The Defenders was the great drama of the ’60s, but good luck seeing it today
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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
Nearly every decade of television has been proclaimed “TV’s Golden Age.” But the ’50s were the original golden age, a lost continent where the performing arts made up an important part of networks’ schedules (though not as large a part as the decade’s boosters would have you believe), and live anthology dramas told hard-hitting, compelling stories about contemporary issues. The ’70s were hailed as the decade that saved the sitcom from the silliness of the comedies from the decade prior, an era where TV finally engaged with the “real world” again and made audiences laugh. The same thing happened in the ’80s with drama, as shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere created a new kind of TV storytelling. (Prominent scholar Robert J. Thompson even wrote a book to that effect.) In the ’90s, the mix of new, edgy, and fun network shows with more traditional (but still good) series prompted Entertainment Weekly to proclaim the medium better than the movies (for the first, but not last time), and nearly everyone is aware of how the medium has been hailed since the breakout of The Sopranos in 1999.
Yet there’s one decade that doesn’t make the above list, and that’s odd because at least half of it can make a darn good case for itself as a time filled with great TV. The ’60s bore the brunt of anger over the fact that television wasn’t pursuing the ideals its boosters had set out for it in the medium’s early days. The “vast wasteland” quote made by FCC chairman Newton Minow came in 1961, and people often forget that he preceded his remarks about the medium’s problems with the thought that when television is good, “nothing is better.” Yet that was the prevailing sentiment in the ’60s, as TV production moved from New York to Los Angeles (and thus lost easy access to the country’s theatrical and performing-arts stars) and as the anthology dramas were pushed aside by gimmicky sitcoms and dramas with continuing characters, Westerns in particular. (Early TV critics had no greater villain to point to than the Western.)
Yet looking back at the primetime landscape when Minow made his remarks now reveals a world where television was still figuring out what it was capable of doing. To be sure, the latter half of the ’60s is filled with terrible shows—terrible shows that were often wildly popular. But the first half of the decade swims with series—popular and unpopular—that lead TV historian and blogger Stephen Bowie to call it a “Platinum Age,” a time when the best of the old way of doing things freely mixed with a new and growing way of doing things. The anthology dramas and live-audience sitcoms of the ’50s were still around, and many were still good. But they now freely mingled with newer shows that took advantage of many opportunities unique to TV, like an ability to form relationships with characters over time, or cinematic methods of filming. The list includes all-time classics like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show and The Twilight Zone, as well as lesser-seen curiosities like Route 66 and East Side/West Side.
And yet the most-acclaimed drama of the period is almost completely unavailable to audiences of the present, a series that has largely disappeared into the mists of time, despite winning multiple Emmys and ranking as a top-30 show in the Nielsens for its first two seasons.
The Defenders was the most directly political show in television history, and it managed this trick mostly without being didactic. The central characters, father-and-son lawyers Lawrence and Kenneth Preston (played by the indomitable E.G. Marshall and a young Robert Reed, respectively) took on cases that examined the health of the American republic in the Kennedy era, looking at issues that could have seemed tiny in scope but, instead, became important considerations of just how much elasticity the Constitution was meant to bear. Issues included everything from what constitutes pornography to civil rights questions to a woman’s right to an abortion, and though the show occasionally fell under protest, it was also wildly popular with both critics and audiences. Marshall won an Emmy, as did the show’s writers for all four seasons of its run. It ranked as highly as 18th in the Nielsens. It was very much a show of the moment.
The only episode of The Defenders most viewers will have access to is “The Iron Man,” a first-season episode entirely about how the Prestons take on a client they dislike, largely because they feel he should have the right to be an asshole. “The Iron Man,” of all episodes, has somehow found its way onto YouTube (the only episode from the show’s run to have done so, as far as I can tell). In most cases where a series has reached 100 episodes, it then runs for at least a decade in syndication, creating long memories and videotapes that plant the show in the memories of future generations. The Defenders, however, mostly disappeared. A few episodes exist at various broadcast museums, and around 30 are exchanged between fans on tape. It had a brief run in syndication (though the last time it popped up anywhere was in the ’70s on the Armed Forces Network, according to Bowie), and if you live in Madison, Wisconsin, and are a television scholar, you can check out the entirety of the run at the University of Wisconsin. But for the most part, “The Iron Man” is the only chance you’ll have to see this series.
