The Defenders was American television's seminal legal drama, and perhaps the most socially-conscious series the medium has ever seen. The series boasted a direct lineage to the age of live television drama, but also possessed a concern for topical issues and a penchant for social comment that were singularly resonant with New Frontier liberalism. With its contemporary premise and its serious tone, The Defenders established the model for a spate of social-issue programs that followed in the early sixties, marking a trend toward dramatic shows centered on non-violent, professional "heroes" (doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians).
The series had its origins in a 1957 Studio One production entitled "The Defender," written by Reginald Rose, one of the most prominent writers from the age of live anthology dramas. Having collaborated with Rose on the original two-part "Defender" teleplay and other productions, veteran anthology producer Herbert Brodkin teamed again with the writer to oversee the series. Brodkin and Rose were able to attract a large number of anthology alumni as writers for the series, including Ernest Kinoy, David Shaw, Adrian Spies, and Alvin Boretz. Although Rose authored only eleven of The Defenders' 130 episodes, Brodkin, the cast, and the writing staff always acknowledged that Rose, as senior story editor, put his own indelible stamp on the show. The Defenders' creators went against the overwhelming tide of Hollywood-based programs, following the tradition of the live anthologies--and the more recent police drama Naked City--by mounting their show in New York. Although The Defenders was primarily a studio-bound operation, with minimal location shooting, its success proved to be a key contributor to a small renaissance in New York-based production in the early 1960s.
The series concerned the cases of a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall), the sharp veteran litigator, and his green and idealistic son Kenneth (Robert Reed). (Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner had originated the roles of "Walter and Kenneth Pearson" in the Studio One production.) During the show's four years on the air, Ken Preston became more seasoned in the courtroom, but for the most part character development took second place to explorations of the legal process and contemporary social issues.
As Rose pointed out a 1964 article, "the law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake. We were never interested in producing a 'who-done-it' which simply happened to be resolved each week in a flashy courtroom battle of wits." Rose undoubtedly had in mind CBS's other celebrated defense attorney Perry Mason (1957-66) when he wrote these words. Although both were nominally "courtroom dramas" or "lawyer shows," Perry Mason was first and foremost a classical detective story whose climax played out in the courtroom, while The Defenders focused on the machinery of the law, the vagaries of the legal process, and system's capacity for justice. Although the Prestons took on their share of murder cases, their aim in such instances was to mount a sound defense or plead for mercy, not unmask the real killer on the witness stand.
Certainly The Defenders exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions. Rose and his writers found much compelling drama in probing the psychology of juries, the motives of clients, the biases of opposing counsel, the flaws of the system itself, and the fallibility of their own lawyer-heroes. The series frequently took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions: capital punishment, "no-knock" search laws, custody rights of adoptive parents, the insanity defense, the "poisoned fruit doctrine" (admissibility of illegally obtained evidence), as well as immigration quotas and Cold War visa restrictions. The Defenders avoided simple stances on such cases, instead illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law.
As Rose declared in The Viewer magazine, "We're committed to controversy." And indeed, the series often went beyond a strict focus on "the law" to probe the profound social issues that are often weighed in the courtroom. The Defenders' most controversial case was "The Benefactor," in which the Prestons defend an abortionist--and in the process mount an unequivocal argument in favor of legalized abortion. Although the series regularly nettled some sponsors and affiliates, this 1962 installment marked a major crisis, with the series' three regular sponsors pulling their support from the episode. Another advertiser stepped in at the eleventh hour and sponsored the show, and the network reported that audience response to the program was 90% positive. As one CBS executive recalled to author Robert Metz, "Everybody survived, and that was the beginning of The Defenders dealing with issues that really mattered." While not all of the Prestons' cases were so politically-charged, the show took on current social concerns with some frequency. One of the series' most acclaimed stories, "Blacklist," offered a quietly powerful indictment of Hollywood blacklisting; in other episodes the Prestons defended a schoolteacher fired for being an atheist, an author accused of pornography, a conscientious objector, civil rights demonstrators, a physician charged in a mercy-killing, and neo-Nazis.
