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“The future of network TV is at stake here… and right now, it doesn’t look good.”
–Ben Cheviot, Chairman of the Board of Network 23, on Max Headroom

Within most science fiction there is a grain of truth, and it seems that it is often predictive of our future.  Portraying that future on television is one of the more difficult things to do, since it actually has to be shown in some way, and not just imagined with words in a literary sense.  Portraying the future OF television is even trickier, and yet one particular show did this with style, strangeness, and one of most unique title characters in the history of the medium.  Far ahead of its time (and yet according to the show only “20 minutes into the future”) was Max Headroom.

Edison, Theora, and Max

On the 1987-88 ABC series, the character of Max Headroom was a computerized version of television reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer, playing both parts).  While chasing down a story (and being chased himself because of it) Carter was in a life threatening accident.  Having crashed a motorcycle into a barricade, Carter was in a coma.  His consciousness was duplicated and converted into data, thus creating the computer generated character of Max Headroom.  (The name was taken from Carter’s last memory, the “Max. Headroom” sign on the barricade.)

Max may have inherited the “personality” of Carter, but he had a few glitches which gave his character a very snarky sense of humor ungoverned by societal norms.  He inhabited the computer system of Network 23 (Edison’s employer), which measured ratings by the minute… and they discovered that their viewing audience responded to the new creation better than anything they had previously aired.  Max was allowed to remain in their system (as long as the ratings held), and Max found a way to appear on any TV screen as a result.

After his recovery, Carter was aided by his producer Theora Jones (Amanda Pays), a strong female character who was more than a match for Edison’s rather pushy ways.  They made a terrific team, with Edison out in the field with his camera and Theora back at the control room using the varied resources of Network 23 (including Max when he was inclined) to guide Edison and help him out of scrapes.  The head of the news division was Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) who ran interference between the network and his top investigative team, especially when the network didn’t care so much about truth as it did about ratings.

Network 23 was represented by Ned Grossberg (Charles Rocket), an unprincipled businessman to whom ratings and profits meant everything, and ethics meant nothing.  He was removed as chairman of Network 23 when his project of “Blipverts” was shown to actually kill viewers… not that he wanted to stop the new form of advertising over a measly issue like that!  His replacement was Ben Chevoit (George Coe), a throwback to the days of television actually being a responsible medium, and he often backed Carter in his endeavors until Grossberg found a devious way to return himself to the chairman’s seat to become once again a thorn in Carter’s side.

Max watches over all.

The wild cards in this strange future were Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) and Blank Reg (W. Morgan Sheppard).  Bryce was the tech genius whose wizardry helped create Max in the first place.  A sixteen-year-old prodigy with no concern for the uses of his inventions and intelligence, his abilities are co-opted by both good and evil forces.  Blank Reg was an underground “unregistered” person and ran a renegade low-power UHF station, airing unapproved and subversive information (like, say, the actual truth).  Reg is a friend of Carter and helps in Carter’s investigations, while Bryce is slowly becoming more aware of the concepts of “right and wrong” through his interaction with Max, Carter, and Theora.

“Max Headroom is every talking head you ever saw.  Max Headroom is every televangelist, every sports reporter, every news reporter.  He’s an amalgam of them all.  The language, the words that he uses, skip and flip from one to the other.  (…)
Max’s residual self-image grows from his experience of television, his consciousness grows from his experience of television.  He has all the wiring of a human mind, but none of the memories.”
–George Strong, creator of Max Headroom

Max Headroom told stories of advertising run amok, of automated censorship, of religious extremism.  There were portrayals of corporate control of popular opinion for ratings, overwhelming consumerism, and profit without regard to humanity and truth.  Information was power, and the manipulation of that information for monetary gain was all that mattered.  The onscreen graphic proclaimed that Max Headroom considered its premise to be merely “20 minutes into the future”….

Tick… tick… tick….

