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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Preston ................................E.G. Marshall Kenneth
Preston................................... Robert Reed Helen
Donaldson (1961-1962)................ Polly Rowles Joan Miller
(1961-1962)......................... Joan Hackett
Herbert Brodkin, Robert Maxwell, 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
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