Fortunately, “The Iron Man” is a fine example of The Defenders’ strengths and weaknesses. (It’s here that I should confess I’ve only seen a handful of episodes myself, having managed to track down a few over the years but nothing even close to an entire season.) The show’s certainty in the “rightness” of its New Frontier-era liberalism is at once its most appealing and its most irritating quality. The Prestons are the kinds of crusading liberal do-gooders that could easily be turned into horrific bloviators in the hands of a David E. Kelley (who created a Defenders-esque series in Boston Legal), and the end of the episode, in which the basic good sense and decency of the Prestons partially win over Jack Powers, the angry young man they’ve been defending, an angry young man who’s sworn off democracy in favor of fascism, is pretty hokey. (It also doesn’t help that the Prestons conclude that Powers fell off the deep end thanks to the death of his mother.)
Yet there’s a fantastic sense of immediacy to the proceedings. Certain TV writers are able to take the minutiae of the politics and law of the United States and turn that into riveting television. This was true of West Wing-era Aaron Sorkin, who used the series to give his viewers a weekly lesson in civics and government. The show mostly eschewed taking strong political stances—even on issues like the death penalty, it was careful to shade everything with complexity—but it was great at explaining how political sausage got made. The Defenders did that for questions of the law and justice. “The Iron Man” is less about the case at its center and more about the idea that living in a country with freedom of speech means you have to come up against ideas you’re not comfortable listening to. The series’ writers—led by creator Reginald Rose in the early going—excelled at the task of boiling these complicated ideas down into easily understandable discussions and debates.
Most TV series would stop there. Simply explaining the process is usually enough for TV, especially in the modern era, when we expect our series to let us make up our own minds on just about everything. But The Defenders took things a step further, and that makes it unique, even in this day and age. The Defenders actually advocated political positions, attempting to advance the liberal ideals of Rose and the other writers. (Rose was unique in that period for another reason: He frequently rewrote the scripts he received, a practice that has become normal over the decades since but was considered highly controversial at the time.) The most famous episode of the show is “The Benefactor,” which arrived at the end of season one with none of the show’s regular sponsors willing to sign on due to its controversial content: The show made such a full-throated defense of abortion rights that it’s difficult to imagine it getting on the air today on any network, even HBO. (The episode has become famous to modern audiences thanks to popping up in an episode of Mad Men, also entitled “The Benefactor.” For more information on it, Bowie has an excellent post dedicated solely to the episode.
During the ’60s, it was often expected that good TV would have some sort of social conscience (particularly the productions of famed TV impresario Herbert Brodkin, who got The Defenders on the air, then mostly kept the network off its back), but The Defenders managed the trick of combining that social conscience with a strong sense of advocacy, all while remaining compelling drama. It’s a trick few—if any—shows have managed since, but it was one The Defenders pulled off in episodes that often sound dry on the page. Bowie cites an early second-season episode named “Blood County” as one of his favorite episodes of television ever produced, and the basic description of it—a depiction of the struggle to fight for civil rights in the deep South portrayed allegorically as a tale of a hunter wrongly accused of murder—sounds tedious. But in the execution, Bowie says, the episode attains a thrilling heft, with a conclusion that echoes the struggles U.S. citizens were seeing on the news every night at that time.
The series resonates in another way with more modern drama series (and in a way that few network procedurals would even dare try nowadays): The characters would often lose cases and, indeed, take on quixotic cases that they knew would almost certainly lead to a loss. Said Bowie in an interview: “Remember when [CBS cop drama] Without A Trace debuted, how [producers] insisted that sometimes the missing persons wouldn’t get found (just like they often don’t in real life)? Well, that lasted for about half a season, and then every episode offered a conventional resolution. The Defenders bucked that wrap-it-up-neatly-in-50-minutes imperative more consistently than any network show in history. Some of the endings are as startling as a slap in the face.”
Take, for instance, a relentlessly downbeat season-two two-parter named “Madman,” which won the series its second writing Emmy. It’s the story of how a man’s rotten relationship with his mother colors the rest of his life, leading him to commit murder. At every turn, the Prestons are rebuffed in their attempts to win the man’s life back from the state, and the episodes conclude with a grim scene of the man being dragged to the electric chair after collapsing in tears when he sees his mother isn’t in the galley to watch him die. It’s dour, relentlessly sad, and a little bit remarkable. It’s the kind of episode that would have a hard time making it through network notes sessions in the present, but the combination of CBS head William Paley’s largesse, Brodkin’s clout, and Rose’s creative genius resulted in the heart-rending episode making it on the air in 1962, right in the middle of the period when television grew most ashamed of itself. The early ’60s are a period rarely studied by TV fans, but that’s worth reconsidering. The best programs of the era wouldn’t feel out of place on HBO or AMC and might have even been more daring than anything those networks air currently.
Next time: Happy Days