Welcome to the "new" world

We don’t currently live in the somewhat post-apocalyptic environment portrayed on Max Headroom, but we are (twenty-plus years into the future) in a world that was accurately predicted in many ways.  The majority of us are wired into the internet, carrying various mobile devices that can pinpoint our locations, our interests, our schedules, our friends and family, and vast amounts of information that used to be impossible for others to discover readily.  Identity theft isn’t a science-fiction idea anymore, but a practical reality we must be aware of in at least limited terms.  Almost-instant ratings for television have existed for years with set-top interactive boxes that report not only what’s being watched, but who is in the room watching at the time.  And the supposedly outrageous 1987 idea of 23 (or more!) networks existing in this fictional world is almost laughable in a modern-day reality where I can call up hundreds of channels at the touch of the remote sitting next to my chair, not to mention my computer within reach which has even MORE outlets for information, entertainment… and advertising.  Max Headroom is, dare I say it, almost quaint in some respects.

Television in America circa early 1987 consisted of primarily three widely viewed commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), a small public network with little funding (PBS), and a burgeoning number of cable outlets with modest viewership and narrow reach.  The brand new FOX network began its first prime-time series on April 5, 1987… less than a week AFTER the premiere of Max Headroom on ABC.  Little did we all know that the future was beginning already….

“The premise of Max Headroom is a world ’20 minutes into the future’, which is ruled by corporations and governed by television… in which truth is a commodity in short supply, and in which one individual (in this instance Edison Carter) is out there to make a difference.”
–George Strong

Broadcasting companies (and their cable brethren) have been swallowed up by corporate conglomerates repeatedly over the years, so much so that a significant majority of the television that is produced and shown is controlled by a small number of organizations reaching an overwhelming number of people.  ABC is currently owned by Disney, with significant reach in numerous countries and applied synergy through not only multiple cable networks (such as ESPN and The Disney Channel) but movie interests, home video, theme parks, cruise lines, travel agencies, live theatre production, recording and book publishing, food companies, and many and varied other corporate partners.  CBS owns not one, but two broadcast networks (it also owns The CW), Paramount TV and movie studio, the Simon & Schuster publishing house, and a significant stake in outdoor advertising and computer software companies.  NBC has ownership and partnership with everything from Universal to General Electric to Spanish-language TV giant Telemundo.  The recently negotiated deal of cable and internet provider Comcast with NBC allows Comcast to own all parts of information and entertainment presentation from initial idea to media consumption by the consumer.

The media empire

The one that puts these seeming behemoths to shame is FOX, owned by Rupert Murdoch and his NewsCorp. media empire.  This includes FoxNews, The Wall Street Journal, Foxtel mobile telecommunications, numerous cable networks (in America, the UK, Italy, Germany, Brazil, and Australia), satellite broadcast companies in multiple countries, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 newspapers and magazines in the English-speaking world alone, two major book publishing houses, a record company, sports leagues, and a dizzying array of other types of businesses.  (Murdoch’s empire can reach and influence 3/4 of the population OF THE WORLD!)  One man’s company controls more than the gross national product of several individual countries, as well as the information flow to a large portion of civilization.  In other words, the occasionally absurd ideas of corporate media control, saturation, and influence on Max Headroom are already here… we just didn’t notice them happening to us.

In practical terms, although it seems viewers have a multitude of choices for information and entertainment, those choices are really all owned by 5 to 10 large corporate empires, with corporate bean-counters now in charge… and art and truth have been reduced in many cases to profit margins and sales opportunities.  News organizations now don’t just have news, they actively have “narrative” portraying liberal (MSNBC) or conservative (FoxNews) points of view, with the decisions of how the news is covered (and even what specific news is covered at all) made by corporations with deliberate and potentially self-serving “points of view”.  Little or no attention is paid to “objectivity” sometimes, as it would obviously get in the way of the “narrative”.  Willing audiences can find what they want to hear instead of what is accurate, confirming their beliefs instead of challenging them, and if they don’t like what they hear, there’s always another outlet to tell them a “gentler” (read:  more comfortable and possibly less true) version of reality.

