‘Peyton Place’ (Part 2): Soap conventions amp up this 2nd set of episodes

“This is the continuing story of Peyton Place….”

By Paul Mavis

A hard, driving winter has come to Peyton Place. And as the temperatures drop, and the snow covers the picturesque New England town, passions ignite as its citizens retreat to their warm, comfortable homes, seemingly secure in their cloaks of secrecy afforded by their shuttered windows and drawn curtains.

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Reviewer’s note: If you’re not familiar with Peyton Place, I recommend reading my review of Part I, here at Drunk TV, where I wrote extensively about the show’s dreamy, haunting aesthetics. It’s impossible to discuss Peyton Place in any kind of depth without revealing major plot spoilers, so please be advised of that in the following review.


Sensational news for fans of vintage television drama: Shout! Factory has announced plans to resume DVD releases of ABC’s 1960s superior soap opera, Peyton Place (and we here at Drunk TV—some of Shout!’s most ardent devotees—are anxiously awaiting those screener discs!). Peyton Place: Part Two, a five-disc, 33-episode collection, picks up right where Part One left off. Peyton Place, prime-time television’s first multi-night dramatic serial based loosely on the scandalous novel by Grace Metalious and its subsequent film adaptations, was unique – and I believe still holds the record – for being the only prime-time television drama to run continuously throughout its calendar years, without any reruns and without a summer break (exactly like its counterparts on the daytime “soap opera” schedules). So by my calculations, these 33 episodes span the air dates of Tuesday, January 5, 1965, to Thursday, April 22, 1965 (the series initially ran two nights a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays).

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In this very brief summary of the highlights of Peyton Place: Part Two, please remember that plot spoilers could be revealed—particularly if you haven’t seen the Part One episodes. Focusing less this go-around on various complicated romances per se and more on some snappy traditional soap opera plot machinations, Peyton Place: Part Two shifts focus away from young, searching Allison MacKenzie’s (Mia Farrow) relationship with rich, young searching Rodney Harrington (Ryan O’Neal), to that of her mother’s, Constance MacKenzie (Dorothy Malone), with returning ex-con, Elliot Carson (Tim O’Connor).


Elliot, convicted of killing his wife Elizabeth 18 years before, is out on parole (thanks in part to the efforts of Peyton Place Clarion newspaper editor, Matthew Swain, played by Warner Anderson) and back in Peyton Place, bent on clearing his name for a crime he didn’t commit. His return causes great anxiety within Constance, who fears his presence will unleash a secret she’s kept all these eighteen years, as well as causing a rift between Connie and Dr. Michael Rossi (Ed Nelson), the dreamboat physician and surgeon who’s newly arrived to Peyton Place.


As for Peyton Place’s recently departed denizen, newly-married and newly-separated Betty Anderson (Barbara Parkins), she’s left her husband Rodney and her mother Julie (Kasey Rogers) without any clue as to where she’s going to stay. Arriving in the big bad city of New York, Betty soon finds how cruel and inhospitable the “real” world is—particularly for small town girls with no formal training or job experience.

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Hooking up with new friend Sharon Purcell, it takes a few days for Betty to realize the life of a kept “party girl” isn’t anything she wants to be a part of, and she quickly hightails it back to Peyton Place just in time to see her father, George Anderson (Henry Beckman), lose it not once but twice as his fragile mental state completely collapses. But if the other staid neighbors of Peyton Place looked askance at wrong-side-of-the-tracks Betty and her annulled marriage to Rodney Harrington, that’s nothing compared to trouble caused by Peyton Place newcomer, Paul Hanley (Richard Evans).


Son of hardass, Puritanical pharmacist Calvin Hanley (Whit Bissell), Paul, now a college professor at Peyton U., has rejected his father’s philosophy in favor of morose existentialism…which fits in nicely with his own perverse need to play harmful head games with those he meets. Paul has one other connection to Peyton Place that will prove crucial to events in these episodes: as a twelve-year-old boy, he provided the evidence to convict Elliot of the murder of his sister, Elizabeth…evidence Paul now believes, was false. These and more stories churn behind the quaint tree-lined streets and Colonial facades of the tiny New England hamlet, Peyton Place.


SPOILERS ALERT!

In the last batch of Peyton Place episodes, there was a certain air of…reservation, if you will, in the execution of the more familiar soap opera conventions. Clearly the emphasis was more on the poetry of the language that described universal themes like obligation versus love; the pains of leaving one’s childhood behind for good; and the gradual, imperceptible fading away of youthful dreams and hopes as we age. The necessary requirements of zippy melodrama were of course honored, and several tense subplots got a good workout at the start of the series.


