The "Golden Age of Television"-- the era of live dramas about topical events-- officially ended in 1961, when PLAYHOUSE 90 went off the air and director John Frankenheimer left for Hollywood.
By that time, almost all its great writers-- Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Robert Alan Aurthur, Arnold Schulman, J.P. Miller, Frank Gilroy, Abby Mann, Leslie Stevens, Paul Monash and William Gibson-- had left television for Broadway, books or Hollywood.
Writing for TV was an exhausting, infuriating occupation. Getting any meaningful idea from page to screen required endless fights with sponsors and censors. Rod Serling, who submitted a script based on the lynching of Emmitt Till, a 14-year old black in Mississippi, saw his victim transformed into an immigrant in New England. The sponsor even forbade residents to be seen drinking Coca-Cola, out of concern that it might suggest the South-- and racists might protest.
Two writers had the courage to remain in TV. Serling created THE TWILIGHT ZONE, so he could use allegory and allusion to disguise social comment (nobody protested scripts where Martians were lynched, he cracked).
Reginald Rose, who wrote "12 Angry Men" and "Thunder on Sycamore Street" simply challenged the industry head-on. THE DEFENDERS was based on his two-part STUDIO ONE script, where a father-son team of lawyers (Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner) defends a 19-year-old (Steve McQueen) charged with murder that he insists he did not commit.
In the series, E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed played defense attorneys committed to making sure every defendant gets his rights under the law.
Marshall's Lawrence Preston is very like his "Juror 4"-- careful, logical and impossible to move with appeals to emotion. Reed's Kenneth has a social conscience and burning desire to see what he considers justice done, even if it violates the letter of the law. (Some of the most effective scenes occur when two actors argue their convictions to each other.)
A shorthand description of an episode for contemporary audiences would be "Keith Olbermann's Law and Order". Every one of the 132 shows argued legal issues that are still hot-buttons today. Remember: in 1961, abortion and birth control were illegal. Segregation wasn't. The US was fighting in Vietnam. Falsely-accused Communists were still blacklisted.
But the Prestons defended a neo-nazi arrested for inciting the crowd to beat a protester. They defended a Dr. Kevorkian, civil rights demonstrators, abortionists, immigrants without citizenship, draft- dodgers, pornographers, atheists and road rage murderers. (The only thing I don't remember seeing was a homosexual.) As I remember, the Prestons lost more cases than they won. But they made sure everyone got his or her day in court and a full and fair hearing.
THE WIRE, DEADWOOD, MAD MEN, OZ, BREAKING BAD and THE SOPRANOS are all good shows. Put in the context of their eras, not one compares to what THE DEFENDERS achieved. It still has the power to enrage. Wingnuts I've sent to YouTube to watch it die of apoplexy when they hear unapologetic advocating for civil liberties (even though their side gets equal time).
THE DEFENDERS was a top-30 show when there were only three channels. It won 13 Emmies-- Best Drama three times, Marshall for Best Actor twice, four for best writing, three for best direction. The shows still hold up well. They're talky, some of their dramatic conventions, psychology and sociology has dated. But the ideas are timeless, the writing is stellar and the acting and directing is often stunning.
There's a reason both MAD MEN and BOSTON LEGAL paid tribute to THE DEFENDERS in an episode. It's an outrage that a full run of this groundbreaking show isn't available on DVD-- while that execrable impostor starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell already is.
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