I have to admit that I was as sad as everyone else as I watched the first 5-10 minutes of Part 1. Eliminating the Ingalls clan from the entire show for this 9th season (with the exception of Laura) was a strange move from Michael Landon, if not a risky one, and although most of the original audience wasn't pleased with the changes, I learned to appreciate this season for exactly what it was. With the new title of "Little House: A New Beginning", a handful of new characters, and plenty of old favorites that have been around since the start, I think Michael Landon had his own ideas on what this season could represent for longtime fans. Obviously, omitting Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their younger children is a disappointing loss, but the spirit of community took over this year, and personally, I liked how Laura, Almanzo, the Olesons, Mr. Edwards, and all the other Walnut Grove townies became an ensemble cast. Laura did, to some extent, catapult to "leading lady" stardom in the absence of her parents, but for the most part, none of the characters were bigger or more important than the others. I truly liked the positive vibe with the remaining characters, and because audiences felt comfortable with them as real and relatable people, the show managed to carry on just fine without the Ingalls family (and hey, at least we always have Seasons 1 through 8 to enjoy if we want a good "Charles and Caroline" fix).
Since Laura and Almanzo's daughter Rose was still only a baby at this point, and since the writers obviously didn't want to make an age jump with her (which seems strange, since they obviously never cared much about continuity before), the show needed a new, sweet young character to bring us back to the good old "Mary and Laura" days. A nearly perfect fit was found with Shannen Doherty, a renowned actress who was only 11 years old when Michael Landon cast her. Some liked her, and some hated her, but I happen to think that Jenny Wilder was an excellent addition to the fold, with her huge smile and effervescent personality. (Watching her here, you'd never be able to guess that Doherty became such a scandalous queen of the tabloids during her teen years.) This 2-part season opener introduced the character of Jenny with quite a bang, and although long-time viewers will have a thing or two to say about the way her father Royal's storyline was completely re-written for the sake of convenience, I don't find the need to dig it all up again here. It's all been mentioned before, and we can say whatever we want about it, but the point is that Michael Landon did what he felt was necessary to open up a new plot thread, and as the head of the entire "Little House" production, he had the authority to do whatever he wanted with the characters.
Some parts of this episode are very sweet and fun to watch with the whole family, but parents probably shouldn't share it with their children unless they want to have "the suicide talk" afterwards. Laura does do a good job of knocking some sense into Jenny at the end of the episode, and the final message is positive, but with the drawn-out drowning scene (complete with some very dramatic music in the background), younger children will have plenty of questions to ask about this. I wouldn't say that it's a completely inappropriate discussion to have with kids, but parents will want to be aware of these themes before they watch it together.
Overall, I liked this episode very much, and it's probably even one of my top 10 favorites in the whole series. I loved the new characters that were introduced, specifically the charming and likable Carter family, who moved into the Ingalls' little house on Plum Creek. And of course, the unforgettable Olesons stuck around this season, so if you enjoyed watching their crazy antics, this is a point in the show where they took a step up with their roles. Mr. Edwards remained a part of the town, as well, serving as a surrogate parent for Laura and a hilarious foil for all of Harriet Oleson's snide remarks. Again, these are characters we've come to love and grow comfortable with over the years, and even though the show took on a new tone without the Ingalls family, there was plenty to appreciate about the new direction taken. 9/10