Can you really trust what you see on TV?

Pure objectivity and honest reality have taken a beating.  The result is a rather strange situation where “fact” has become “what you believe” and “truth” has become “how strongly you believe it”.  And with the pervasiveness of the “narrative” media in today’s world, even the wary have a difficult time discerning reality through all the noise being generated, or even telling sound from fury.  At least on Max Headroom, we had Edison Carter to believe in, and others to whom the truth still meant something… these days, it’s not nearly so easy to tell.

MATT FREWER (Edison Carter/Max Headroom) has made a living out of playing off-kilter characters on shows like Eureka, Eerie, Indiana, and Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  His horror quota includes a number of Stephen King mini-series, and he’s also a very popular voice-over actor for numerous animated shows including Gargoyles, The Incredible Hulk, and Hercules.  His other leading role on television was as star of the comedy series Doctor Doctor which ran for 2+ seasons starting in 1989.

AMANDA PAYS (Theora Jones) will likely be seen here again for a similar role, as she was the female lead in The Flash.  Born in England, her acting career has featured both American and British productions.  She’s married to actor Corbin Bernsen, and her role on Max Headroom was noted when a video codec program was named Theora in her character’s honor.

JEFFREY TAMBOR (Murray) has had a memorable comedic television career, being an integral part of The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development, receiving Emmy nominations for both.  He’s also been a regular on many other comedies including Nine to Five, The Ropers, Welcome to the Captain, and Twenty Good Years.  Always in demand as an actor, he also finds time to teach acting on an occasional basis.

CHARLES ROCKET (Ned Grossberg) was a regular on Saturday Night Live and a rising comedy star until he let slip with an obscenity that was accidentally aired, which led to the majority of the cast and writing staff being fired.  His short-lived series included Tequila and Bonetti, The Home Court, and Normal, Ohio.  Another voice-over actor, he was featured in the movie Titan A.D. and in numerous computer games.  He was found dead of a self-inflicted wound in 2005.

GEORGE COE (Ben Cheviot) has been a regular in only a few shows, but as a character actor he has graced almost 100 different series.  Although he was the oldest regular on Max Headroom in 1987, he’s still acting today, most recently in Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and doing a regular voice in the animated series Archer.  He was also an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, although he only appeared on the first few shows.

CHRIS YOUNG (Bryce Lynch) has become a producer and director since his time on Max Headroom, utilizing various technologies to create movies, music videos, and shorts that feature 3-D location effects.  He’s also carved out a niche doing multi-screen video for concert performances used by musicians ranging from Kelly Clarkson to Tim McGraw to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  More information on his tremendously varied work can be found at his own website.

W. MORGAN SHEPPARD (Blank Reg) is, like his son Mark Sheppard, a SF favorite.  He’s appeared with four different Star Trek incarnations, not to mention performances in Babylon 5, Quantum Leap, SeaQuest 2032, and Legend of the Seeker.  He’ll get the chance to appear with his son on upcoming episodes of Doctor Who in the 2011 season.  He’s also been seen in the movies The Prestige and Transformers.

Max Headroom has a rather storied history outside the realm of the actual TV series.  The character originated in the UK, and the hybrid of Matt Frewer and Max have done everything from host music video programs (and interview celebrities) to being a spokesman for the introduction of New Coke (unfortunately, that failed as well).  Shout Factory released the series on DVD in 2010, with wonderful extras including interviews with many of the cast, writers, creators, and retrospectives on both the use of real computers in the series (which was a first) as well as changing of film styles that were needed for filming and coordinating all the video monitors on the set.  Online resources can be found here for both the long history of the character of Max and the ABC series itself… and there’s even rumors of a possible return of Max to screens in the coming year or two… like, say, maybe another 20 minutes into the future?

