In the four years of this blog’s existence I’ve written only about TV shows that have been a valued part of my life for decades. Until now.
I had certainly heard of The Defenders (1961-1965), starring E.G. Marshall as defense attorney Lawrence (Larry) Preston, and Robert Reed as his son and law practice partner, Kenneth Preston. Among classic TV aficionados it is revered as one of the medium’s finest legal dramas. But unlike better-known lawyer shows like Perry Mason it had been out of circulation for decades, so people like me could only hear from others how wonderful it was.
That changed when Shout! Factory made the startling decision to release the first season on DVD. Now the only question was whether this vaunted Emmy-winning series could actually validate more than 50 years of critical and popular admiration.
Here’s the short answer: Yes, it does.
Having just finished watching the show’s first 32 episodes, I have about 100 things I want to say. But you don’t have that kind of time and I’m not getting paid by the word (or at all), so a condensation will have to suffice.
This is a legal show but not a formulaic one. “The Trial of Jenny Scott” is set almost entirely in a courtroom, on Lawrence Preston’s cross-examination of one witness. In the next episode, “The Man With the Concrete Thumb,” there is just one brief court scene peripherally related to the main story.
Sometimes there’s no trial at all. Sometimes there’s a familiar premise and you’ll think you know how the rest of the story will play out – but then it gets there in the first 20 minutes and you’ll wonder where it’s going next. This 55 year-old show will surprise you, constantly and pleasantly.
Something else you get here that has practically disappeared from scripted television is substantive discussion. In “The Point Shaver” the Prestons return to Larry’s alma mater and offer to help when a college basketball player is suspected of taking money from a gambler. Larry and Ken meet with the Dean, and what follows is an in-depth exploration about the hazards of relying on athletics to pay for academics, and the pressures and temptations that face student-athletes – a debate that is still going on.
One last brief point about content: The Defenders exposes the fraudulent claim that stories about the dark side of humanity require graphic visual detail for sufficient impact. There are some very unsavory topics in these episodes, but they are handled effectively and without exploitation, in a way that satisfied 1960s broadcast standards. Today, good luck finding any network capable of such discernment.
The casting and performances complement the high standard of writing. E.G. Marshall: I’m sorry I never paid more attention to you. My awareness of him stemmed mainly from a few episodes of The Bold Ones: The Doctors, and when he kneeled before Zod in Superman II. His work here is a revelation.
Marshall deserved and won the Emmy for episodes like “The Search,” an exploration of the flaws of the legal system and capital punishment. Preston learns that a man he represented who was executed for a murder may have been innocent. He embarks on a quest to find out why it happened, tracking down former jurors and witnesses and confronting the prosecuting attorney. Marshall runs the gamut here – devastation, disgust, fury, and ultimately resignation with sometimes imperfect justice.
Now, Robert Reed – that took some adjusting on my part. This was my first acquaintance with him as Kenneth Preston, but I’ve lived with his portrayal of Mike Brady since I was in kindergarten. It’s odd seeing perhaps TV’s most iconic father, looking much the same as he does on The Brady Bunch, playing a son that still has lessons to learn. He’s wonderful in this, and now that I understand the quality of material he became accustomed to playing, it puts his recurring complaints about Brady scripts into a more reasonable perspective.
Confession: the first thing I did when I finished The Defenders was to rewatch “The Slumber Caper,” the Brady episode where Reed and Marshall are reunited for one scene.
Guest casts are also impressive: The first episode features Jack Klugman, Gene Hackman and Joan Hackett, and most movies don’t have casts as good as “The Attack”: Martin Sheen, Richard Kiley, Barbara Barrie, Nancy Marchand and Michael Constantine.
Out of 32 episodes there is only one clunker – “Gideon’s Follies” – but even that has Julie Newmar and Eva Gabor. Other than that there isn’t much to criticize. Yet those who know the show better than I insist that season one is the most inconsistent. They say the series really hit its creative stride with season two and maintained that level of excellence for the remainder of its run.
The question now is whether we’ll get to see it.
It's unfortunate that quality is not the most significant contributing factor as to whether a television series is made available on DVD. If that were the case, every season of The Defenders would have been out a decade or more ago. It’s even more frustrating when you consider how every crap movie ever made finds its way onto Amazon, while many of television’s best shows are still locked up in a studio vault, thanks to conversion costs and legal snafus.
There are already rumblings on some TV message boards that season one sales are good but not yet sufficient for Shout to move forward with the rest of the series. I’ve been through this frustration with them once already when they pulled the plug on Room 222. It’s easy to get indignant when they don’t finish what they start, but business is business.
It’s not my place to tell you how to spend your hard-earned money. And I know this will be a blind buy for almost everyone, but I cannot stress enough what a sure thing this show is to anyone who appreciates good writing, good acting, ambitious stories, and entertainment that actually expects viewers to have an IQ above double-digits.
Give The Defenders a try. You won't be disappointed.