The first half of the first season of Peyton Place will be released on DVD on May 19th (the rest of the season will be released later this year). Apart from the fame of the individual cast members — it made major stars out of Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow, and a second-tier star out of Barbara Parkins — this is a very important show historically, one of the key shows in the development of the U.S. prime-time drama.
It was not the first prime-time soap opera anywhere; ABC’s decision to make a serial out of Grace Metalious’s novel (and the successful film based on that novel, though the TV series departs radically from both) may have been a nod to the success of Coronation Street in England. But it was a major departure for American television to do a prime-time show where the episodes had no beginning, middle or end, where closure didn’t exist. There was a strict division between prime-time dramas and soaps, with prime-time dramas occupying a higher place because (not even though: because) they never had continuing storylines and treated each episode as a miniature movie.
Introducing soap elements into American prime time produced a show that moved more slowly than most, because the stories didn’t have to barrel forward toward resolution, and if it hadn’t been handled right, it could have frustrated viewers. It definitely frustrated some critics. The review of the show by the Associated Press TV critic, Cynthia Lowry, is a good summary of why U.S. TV has been historically reluctant to do serialization:
The daring, however, is not in the subject matter nor in the format, which is good, gray soap. It is the fact that “Peyton Place” must have a completely faithful audience to survive — and the night-time television audience is notoriously fickle.
…The soap opera pace — leisurely and slow — is unusual in evening television, whose shows usually move right into the plot, tell it fast and wind up before the last commercial. In “Peyton Place,” the characters amble along by way of long, introspective conversations and meaningful looks.
“Peyton Place” follows the daytime form faithfully. It is an almost completely static show.
That’s all accurate, but Peyton Place was a gigantic hit for its first season, and the format helped make it a hit: for the first time in U.S. TV, people actually argued over what would happen to the characters on a prime-time show, instead of just recapping what had happened. It created an extra sense of viewer involvement, making viewers feel active rather than passive; serialization has its disadvantages, but that sense of involvement is its greatest strength.
The show might have been a bigger hit had it not been for ABC getting greedy (not for the last time) and trying to over-exploit a new hit: they soon expanded the show from two nights a week to three, over-exposing it and putting too much strain on the writers. That and the departure of Mia Farrow after the second season helped kill its popularity, though it hung on for a respectable five-season run. In this, too, it was an ancestor of many modern serial dramas, which start out like gangbusters and then burn out real quick.
Also, this is one of many ’60s shows that looked a lot better in black-and-white than in later seasons when it switched to colour; the black-and-white photography gave it a classier look, and the early episodes have fewer extreme close-ups and more interesting camera angles (there’s one big scene between Parkins and O’Neal, where she reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby, that is done entirely in one uninterrupted take).
The creator and executive producer of the TV version was Paul Monash, who had quite a career. As a writer, he did many episodes of early live television dramas (including several Playhouse 90 episodes), and the great crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which the Criterion Collection will be releasing later this year. As a producer, his credits included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Carrie. He understood that there was a certain bias against the concept of “soap opera” and sought, in interviews at the time, to re-define the format in more respectable terms:
We hope that each episode will be enjoyable to watch in itself — you can come into the middle of a movie and still enjoy the movie — yet with a continuity of storyline. I’m always asked if this is soap opera and I really can’t define soap opera. I doggedly prefer to call it a serial drama or a continuing drama.
One of the ways he took the curse off the premise, and the concept of the prime-time serial, was to call it “The continuing story of Peyton Place” in the intro and the recaps. That is one of my favourite taglines/announcements, because in two words it manages to tell the audience exactly what to expect and what not to expect (don’t expect closure; expect a continuation of what’s happened before).
In his 1964 interview with Terry Turner of the Chicago Daily News Service, Monash also had something to say about a TV serial’s approach to characters and storytelling (and the question of whether they have everything planned out in advance), which is still relevant today:
Were I to be asked in two weeks which directions Peyton Place is going, I’d have a completely different set of answers. We see a performer, for instance, who comes across very strong on the screen, and we go to work to build up this role. We see a situation developing and we take it on, as if it were writing and developing itself, with a life of its own.
Like the other Fox properties released recently, this has very variable print quality, and a few prints that appear to be cut, though not as many as with Rhoda. (Most episodes run 25 minutes or so, but some run about 23 minutes, which is too short for a prime-time show of the era, and suggests that they’re from early syndication prints back when syndicated episdoes were longer than they are now. The 23-minute episodes tend to be the ones with lower print quality.)