“My main intention, right at the very core of Max and his world, was to get people to question the process of television.  To understand that, behind the screen, there is a consciousness and an agenda… and that agenda might not always be on your side.   What is news?  Who says what?  Who says what stories go where?  These processes that inform you aren’t neutral, they may not be in your best interests.  So, I’d like to think that Max Headroom helped people wise up to what they were seeing, to see that news and information isn’t neutral.  It comes from somewhere, it is filtered through a particular mesh, and that mesh will only let certain ideas through, other things will be filed away.  So, Edison Carter is a man who wants to find out the truth.  He works against corporate interests and in the interests of truth.  Whether the journalists we have on the ground now are as pure of heart… let’s watch television this evening and find out.”
–George Strong

Yes, this is a real cover... but is it really news or noise?

As much as I obviously love television, I don’t trust it.  I’ve grown up with the ability to learn, to think, to understand and process information for myself.  I refuse to let any machine, corporation, organization, political group, advertiser, or individual take my own thoughts and ideas away from me, or present their own “truth” as objective.  Nor do I expect (or even want) anyone to take mine instead of their own.  But there has to be some level of objective reality in this real world that we all share, and we all have to find it regardless of what various media and other forces want us to believe for their own agendas.

We need another brave soul in the storied news tradition of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite to stand up in the face of slanted journalism and outright lies.  It’s unfortunate that someone like that in today’s world would likely be unable to have a voice on television, since the methods of expression are now controlled largely by those he or she would try to speak out against.  Even those earlier bastions of integrity are now being torn down by those owning the medium.  Witness this particular “opinion” piece from just last year looking back at Cronkite’s career by a modern-day “journalist” of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.  It criticizes Cronkite heavily for a rare occasion of offering his own opinion… and yet even in this criticism is the idea of “narrative” that Murdoch’s FoxNews engages in every single day.

Truth will always win out, no matter the medium of its expression.  But truth must also be actively sought, not just by those who attempt to transmit it, but by all of us viewers who might receive it.  We must all continually discern sound from fury, signal from noise.  Famous scholar and pioneer in media theory Marshall McLuhan once warned that “the medium is the message”.  But despite the media control over the message in today’s society making this idea even more manipulative, the medium and message are not the same thing,  Viewers passively accepting one for the other will ultimately lead us headlong into the dystopia portrayed in Max Headroom… and I’m afraid some people are already there.

Vital Stats

13 aired episodes — 1 unaired (available on DVD)
ABC Network
First aired episode:  March 31, 1987
Last aired episode:  May 5, 1988 (The series was actually canceled in October of the previous year, but two “new” episodes ran in late April and early May of 1988.)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Well, the first six episodes succeeded at Tuesdays 8/7 Central, so what did ABC do?  They moved it to Fridays at 9/8 Central in the fall against Dallas, where it was b-b-b-b-bye Max!

Comments and suggestions encouraged, as always.

–Tim R.

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Looking at the future on New Year’s Eve, featuring a show that was surprisingly accurate at predicting the path of the very medium that created it.  Not the apocalypse part with the rubble and everything, but what’s happened to how we all find out about it.  Five quotes:

“The future of network TV is at stake here… and right now, it doesn’t look good.”

…especially when the network didn’t care about truth so much as it did about ratings.

“He has all the wiring of a human mind, but none of the memories.”

Little to no attention is paid to “objectivity” sometimes, as it would obviously get in the way of the “narrative”.

“These processes that inform you aren’t neutral… they may not be in your best interests.”

Want to see what’s new?  Grab a Coke and come visit a very different world with a very different title character this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

It's a TV Christmas!

Something a little different this week.  It’s Christmas, and while I really don’t want to single out a particular show for the holiday, I do want to write a bit about what I want as presents, both for shows that I feature on this site, and for television in general.  I want to express what I love about television, and what I want in shows that is sometimes lacking (and where I think television in general, and studios and networks in particular, should change).  So, onward with “a very special episode” of Friday @ 8/7 Central….

