DVD review: ‘Peyton Place’ was ‘Twin Peaks’ before its time

An odd synchronicity is in the air. Just as Ryan O’Neal is seen as the love of Farrah Fawcett’s life as the ailing actress nears the end, and just after Mia Farrow stages a fast to draw notice to starving Sudanese refugees, both Farrow and O’Neal appear together, as their careers began, as a star-crossed couple in Peyton Place.

New on DVD from Shout! Factory, the ABC series’ first 31 episodes from 1964 reveal a still teen-aged Farrow — not long before she married Frank Sinatra — and an early-20s O’Neal as two youths in the quaint New England coastal town of Peyton Place, as modeled after a 1957 film and the original novel by Grace Metalious. Airing twice weekly at the time, Peyton Place was a quick hit for ABC, a network in need of credibility, and it stood out as the first prime-time soap opera.

Yes, the suds were flowing on this tawdry trailblazer, with unwanted pregnancy, illicit affairs and other secrets and scandals.

Of course, by today’s standards, many of those scandals were routine, including the series’ early love triangle involving rich boy Rodney Harrington (O’Neal), bookish “good” girl Allison MacKenzie (Farrow) and the fetching, grasping, lovestruck Betty Anderson (Barbara Perkins), who gave herself to Rodney over the summer and now finds herself with child. Or does she?

Others in the solid cast include Dorothy Malone as Allison’s mother, Constance, reportedly a widow but with a dark secret; Ed Nelson as the stalwart and moral new doctor in town, Michael Rossi, who has an eye for Constance; and Christopher Connelly as Rod’s younger, troubled brother, Norman Harrington.

Shot in So Cal, but using second-unit exteriors and strong sets to evoke a quaint New England village, the series boasted lovely theme music and a strong sense of atmospheric drama. Like most soaps, its narrative flows slowly, but considering it ran twice a week — not five times — it’s not too slow.

The young Farrow and O’Neal stayed with the show for two years — and I’m not calling them seasons, because Peyton Place had no summer hiatus, and no reruns. It simply ran nonstop, twice weekly, until veering to three times and then once weekly before ending in June of 1969.

In a way, the show’s setting and setup recall the initially sensational Twin Peaks of 1990, with a picturesque small town — charming and alluring on the surface, but disturbing underneath — in which one family tended to run things. Like Twin Peaks, Peyton Place was riddled with crises and misbehaviour, from impetuous teens to greedy middle-agers. And as David Lynch would love, Peyton Place — like Twin Peaks — was all about secrets, and those who either fail or succeed at keeping them.

I’ve screened almost the entire first set of 31 shows and can attest it’s a grabber and a keeper — an alluring serial which gets under your skin if you let it. And like Lost in its early stages, it does a fine job of unpeeling the onion to reveal characters’ back-stories, enticing even as it suggests and hides.

A relic? Maybe. An icon? Most definitely. Peyton Place went boldly where no prime-time show had gone before, and for that it deserves its place in television history.

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