However, those conventional soap opera elements—murder, blackmail, everyone hiding a secret while threatening everyone else with exposing those secrets—are ramped up considerably in these next 33 Peyton Place episodes. The more melodramatic story lines are pushed front and center, and they’re engaged with a noticeable acceleration in pacing and performance that makes this second group of Peyton Place episodes quite speedy. The poetry isn’t lost, nor are the solid characterizations and the believable motivations that ultimately drive the action, but increasingly, the main purpose of the episodes seems to be moving the various sensationalized subplots along at a rapid clip.


The two standouts in this collection must be the intersecting subplots concerning new characters Elliot Carson and Paul Hanley—importantly, plots that may be thoroughly familiar to melodrama aficionados, but which are successful here because of the strange and sensitive quality of the writing, and the excellent performances. Tim O’Connor’s Elliot character provides a far more compelling match for Dorothy Malone’s restrained, sad emoting in comparison to the rather cool Dr. Rossi from Ed Nelson. It’s apparent that once O’Connor came on the scene, the producers backed off on the Rossi/Constance romance because it peters out with a whimper; Rossi good-naturedly agrees with Connie that he’s not ready for marriage, and faces the inevitable—he’s not in love with her; nor is she with him.


The pull of having a child together, along with the discovery of Elizabeth’s diary essentially clearing Elliot of her murder, forces Constance to admit that her feelings for her lover Elliot haven’t gone away, even after 18 years. O’Connor is quite persuasive as the quietly authoritative Elliot, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast is noticeable (he’s particularly good with Malone and with Farrow; they have a quiet, soft, lovely scene together—father and daughter, although she doesn’t know it yet—at the library they both love). With O’Connor’s craggy, lean face and that marvelous baritone voice, his beautifully timed pauses and gentle line readings make for a compelling romantic lead (not something I was expecting from O’Connor, whom I knew only from later supporting character roles).


The Paul Hanley character, essayed by Richard Evans, is a decidedly complex (and perhaps even sick) character introduced to the small town Peyton Place. Set up as some kind of intellectual rebel who “gagged” on his father’s intractable Puritanism, Paul’s mask of indifferent existentialism soon falls away to show a character who gets his kicks manipulating innocents (Allison) or unstables (George). He may seek revenge on the murderer of his sister, Elizabeth, and his motivations may be clouded by his own culpability in testifying against an innocent man, but eventually, the viewer comes to understand that Paul’s main motivation is sadism: as the marvelous new character, tavern-keeper Ada Jacks (Evelyn Scott) cagily remarks to Paul, “You’re still a mean little kid, telling tales and making excuses. You’re a pest.”


Paul tries to corrupt Allison’s innocence by shattering her illusions with bargain-basement liberal bromides: the “old absolutes” of good and evil, truth and falsehood, and right and wrong, are “fairy tales” to be ignored or better, actively destroyed through game-playing such as he’s doing with Allison (he even opens this tired intellectual gambit by showing Allison, gads…modern art). Rather amusingly, Paul’s existential blather, used as a cover for the more base motivations of his actions, is neatly countered by the one character who could, if he chose to give in to self-pity, possibly fit that existential mode: combat war hero and ex-con Elliot. When Paul tries to trick Elliot by sneeringly referring to him as an “optimist” (which, if Elliot agreed, would seemingly prove to Paul that Elliot is intellectually inferior, anticipating the best in life after enduring an unfaithful wife and 18 years in prison for something he didn’t do), Elliot smoothly takes the bait…and bests Paul’s pretensions with the truth: “I’ve lived with despair, and if you had any first-hand knowledge of despair, you’d know a man has to outgrow it or be destroyed. Despair is death. I found hope or I wouldn’t be here.” (in other words, navel-gazing, self-pitying existentialism—you listening, pretentious, college egghead millennials?—is juvenile bullshit trotted out by frauds and cowards who haven’t walked the walk…and grown up).


Paul’s machinations to get poor, mentally ill George to shoot Leslie Harrington for Elizabeth’s death, is the ultimate expression of this character’s supercilious, ridiculous credo: despair man’s circumstances to look superior, but when it comes to showing any kind of balls in getting a dirty job done, get some other poor slob to do it for you. I can’t wait to see where the writers take this fascinating, repellent character next in the series.