(See, network promotion departments?  That “very special episode” phrase got so overused that it became a code for “our comedy writers tried to be seriously dramatic and failed”.  This is one wish that came true back in the day, that the phrase would never be used for a television episode again.  I can only hope that the wishes I make today will fare as well.)

A surviving still from the early '60s: Doctor Who "The Dalek Master Plan"

Obviously, the first thing I’d like is for many, many more short-lived shows to be available on DVD.  Storage and upkeep issues have kept many old gems from ever seeing the light of day, and some shows apparently no longer exist at all anymore.  (The BBC wiped the master tapes of much of the original Doctor Who from the sixties, because they needed the magnetic tape and didn’t have proper storage space.  It is believed that 108 original half-hours are lost for eternity.)  Others are just such low quality (compared to the HD and Blu-Ray releases of today) that a current release simply isn’t viable according to most studios, and it doesn’t matter that some of us originally saw “bright, new, colorful” shows on lousy 9-inch black-and-white portable TVs in the first place.  With 50-inch Hi-Def Surround Sound home theaters, the flaws of many original broadcasts are glaring.  (For instance, now that they’ve been remastered, did you realize that you could  see coffee stains on Mr. Spock’s uniform in some episodes of the original Star Trek?  The aired remastered episodes showed them, but Paramount then digitally erased the stains for the DVDs!)

My kingdom for a DVD set

Perhaps the loving memories some of us have of these old shows would be tarnished by being brought into the modern (and technologically advanced) light of day, but I wish that I’d be able to make that determination for myself.  The bootleg method at least gives me some access, but it doesn’t compensate in the slightest the many actors, writers, producers, and other creative people involved for all their hard work on these shows.  I’d much rather give my hard-earned money to those that worked their tails off to provide all of us with their creativity, instead of those who can simply make copies on their computers.  But if it’s the only way to get copies of, say, Covington Cross, then that’s what I’ll continue to do (unfortunately).

Meanwhile, I’d gladly give a lump of coal (or three) to those music companies who can’t figure out that their music rights aren’t worth the entire projected profits (and more) from a possible DVD release… especially when they sold “broadcast rights” for songs originally, and now just want to be greedy.  Music rights issues are (after availability of the actual source episodes, of course) one of the top reasons for DVDs NOT being produced, to the detriment of viewers, studios, and music companies as well.  And the only thing worse than not having the shows available is having episodes that have been significantly altered from their original broadcasts.

Leaping without the music

Yes, people should get paid for what they’ve created, music and video.  But television studios are caught between “rock and roll” and a hard place when they try to “replace” music instead of paying some of the outrageous costs music publishers wish to charge.  When Quantum Leap came out in season DVD sets, the “period” music in many episodes was replaced with generic, homogenized music in each era’s style.  The worst offense of this type is in the season 2 finale M.I.A., which used the great Ray Charles vocal Georgia on my Mind to wonderful effect in the original episode… and on the DVD it was replaced by a piece of music so mediocre that the emotional core of the entire episode is lost.  Part of this is timing (the set came out the same year that the Oscar-winning biography movie Ray was released, and the music of Charles was enjoying a popular revival), but the show was so damaged by this and other replacement tracks that there’s still a healthy market in the bootleg business for Quantum Leap episodes with the original music. (And even more oddly, the UK version of the DVDs has the original soundtrack!!! It’s one of my favorite shows of all time, and I won’t buy the U.S. DVDs just because of the music issues… as presented, it’s not the show I loved anymore.)

Oh, so close....

Even with replacement tracks, some shows will never be available due to the fact that there may not be a separate “music track” available to alter in the first place.  Because the dialogue and music are inseparable on some older master copies (and the music rights are unable to be purchased reasonably), certain titles will never see the store shelves without their original soundtracks.  (A release of the early FOX series Werewolf was announced and only a week from being actually sold in stores when it was pulled for this very reason.)  Many contracts for use of music soundtracks in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t dream of “home video”, so no rights were negotiated.  Music publishers are trying to make new money out of essentially “nothing” instead of being reasonable.  Money should be exchanged, but not be extorted.

