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The Paper Chase: Season Two

(Showtime; US DVD: 15 Dec 2009)

The Paper Chase’s second season finds the former CBS series now on Showtime.  With some new cast members to round out the returning group of second year law students, the show continues its insightful exploration of academia and all of its demands. Making the move to Showtime in 1983 after its 1979 cancellation pushed the show further in terms of more mature storytelling and in-depth explorations of relationships. Aside from the expected differences between network and cable programming, such as the allowance of curse words and more frank depictions and discussions of romantic relationships, being on Showtime also opened up the series in general to tell stories with more latitude making a complex show even more layered.


The second season of The Paper Chase appropriately picks up at the start of the second year of Harvard Law School. Many of the main characters from the first season return to continue their classes: James Hart (James Stephens), Franklin Ford III (Tom Fitzsimmons) and Willis Bell (James Keane). In addition, several new first years are introduced, along with a wider range of students than in the first season. 


Hart is still at the center of the series, yet his struggle as a student is not as much of a focus as he begins a serious relationship with Connie Lehman (Jane Kaczmarek), a first year. Hart is also a new member of the Law Review and while he is always busy working and studying, there is a bit more balance between his academic responsibilities and his personal life.


The introduction of new first year students adds a new layer to the connections already established in the previous season, as it also offers a continuation of the first season’s struggles. At the heart of the difficulties faced by first years is Professor Charles Kingsfield’s (John Houseman) course on contracts. Famous for his demanding course load and intimidating teaching style, Kingsfield is a rite of passage for all law students and Houseman’s portrayal is a highlight of the series. This frees up the returning characters to explore more interpersonal relationships, as well as focus on other academic pursuits outside of Kingsfield.


However, Kingsfield still looms as a presence for the second year students. Hart is taking a seminar with Kingsfield and he also serves as the advisor for the Harvard Law Review. The introduction of the Harvard Law Review makes for some of the more engaging storylines of the season as it brings out a new dynamic for law students outside of the classroom, as well as introduces law students from other class years, and the head of the Law Review, Gerald Golden (Michael Tucci). Golden is exacting and completely dedicated to his work, and in turn, he serves as a kind of mentor to the other students. His relationship with Kingsfield, in particular, is a good showcase for his role as a leader as Kingsfield clearly respects him.


Willis Bell (James Keane), a classmate of Hart’s who was in Kingsfield’s contracts course the precious year, now serves as the dorm advisor for first year students and it is through him that many of the new students are introduced. Laura (Andra Millian) is the free-spirited, easygoing first year that Bell befriends and their friendship brings out another side of the character. 


Unfortunately, the one character that does suffer this season is Hart. He has shifted from the excitable, idealistic, humble student to a combative and egocentric second year. Where previously Hart was confident, if a bit overzealous, he is now cocky and frequently combative. The problem with this change is that everyone around him continues to interact with him in the same way, as well as continues to see him as the natural leader of his year. Fortunately, the series does not suffer too much from this shift because of the new focus on other characters such as Golden, Laura, and Bell. 


One of The Paper Chase’s greatest strengths lies in its writing.  It is a series that lives up to its rigorous setting. There is an unapologetic intelligence that serves its characters very well and never tries to dumb down the material to make it more palatable or easier to understand for the average viewer; and the show is all the better for it. The Paper Chase continues to offer a thoughtful and clever view into the very challenging world of Harvard Law School, all the while treating viewers as the equals of its subjects.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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