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The Paper Chase: Season One

(ABC; US DVD: 7 Apr 2009)

“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.” – Professor Charles W. Kingsfield


Based on John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s novel of the same name, as well as the 1973 film adaptation, The Paper Chase centered on a group of first-year law students at a prestigious Ivy League university. Premiering on CBS in 1978, the series was cancelled after its first season despite a great deal of critical acclaim. 


After a run of successful reruns on PBS, the show was brought back to television by Showtime in 1983. The series would go on for another three seasons before ending in 1986. 


The Paper Chase focused on a handful of students who early on formed a study group in order to better handle their heavy academic loads. James T. Hart (James Stephens), a farm boy from Minnesota is an intelligent and affable student thrust into an unfamiliar and unforgiving environment. The ways in which he adapts and eventually thrives at the university is at the core of the series. 


Hart’s fellow study group students include Franklin Ford III (Tom Fitzsimmons), a somewhat arrogant, third-generation lawyer; Willis Bell (James Keane), the often underestimated and disorganized comic relief of the series; Elizabeth Logan (Francine Tacker), a serious feminist and the only woman in the study group; and Tom Anderson (Robert Ginty), the group’s outgoing playboy-type.


Charles W. Kingsfield (John Houseman) is professor of contract law at the university and his reputation as an unforgiving legal expert with high expectations precedes him. Employing the Socratic method of teaching, he is always eager to put his students on the spot and it is in Hart’s first encounter with Kingsfield – he is unprepared, embarrassed and then “shrouded” in class (meaning he is now invisible to Kingsfield) – that establishes their complex relationship right from the beginning. 


Professor Kingsfield is an enigmatic figure.  His teaching approach requires that his students work hard in his class not only to do well, but also to gain his respect, often given grudgingly. He’s not the kind of nurturing, open teacher that has become commonplace on television and in film today. Instead, any softening of Kingsfield’s unforgiving nature is revealed gradually and therefore, satisfyingly. Houseman’s wonderful portrayal brings an almost austere quality to a character with much more depth than the stereotypical ‘mean teacher’.       


The series tackled a number of big issues such as sexual harassment, affirmative action, and equal rights for women, while also devoting time to other subjects like cheating, the demands of academia, and romantic entanglements. Some of the more successful episodes dealt with the bigger issues – the sexual harassment story focused on Logan facing retaliation for confronting a teacher; and the affirmative action episode about an African-American woman who feels angry over the ways in which she is perceived by others in her class – both stand out. They deal with weighty subject matters with a candid and intelligent approach that in the end offers the viewer a better understanding of the characters.


Unfortunately, there are a few episodes that don’t quite stand up to the rest of the season. For instance, Anderson develops a gambling problem seemingly out of nowhere and with little to no further illumination of the character and the way he relates to others. Another of the weaker episodes focused on a group of Russian gymnasts visiting the campus as part of a cultural exchange program spearheaded by Kingsfield. Sadly, Kingsfield is not a part of the episode and it suffers greatly for it, not to mention the dated US/Russia rivalry and the inclusion of yet another woman Hart regretfully falls for.


As far as Hart’s romances go, they are another aspect of the series that tends to be hit or miss. Hart falls in love with at least four different women throughout the 22 episodes and it’s difficult to become invested in this part of his life when it quickly becomes clear that these women will most likely never be seen again. It’s Stephens’ enthusiastic portrayal of Hart’s infatuations that makes them sometimes feel like more than the repeated plot devices they obviously are.


The Paper Chase makes good use of its many guest stars such as Kim Cattrall as the wife of an overworked law student, Glynn Turman as a classmate in Kingsfield’s course, and Robert Reed as a lecherous professor. Because much of the appeal of the series comes from the strong acting and well-rounded characterizations, many of the guest stars are given memorable roles and opportunities to really shine in their episodes.   


This set does not include any bonus features. It would have been nice to see some interviews or commentary tracks, but unfortunately, none are available for the first season.

Rating:

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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