabited Plum Creek for an episode, never to be seen again.) Good-hearted Laura, famously played by Melissa Gilbert, is Anna's only friend. Angered by Nellie's elitism (and jealous of her riches), Laura swipes Nellie's prize music box. When Nellie catches her, the two engage in a scene of blackmail that plays like frontier noir, or possibly porn. "I'll do anything you say, anything!," Laura begs. Grinning psychotically, Nellie names her conditions: Laura must join her club and follow her orders forever.

Reduced to being Nellie's miserable slave girl, and forced to snub her stuttering friend, Laura suffers a series of sweaty guilt nightmares. In one, a judge bangs a gavel in her face; in another, she is hanged by a masked executioner in sausage curls. In the most baroque of these fantasy sequences, a starving, chained Laura literally grovels and begs as a jail warden hurls food scraps into her hair. Then a hooded Nellie appears to taunts her with a chicken leg, and Laura's two tormenters laugh on and on, in a demonic, tooth-flashing celebration that lasts a full minute and six seconds.

Of course, part of the fun of Nellie Oleson is that she never wins: like any good bogeyman, she is always ritually exorcised, and most often whipped. Nellie fans cherish the day Laura pushed her down a hill in a wheelchair, forcing her to rise up dripping and humiliated out of the lake, yowling like a demon cat. And in the last act of "The Music Box," Nellie as usual goes one step too far, forcing the angelic stutterer to recite "Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers," an act of such overt cruelty it causes Laura to crack and confess to the theft. (The look on Alison Arngrim's face as her tearful victim silently mouths the words is hilarious and chilling: she appears eerily at peace, her eyes wide with pleasure, her tiny mouth a slot of satisfaction.)

The last sign we see of Nellie is her fancy petticoats twitching upstairs, followed by her father, Nels, who reaches out and, in a close-up, grabs a leather belt from a hook on the wall. It's a cruel comeuppance right out of Pilgrim's Progress -- or possibly The National Enquirer.