One of my all-time favorite television shows is the prime-time soap opera, Knots Landing. As a matter of fact, one of my few claims to fame is that I never missed an episode during the series’s 13-year run, a fact that probably says a lot more about my social life than I care to examine. I loved Knots because it was about middle-class people, not the ultra-rich portrayed on Dallas (which Knots was spun off from) and Dynasty, but about people who I might live next door to…or at least in the same town. People I might run into at the grocery store or a PTA meeting. The characters on Knots weren’t as full blown and as over the top as they were on other prime-time soaps, and that is what made them so appealing and interesting.
Knots Landing centered around Seaview Circle, a cul de sac in southern California where the living is easy and the ocean is in view. Originally, the four primary couples living on Seaview Circle were Karen and Sid (Michele Lee and Don Murray) who played the only happily married duo in town; Val and Gary (Joan Van Ark and Ted Shackelford) as the troubled transplants from Texas; downtrodden Laura and social climber Richard (Constance McCashin and John Pleshette); and the newlyweds, Ginger and Kenny (Kim Lankford and James Houghton). Over the years the series ran the gamut of soap opera-type situations, from infidelity–especially ramped up as soon as Abby Cunningham (Donna Mills) moved into the cul-de-sac–to babies stolen at birth, with crooked politicians, blackmailers and psychopaths galore. With such A-list actors as Julie Harris and William Devane on board along with Albert Salmi, Alec Baldwin, and scores of others over the years, Knots Landing was a true gem among the nighttime soaps.
One of my favorite episodes of Knots was an early one that found Karen feeling neglected by husband Sid. A high school teacher was all too happy to start paying attention to Karen, tempting the lonely housewife to contemplate a cougar-type fling with the much younger man. Karen was pushed to the edge of unfaithfulness after Sid brought home a present for her—a box of pots and pans. The night before Karen had been presented with a single flower from her almost boy-toy, a flower that she carefully put into a small vase and left on the kitchen counter. After visiting her admirer and coming closerthanthis to hopping into bed with him, Karen realized that she couldn’t be unfaithful to her husband. “This isn’t who I am,” Karen explained as she put her clothes back on. The episode ended with Karen and Sid heading for their bedroom as the sunshine streaming through the kitchen window glinted off Sid’s gift of pots and pans while the flower drooped next to it. That, to me, is great television.
I once read that Knots Landing producers David Jacobs and Michael Filerman loosely patterned Knots Landing after Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and a 1950s potboiler called No Down Payment, so when I spotted No Down Payment on the Fox Movie Channel, I sat down to watch it.
Like Knots, No Down Payment is set in southern California, although in the late 1950s. The movie takes place in Sunrise Hills, a spot where, the billboards promise “A Place for Better Living.” For several young couples who move to Sunrise Hills, that promise doesn’t seem to be coming true. Barbara Rush (who is almost unrecognizable as a slightly plump, frumpy housewife and nothing at all like the chic Barbara Rush who shows up in Peyton Place a few years later) and Pat Hingle play a couple that had to be the template for Sid and Karen Fairgate of Knots Landing. Tony Randall and Sheree North play the Knots Landing Richard and Laura Avery counterparts. Randall is superb as Jerry Flagg, a used car salesman who can’t ever wrap his head around the fact that for him, Sunrise Estates might be the end of the road, while wife North wants nothing more than for her husband to realize that being average isn’t so terrible. The newest couple to the subdivision is played by Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens, young, in love and idealistic. Cameron Mitchell and Joanne Woodward are the least sympathetic couple in Sunrise Hills. Mitchell is a war veteran who dreams of being chief of police, while Woodward is his slatternly wife. Like the Ewings, Mitchell and Woodward are transplanted southerners. The last couple, Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens, are the Kenny and Ginger Ward of Sunrise Hills—newlyweds who are thrilled to be in their own home.
Like Knots Landing, No Down Payment focuses on each couple and looks beneath their happy suburban surface to find turmoil in almost every one of them. Racial discrimination, job dissatisfaction, alcoholism, rape—for a small community Sunrise Hills has more than its share of problems. Pat Hingle wonders what is wrong with the men in the community when he says, “If only we could figure out why we’re so afraid and what we’re afraid of—maybe then we’d have the answer to what’s the matter.”
I liked No Down Payment because it depicted a sudsy slice of life in the 1950s, showing how people and problems really don’t change much from decade to decade. Knots Landing 20 years later showed the same thing in the same deliciously soapy manner.
No Down Payment was directed by Martin Ritt and released in 1957.
Nell Musolf is a freelance writer from Minnesota. She has written for such publications as Family Fun, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and has a monthly humor column in the Mankato Magazine. She blogs at http://schuylersquaredailydrama.blogspot.com/ where she writes an (almost) daily “blog opera.”