The Defenders tended to take an explicitly liberal stance on the issues it addressed, but it offered no easy answers, no happy endings. Unlike Perry Mason, courtroom victories were far from certain on The Defenders--as were morality and justice. "The law is man-made, and therefore imperfect," Larry tells his son near the end of "Blacklist." "We don't always have the answer. There are injustices in the world. And they're not always solved at the last minute by some brilliant point of law at a dramatic moment." With all their wisdom and virtue, the Prestons were fallible, constrained by the realities of the legal system, the skill of their opponents, the whims of juries, the decisions of the bench. Yet, if The Defenders' view of the law was resigned, it was also resilient, manifesting a dogged optimism, acknowledging the flaws of the system, but affirming its merits--that is, its ability to change and its potential for compassion. The Prestons wearily admitted that the system was not perfect, but they returned each week to embrace it because of its potential for justice--and because it's the only system we have (a point that has become almost a cliché on subsequent legal dramas like L.A. Law and Law and Order). It was this slender thread of optimism that enabled the defenders to continue their pursuit of justice, one case at a time.
As a serious courtroom drama, The Defenders series meshed well with network aims for prestige in the early sixties in the wake of the quiz show scandals and charges of creeping mediocrity in TV fare. The dramatic arena of the courtroom and the legal system allowed for suspense without violence, and the avoidance of formula plots characteristic of traditional crime and adventure drama. With consistently strong ratings and a spate of awards unmatched by any other series of its day, The Defenders proved that controversy and topicality were not necessarily uncommercial. The series was in the works well before FCC Chairman Newton Minow's 1961 "vast wasteland" speech, but there is little doubt that the new Minow-inspired regulatory atmosphere augured well for the rise of such programming. The show's success supported the development of a number of social-issue and political dramas in the following years, notably Slattery's People and East Side, West Side, and gave further impetus to a shift in network programming from action-adventure to character drama. But most significant of all, it grappled with larger ethical and political questions, pulling social problems and political debate to center stage, presenting a consistent, ongoing and sometimes critical examination of contemporary issues and social morality. In the episode entitled "The Star-Spangled Ghetto" (written by Rose) a judge takes the elder Preston to task for invoking the social roots of his clients' acts as part of his defense: "The courtroom is not the place to explore the questions of society." Lawrence Preston responds: "It is for me." So was the television courtroom, for Reginald Rose and the writers of The Defenders.
- Mark Alvey
Lawrence Preston ................................E.G. Marshall
Kenneth Preston................................... Robert Reed
Helen Donaldson (1961-1962)................ Polly Rowles
Joan Miller (1961-1962)......................... Joan Hackett
Herbert Brodkin, Robert Markell, Kenneth Utt
September 1961-September 1963 Saturday 8:30-9:30
September 1963-November 1963 Saturday 9:00-10:00
November 1963-September 1964 Saturday 8:30-9:30
September 1964-September 1965 Thursday 10:00-11:00
"The Best of Both Worlds." Television (New York), June 1962.
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Crean, Robert. "On the (Left) Side of the Angels." Today, January, 1964.
Efron, Edith. "The Eternal Conflict Between Good and Evil." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), July, 1962; reprint in Harris, Jay S., editor. TV Guide: The First 25 Years. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Gelman, Morris J. "New York, New York." Television (New York), December, 1962.
Metz, Robert. CBS: Reflections In A Bloodshot Eye. New York: Signet, 1975.
"$108,411 for an Hour's Work." Television (New York), September, 1961.
Oulahan, Richard and William Lambert. "The Tyrant's Fall That Rocked the TV World." Life (New York), 10 September 1965.
Reginald Rose Collection, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Rose, Reginald. "Law, Drama, and Criticism." Television Quarterly (New York), Fall 1964.
"The Show that Dared to Be Controversial." The Viewer, May, 1964.
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"Three Sponsors Withdraw from Program Dealing with Abortion; CBS to Show Drama as Scheduled." New York Times (New York), 9 April 1962.
Watson, Mary Ann. The Expanding Vista: American Television In The Kennedy Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.