The Best Lessons an Old 1960s TV Drama Offers Us Today
Time to vote! How many of you love legal dramas? Which ones do you like?
Law and Order?
Or maybe something else entirely?
Confession: I do not watch very many. Though, I watched part of one TV program I’ll save for later.
There is merit to what people say. Many variations of the same theme are available about timelessness and high-quality expression of anything from literature to paintings to films. But despite the variety in mediums or time periods, I have always found genuinely good art feels timeless, no matter how old it is.
This gem of a television series is old, indeed, and is the brilliantly conceived product of Reginald Rose, the same genius behind the 1957 courtroom classic, 12 Angry Men, a 1957 movie you may have watched in school or heard about from a friend. (Though, it is worth mentioning that Sidney Lumet shares the credit with him for the 1950s play). Rose’s product is a television series considered controversial for its time. The early 1960s was a continuation of the conservative 1950s. Rose’s series, The Defenders, began in 1961 and graced Americans’ television screens weekly until 1965. The Defenders delved into the professional life of two fictional lawyers, a father-and-son duo. A father, Lawrence Preston, played by E. G. Marshall, and his son Kenneth Preston, played by Robert Reed.
Together, they skillfully readied themselves for vigorous courtroom battles while learning more about each other and giving viewers meaningful themes to ponder long after the nearly hour-long program concluded. Working as a team, they engaged with cases that remain relevant today. Almost no topic was off-limits for the four years The Defenders was on the air. Divorce, euthanasia, the civil rights movement, juvenile delinquency, obscenity in media, immigration, hallucinogens, freedom of all speech (including offensive speech), fascism, post-Nazism retribution, anti-Semitism, the list reaches the ceiling.
A legal drama about counselors in jurisprudence gives wise counsel itself. I’ve watched the first season, and I must say to ShoutFactory or anyone really, please release seasons 2, 3, and 4 on streaming. PLEASE! The first season was that sublime. Suspense plus wit plus emotion plus thrills plus cerebral plots plus charming leads… it’s the perfect formula!
Spoiler warning: I will divulge synopses and story plots in each theme, so, this review cannot be completely spoiler-free. For those who are already convinced and wish to obtain these stirring episodes, DVDs can be found on Amazon and eBay to name a few.
I need to share some lessons I gained from watching the first 32 episodes.
- Do not be so hasty to cast aspersions on other people, whether they’re lawyers, laymen, — or people in stigmatized professions. We see this lesson in empathy and the dangers of being judgemental toward an individual we know nothing about personally in an episode about a burlesque strip performer whose name, “The Naked Heiress,” alludes to this subject. Numerous characters in the episode, including Lawrence Preston, see what the titular “heiress” does for a living and scoff, often admitting they do not feel she deserves her impending inheritance. However, things change when Kenneth meets her and realizes she is erudite and refined. He soon learns the reasons she works as a stripper are more complex than they appear at first glance. Watching this episode made me empathize with the people society judges as immoral and unworthy. Being mocked as a spectacle everywhere she goes is incredibly damaging to the self-confidence of the heiress; she can’t even attend her college courses in peace without unscrupulous young men physically harassing her. These themes and how the characters navigated through them resonated with me. How many of us have felt judged for lesser flaws? Bullying people is sadly normal in today’s society, especially on the internet. Making assumptions about a person’s preferences, preferred music genres, what they do in their free time, or even how they view the world is just as common today as it was in 1961.
- Achieving harmony between idealism and pragmatism is attainable and imperative. This leans into another point, that the older and younger generations need one another. Ken and his father learn this in several episodes. More than one episode has our main characters butt heads over strategy; senior Preston often conveys his displeasure with Kenneth’s more passionate, impatient, over-eager approach. Preston often perceives Kenneth as an impertinent kid who behaves as though he knows more than his wiser, more experienced father. Out of his desire for the best outcome for their client, Kenneth will often challenge convention or take an ill-advised legal move. This can inadvertently create more problems (sometimes endanger people’s safety and health or his reputation) when he means to solve a problem. His impetuousness can lead him into conflict with his father, resulting in shouting matches between the duo. However, the elder Preston might too quickly assume his son is entirely naive to the ways of the world. Sometimes his son teaches him. In a few moments of the series, his son is the cynic while Lawrence is the idealist. In simple terms, the classic age rivalry is futile and unproductive. Now might be the time to reconsider the clap back “OK, boomer.”