The producers are apparently wrapping up the George character, as well, with his complete mental breakdown seemingly permanent as he rocks back and forth on the floor of Leslie Harrington’s floor after having accidentally shot Elliot. It’s a shame he’s going away, because as I wrote in my earlier review, Henry Beckman is terrific as the confused, anguished, and yet repugnant George. There’s a great scene between Beckman and O’Connor as the two former friends and combat veterans discuss the war and their returns home to Peyton Place, where befuddled, confused George spells out the flip side of the popular 1960s TV cliché of the carefree, successful businessmen like Ward Cleaver and Jim Anderson: “When I got out and back to Peyton Place, I thought this place was my cookie. I spend eighteen years shadow-boxing…now, I’m all punched out. Everything is empty. Shadowy. Why? Can you answer me that!?”


Luckily for George, he never learns of the current fate of his daughter, who has a brush with prostitution and drug abuse in New York City, courtesy of her roommate, Sharon Purcell. A kept “party girl” who tells Betty to “get smart” about men and that, “sometimes a girl can go a long way on the right pill.” (that could be taken any number of ways). Fans of Valley of the Dolls (in my top five of any genre) will notice how similar these New York scenes are to the film, particularly the opening one that has Barbara Parkins going to an employment agency (although in Peyton Place, the end result is much more realistic: skill-less Betty is wearily told to go back home to her small town before NYC eats her alive—which it almost does).

I’m also enjoying Paul Langton’s outwardly smooth, inwardly scheming turn as Leslie Harrington, the series’ main “villain,” if you will. Langton is great at making each and every one of Leslie’s out-and-out lies seem entirely plausible (causing even the viewer to wonder if he’s being misjudged), until further pressure by someone else makes him give out just an inch more of the truth (right before Matt Swain writes an article about the shooting at Leslie’s, Leslie reminds him he was once his good friend, to which Matt responds, “Yes, I’ll remember that. I’ll also remember Lucifer was once an angel.”).


As for “truth” in Peyton Place, a potentially strong new character, Ada Jacks, played with knowing cynicism by Evelyn Scott, seems to be the one town citizen who serves it up without worrying what anyone else will think, such as this exchange with customer Elliot, who starts the conversation: “Things are a little slower.” “Oh, it’ll be jumping later when the good people take to their beds.” “Well, all of the solid citizens of Peyton Place are good people, aren’t they?” “That’s the ‘New England story’ if you want to believe it.” “You don’t?” “Are you kidding?” So much for those who think series like Peyton Place are hopelessly dated and naive.


ABC, which by 1964 still remained in a perpetual last-place showing with the bigger NBC and CBS networks (ABC still didn’t have the station clearance those two former radio behemoths had, necessarily impacting the reach of ABC shows to the public), had had a disastrous 1963-1964 season, with not one of its shows even cracking the top 15 slots on the Nielsen charts (The Donna Reed Show was their highest charter, at 16th). Compounding their problems, ABC made a serious error in moving their biggest hit of the 1962-1963 season, the medical drama Ben Casey (it charted 7th that season), against the number one and three rated shows in the country, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dick Van Dyke Show, both of which decimated Ben Casey‘s ratings (it was knocked out of the Top 30, never to return).

So the 1964-1965 season presented big problems for ABC to rebuild, and using the combined “stunts” of having a promised “lurid” adaptation of the notorious Peyton Place novel appear twice weekly proved irresistible to TV audiences. Airing on Tuesdays and Thursday nights at 9:30 (after the kiddies were in bed), Peyton Place benefited from some strong lead-ins and lead-outs, enabling both parts to crack the Top 20. Tuesday night’s episode was the lower rated (it hit 20th for the year), having heavyweight competition from CBS’s Petticoat Junction (which had been 4th the previous year, but which fell dramatically to 15th against interest in Peyton Place). Peyton Place‘s lead-out on Tuesday, the exploding The Fugitive (5th that year, its highest series rating), encouraged audiences to check out Peyton Place first, and keep the dial on ABC (before remotes, kids).

Thursday night’s installment of Peyton Place was even bigger—9th for the year—as its lead-in, brand-new Bewitched, pulled in massive ratings to make it the 2nd most watched show in the country. Peyton Place‘s direct competition on Thursdays was weak (CBS’s notorious flop, The Baileys of Balboa, and NBC’s fading-fast former hit, Hazel), creating a can’t-miss sense of anticipation for viewers who quickly became hooked on the show’s serial format. The ratings were so strong in fact, for Peyton Place, that ABC made the bold move of adding a third night later that summer…a move that proved disastrous for the series.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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