"The study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most
of you, unlike any other schooling you have ever known before. You
yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a
of mush and, if you survive, you'll leave thinking like a lawyer."
If you think that shows being cancelled before their time is
a recent trend, think again. There have
always been quality shows that didn't find an audience in time to avoid
network axe, and one of the most famous is The Paper Chase.
Based on a movie and novel by the same name,
this show garnered a lot of critical praise, but only lasted a single
CBS premiering back in 1978. It was also
the first TV show to be revived by a cable network (Showtime in this
where it ran for three more years, following the characters through
graduation. Never having appeared before
on DVD or video tape, Shout! Factory at long last brings this quality
the home video market.
James Hart (James Stephens) grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota, but
of following in his father's footsteps he wants to be a lawyer. Working hard, he earns a scholarship to a
very prestigious Eastern law school (that is intended to be Harvard,
named as such.) At school Hart finds
things very different from back home.
The course work is murderous and the classes intense. In order to keep up with the rigorous
schedule, Hart joins a study group of other first year students (called
formed by Franklin Ford III a somewhat pretentious student who comes
family of prestigious lawyers going all the way back to the civil war. Other members in the group are Bell, the
group's goofball who is studying law so he can take over his father's
estate business someday, Anderson, Hart's close friend, and Logan, a
student who is quite the activist and always wants to make every minor
into a political statement.
While they have a full load of classes, the one class
everyone dreads going to is Contract Law, taught by the tyrannical
Kingsfield. While Kingsfield runs his
class with military-like efficiency, he's also quite brilliant,
being consulted by members of the US Supreme Court and acknowledged as
world's authorities on contracts. To be
late to his class means being banished to the back of the room if
and "shrouded" or being considered dead for the rest of the semester if
Though Kingsfield is a god-like character to the 1-L's, Hart
finds himself attracted to the instructor's brilliant mind and sharp
intellect. He volunteers to outline the
class for the study group and tries to learn as much from the
This is a wonderful show and one of the first "intelligent"
programs on prime-time TV that didn't talk down to the audience (well,
much.) The trials (no pun intended) and
tribulations of the first year students are easy to relate to, even if
never attended Harvard Law. The premier
episode where Hart gets "shrouded" by Kingsfield is excellent; not only
of the problem Hart has to solve, but also because of the way he goes
it. When originally confronting
Kingsfield and requesting to be recognized in class, the young man goes
it in exactly the wrong way, offering up excuse after excuse to which
Kingsfield justifiably turns a deaf ear.
There were a lot of great episodes, and the best ones tended
to center around Kingsfield's class. Some of the standouts include the
father arrives on campus to recruit interns and is appalled by his
reaction in his contract law class. It
was interesting to see the normally easy-going Ford under pressure, and
understand that rich students with an inside track to the top have
problems too. The show where Bell decides that his unflattering picture on
seating chart is the reason he gets all the hard questions is a high point too.
One of the problems the show has however is a lack of
continuity. Back in the late 70's having
a story go on for more than a single episode (except for the infrequent
double-episode stories which were always hyped beyond belief) was
verboten. That means that new characters
have to be introduced and written out in one episode and that all the
lines have to draw to a conclusion before the ending credits roll. This really lessens the impact of some of the
episodes. For example in one program a
woman walks into Harts room at the very beginning while he's sleeping
kisses him awake. My first thought was
that they had the shows out of order because Hart didn't have a girl
the previous episode, but that wasn't the case.
The conflict in that episode between Hart and the girl would
much more intense and dramatic had viewers been able to see them meet,
dating, and fall in love. As it was the
early morning kiss was short hand for "these people have been dating
while." That's not really the creator's
it was just the mindset at the time. ("What
if someone misses one episode in a show with continuity?
They'll stop watching all together!")
The acting is excellent all around. James
Stephens does an excellent job as Hart. Though
people will be eternally arguing who
is better, Stephens or Timothy Bottoms who played the role in the
released film, I prefer Stephens just because we get to see more of him
the series. He manages to make Hart
but realistically overwhelmed by the work he has to do.
The star of the program is undoubtedly the late John
Houseman who reprises his Academy Award winning role as Charles W.
Jr. He's very stern, demanding, and
intimidating but ultimately fair. There
are glimpses behind his imperious exterior over the course of the show
makes him seem human without ever really coming down to the level of us
mortals. He does a wonderful job, and
never have to wonder why Hart admires the professor so much.
The 22 one-hour episodes that make up the first season come
on six DVDs. These are housed in double
thinpak cases which in turn are stored in an illustrated slipcase.
Unfortunately the full frame color image leaves a bit to be
desired. Originally airing in 1978, the
picture looks like it comes from nice unrestored prints.
The colors are a bit faded, there are
scratches and occasional spots, and the image is generally on the soft
side. This doesn't mean the shows look
they don't. They just look old, which
The audio is comparable with the video quality. The
mono soundtrack has seen better days with
a few episodes having a problem with distortion in the louder parts. Even those shows that don't distort have a
rather soft sound and aren't as crisp and clear as they should be. Luckily this doesn't ruin the show as the
dialog is easy to make out and the conversations are never too muddled
There aren't any extras included with this set. It
would have been nice to hear a commentary
track with the main characters reminiscing about the show, but alas
It's a pity that this show has not been restored, because it
certainly deserves it. This program
about the difficulties faced by a Midwestern farm boy when he's thrown
is surprisingly intelligent and warm. With
a top notch ensemble cast, this set comes with a very strong recommendation.