- Sometimes the legal system is not fair. And most definitely, the legal system is not perfect. Not in the slightest. Even with the noblest intentions. Innocent people have been executed, as we see in one episode titled “The Search.” Preston’s humane, heart-rending reaction brings me to the next lesson I learned within that episode: people in positions of authority and prestige can appear detached and removed from emotion or just professional machines to ordinary citizens. But they feel and are human as well. The judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney, Lawrence Preston, all sincerely lament that the jury sent a man who was accused of murder six years ago to the electric chair. Lawrence tearfully recounts that he wept six years ago when his pleas for mercy on behalf of his client fell on deaf ears. It was fascinating to see the typically composed elder Preston come just slightly undone and allow himself to feel. He felt the extreme weight of not getting his unjustly executed former client acquitted. He does intense soul-searching and aches to become a better attorney and a better person as he sought to uncover where the legal system came undone in its lofty pursuit of justice. So intense is his drive, Lawrence contacts witnesses and jurors on that doomed case. So intense, he screams at the true culprit of the murder, never coming forward until six years after the fact. His often composed voice breaks over and over again. He is continuously punishing himself for an outcome he could not control. Lawrence agonizes over this because he cares deeply about his profession. Law is his life. He wants to do it right.
- If you have a legitimate intuition that something was not the proper outcome or that a mistake needs rectification, follow your inner whisper so long as your intentions are noble. We see this in the excellent episode, “The Crusader”, wherein Kenneth visits a prison to see a man already convicted for taking advantage of a young woman. Kenneth has a nagging feeling something is amiss but is continuously blown off by townspeople and even his own father. Undeterred, he continues seeking the truth and seeking justice for his client, eventually uncovering his client’s innocence. At times, I even echoed some characters’ criticisms of Kenneth, who insisted the victims recall the traumatic events they went through. All to set a man free. Despite this, Kenneth’s young age gave him an open mind about someone everybody else condemned eternally. Imagine how the defendant, the convicted rapist, felt to know someone still believed him and was willing to give him a chance. Towards the fin, the young woman traumatized by her ordeal remembers he was actually a nice man who helped her. At the end, when Kenneth’s client is found innocent, even his straight-laced father lauds him for “hanging on when everyone else has given up.”
- One of the best signs of a strong person is how they respond to negative impacts on their personal life from their professional activity when they sincerely believe they are doing the right thing. For example, we see Lawrence Preston confront a dilemma: defend his client to the fullest extent, but lose friends in the process. “The Iron Man” displays such a conflict between Lawrence and a client whose affairs Lawrence has handled for a long time. This client is furious about Lawrence defending a young supporter of fascist dictatorships who allegedly ordered bodyguards to beat up dissenters. This client screams indignantly, “I’ll take my account away from you, Larry!”, but Lawrence fearlessly replies, “Somehow, I think I’ll manage without it,” before giving a now-former friend a terse goodbye. Senior Preston’s courage in the face of intimidation reveals him as a person we can resonate with during today’s fear-driven political climate. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the threats came from more violent and sinister groups. What if Preston stared down legitimate death threats for defending an unpopular case he did not believe in place of payment cessation? Something clues me that Preston would still have stood his ground to diligently defend Powers, a man he loathed. Heroes are not always the ones who throw punches but can also be those who peacefully complete their duties even when storms befall their ship.
Watching Season 1 was a joy. Spending time with the lead protagonist, elder Preston, was always one element of the show I looked forward to each episode. His demeanor was reassuring and fatherly not only to his son, Kenneth but to the audience. Elder Preston could be caught in a tempest of bickering, danger, or escalated tensions yet still exude a collectedness that soothed the viewer — at least slightly.
He is a type of figure needed today in politics, the corporate world, and even interpersonal relationships. A steady leader who compassionately guides others to a better path, without being gratuitously ruthless or bulldozing others. Imperfect, but the best person they can be.
With that said, an acknowledgment must be given to the actor portraying senior Preston; It is arguably difficult to envision any other thespian wearing “Lawrence Preston” besides E. G. Marshall. Robert Reed must be applauded as well for a phenomenal performance as his determined, optimistic son, and additional hats off should go to Reginald Rose and the writing team.
Worthwhile TV characters can help us be the best people we can be. Worthwhile TV characters enacting engaging plots come with a bonus: they tap into our reflectiveness, empathy, curiosity, and critical thinking.
Perhaps (call this fallacy if you wish) TV is not such a bad influence. It merely requires finding the right programs for you, a task made easier in the modern-day by our friend, the internet. Long out-of-syndication shows — or even new ones — can each have gems for upcoming generations to discover.
The credit and appreciation for editing this article must go to Khalil Siddeeq. Having feedback is important for me as a first-time writer. :)
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