The Paper Chase: Season One
Shout Factory // G // $49.99 // April 7, 2009
Review by John Sinnott | posted March 22, 2009
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"The study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most of you, unlike any other schooling you have ever known before. You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, you'll leave thinking like a lawyer." -Prof. Kingsfield.

The Series:
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 the 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 season on CBS premiering back in 1978.  It was also the first TV show to be revived by a cable network (Showtime in this case) 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 show to the home video market.

James Hart (James Stephens) grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota, but instead 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, but never 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 1-L's) formed by Franklin Ford III a somewhat pretentious student who comes from a 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 vast real estate business someday, Anderson, Hart's close friend, and Logan, a female student who is quite the activist and always wants to make every minor slight 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 Professor Kingsfield.  While Kingsfield runs his class with military-like efficiency, he's also quite brilliant, frequently being consulted by members of the US Supreme Court and acknowledged as the world's authorities on contracts.  To be late to his class means being banished to the back of the room if you're lucky, and "shrouded" or being considered dead for the rest of the semester if you're not.  

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 near-dictator as he can.
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, not too much.)  The trials (no pun intended) and tribulations of the first year students are easy to relate to, even if you've never attended Harvard Law.  The premier episode where Hart gets "shrouded" by Kingsfield is excellent; not only because of the problem Hart has to solve, but also because of the way he goes about it.  When originally confronting Kingsfield and requesting to be recognized in class, the young man goes about 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 story where Franklin's father arrives on campus to recruit interns and is appalled by his son's reaction in his contract law class.   It was interesting to see the normally easy-going Ford under pressure, and to understand that rich students with an inside track to the top have sever problems too.  The show where Bell decides that his unflattering picture on Kingsfield's 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 strictly verboten.  That means that new characters have to be introduced and written out in one episode and that all the story 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 and kisses him awake.  My first thought was that they had the shows out of order because Hart didn't have a girl friend in the previous episode, but that wasn't the case.  The conflict in that episode between Hart and the girl would have been much more intense and dramatic had viewers been able to see them meet, start dating, and fall in love.  As it was the early morning kiss was short hand for "these people have been dating for a while."  That's not really the creator's fault; 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 theatrically released film, I prefer Stephens just because we get to see more of him through the series.  He manages to make Hart intelligent 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. Kingsfield Jr.  He's very stern, demanding, and incredibly intimidating but ultimately fair.  There are glimpses behind his imperious exterior over the course of the show and that makes him seem human without ever really coming down to the level of us mere mortals.  He does a wonderful job, and viewers never have to wonder why Hart admires the professor so much.
The DVD:


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 horrible, they don't.  They just look old, which they are.
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 to discern.
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 there isn't one.
Final Thoughts:
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 into a prestigious Northeastern Law School is surprisingly intelligent and warm.  With a top notch ensemble cast, this set comes with a very strong recommendation.

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