As you would expect, the TV movie "Bonanza: The Return" (Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC, Channels 4, 36 and 39) commences with the ceremonial burning of a map of the Ponderosa.
If only it were the script.
Set back on the ranch in 1905, this oafish oater is a "next generation"-style saga--with a little Little Joe, a big Hoss Jr., etc.--in which the Cartwright offspring rescue Grandpa Ben's legacy from the evil clutches of encroaching modernism.
As the story begins, all the original principals have passed on, and Cartwright buddy Ben Johnson, as Bronc Evans, has become the estate's new patriarch. Johnson's a suitable replacement, but then in short order the kids show up: Little Joe's bickering Benj and Sara (Michael Landon Jr. and Emily Warfield), Adam's Aussie-accented son Adam Jr. (Alistair MacDougall), and the son who never knew Hoss but is still very hungry anyway, Josh (Brian Leckner).
Their adversary is Augustus Brandenburg (Dean Stockwell), a whoremonger and keeper of henchmen whose offer of $5 million for the acreage is rebuffed at great cost. Seems the industrialist wants the Ponderosa for purposes altogether environmentally incorrect: "You have a bad habit of buying up land to clear-cut the forests," the Cartwrights sulkingly rebuke him, only to be informed that he plans a path of controlled cutting and mandatory replanting. But coal-mining is really his game. Hey, at least they don't blame him for depleting the ozone layer.
The running time is filled out with a few superfluous flashbacks to the original series--in sepia tone--serving only as untimely reminders that it is possible for an ensemble cast to have chemistry. Sample: Ranch hand Jacob (Richard Roundtree) tells orphan Josh what a cutup his dad was, followed by several vintage '60s minutes of Hoss and Little Joe scuffling in the barn, followed by the erstwhile Shaft concluding, "Ha ha! See what I mean? Awwww, yeah!"
Awwww, no. The only time these Cartwright scions seem in their element is when they're having a hay fight. This "Bonanza" (so lazily scripted by Michael McGreevey, Tom Brinson and Landon Jr.) puts the ponderous back in Ponderosa.
Preceding the movie at 7 p.m. is an unpreviewed retrospective special, "Back to Bonanza."