The live dramas and variety shows of the 1950s were so well-regarded that the era is still referred to as television’s “golden age,” but it wasn’t until the ’70s that cultural critics began to seriously advance the notion that TV could be as aesthetically satisfying as movies, theater, or literature. Among their examples? The anti-war dramedy M*A*S*H, Norman Lear’s socially engaged sitcoms, the suburban melodrama Family, and The Paper Chase. Based on John Jay Osborn Jr.’s autobiographical novel—and its 1973 big-screen adaptation—The Paper Chase followed a group of first-year law students as they dealt with impossible workloads, cutthroat competition, and the rigorous demands of a hard-ass contracts professor played by John Houseman. The show ran for one season on CBS in 1978-79, and though it subsequently moved to Showtime for three more award-winning seasons, its initial cancellation was regarded as a sign that the short-lived era of “quality TV” was over.
Was The Paper Chase really that good? Yes and no. The 22 episodes in the box set The Paper Chase: Season One may leave some wondering what all the fuss was about. As was often the case with the forward-thinking TV shows of the late ’70s, there’s a bit too much straining for quality in The Paper Chase. Because the era of open-ended, serialized prime-time drama was still a few years off, each Paper Chase episode introduced a crisis—usually conveyed via a student in Houseman’s class who’d never been seen before and would never be heard from again—and resolved it under an hour. The show dealt with affirmative action, academic dishonesty, sexual harassment, gambling addiction, and other issues-of-the-week, all by bouncing them off the blank-slate chief protagonist: a gawky, overeager farm boy played by James Stephens.
Yet while The Paper Chase today seems far more conventional than groundbreaking—right down to the gradual transformation of Houseman’s character from an unknowable force of nature to a cuddly, Lou Grant-style curmudgeon—it’s still every bit as engaging now as it was 30 years ago. Some of the fascinations are unintentional, related to watching people desperately try to reach classmates by phone in a pre-cell era, or locate case citations in a world without widespread Internet access. But just as often, The Paper Chase works as intended, revealing the difficult choices that face elite students preparing for powerful careers. In one of the best episodes, “The Apprentice,” Stephens accompanies Houseman to New York to argue a case, and can’t figure out whether he’s there to bear down and work hard, or to be shopped around as Houseman’s prize pony. The story wraps up by the closing credits and its repercussions are never felt in later episodes, but the way it leaves Stephens without any easy answers to his questions sounds a note of sublime ambiguity that would mark “The Apprentice” as quality TV even by the exacting standards of 2009.
Key features: None.