Gotta love commentary.

The good news is, more and more shows are being produced with the idea of DVD releases already figured into their budgeting, and short-lived series are seeing packages made and released.  Creature Comforts has double the number episodes on the DVD than actually aired on CBS.  Oh, and thank you Daybreak, not only for including all 13 episodes produced in the set when only six aired on TV… but adding FIFTEEN commentaries, no less.  (An embarrassment of riches compared to the Castle DVD.  Its second season was recently released with NO commentary at all on any episodes, and it’s considered successful as a series.  Maybe someone figured people would only buy “failed” shows if tons of new material were added?  Perhaps, but I’ll take all the extras gladly!)

New distribution methods also help with short-lived titles, such as the “Amazon-only” release of The Unusuals, or made-on-demand video of many Warner Brothers titles from their catalog.  Such a system lets companies put out material to collectors and others without the risk of over-printing or significant distribution problems, and lets those titles with lesser mainstream potential still be rediscovered by those with interest.  Kudos for all these, and I only wish further success (and more titles!) can be released this way (I’m begging for Search, Warners… just letting you know!)

If you’re looking for a particular show (and wondering why it’s never been released on DVD yet), then I highly recommend the What’s the hold-up? page on the terrific TVshowsonDVD.com site.  If you’re looking for a specific show release, they’re the experts.  And if your choices haven’t been released yet, you can register there and vote… and this is one of the few sites that the industry actually pays attention to, so let your voice be heard.

Looking to the future, what do I wish for Christmas in terms of shows currently in production and what Hollywood and Co. hope to make next?  Easy… I want to see Episode Six.

Lone Star: almost a lone episode

Let me explain.  There are two problems in the industry that have to do with “Episode Six”.  The first is the network, the second is in production, and they work against each other all the time.  The network problem most people are probably aware of.  Lone Star got canceled by FOX after only two episodes aired this past fall, despite it being one of the most critically acclaimed series of the season.  But it was a “challenge” series, with a not-totally likeable hero, a premise that wasn’t easy to sum up in one “high-concept” title, and the show was difficult to promote properly in a 15 or 30 second commercial.  It was also scheduled against some of the highest rated competition on television (Dancing with the Stars, and the Monday night comedy block on CBS).  While it was designed to be different from the competing shows, many people didn’t even know it was on… until it was off.  (Drive being my favorite example of this type of thing, and guess what?  Same time slot as Lone Star… thanks, FOX.)

Television shows should get a minimum of six episodes to prove themselves.  MIN-I-MUM. (got that networks?)  Anything less, and audiences, especially in this day and age of media bombardment, may not even find a show.  And audiences are savvy these days.  Many won’t even sample a show unless they know it’s something that won’t get taken away from them immediately.  (You don’t know how many people I’ve talked to who are frustrated with networks yanking shows off the air prematurely, and have decided to “not invest” in them by watching initially.  It’s a Catch-22 situation:  audiences don’t want to spend time on something that won’t last, and networks don’t want to spend time (and money) on shows with no audience yet.  Letting people know, in advance, that they’ll get a minimum number of episodes consistently and without being jumped around the schedule with no warning is part of a “contract” with the viewers, which viewers will reward with their loyalty.  Otherwise, no one will show up, and everyone pays for it.

“We very often will have moments that evolve.  We start with a good premise, and we start with a really good set-up, and then we’ll just keep rolling… and suddenly something will grow out of it,  and not only does it make that scene better, but it actually teaches us what we can do, how far we can push it.  Little things [the actors] do on the set, later we’ll say ‘let’s make that a character trait, and let’s let that keep reoccurring.'”
–Dean Devlin, creator of Leverage on the influence of the actors on writing the characters

Here’s the production problem:  If you take a brand new series, the writing team starts out ahead of everyone else (naturally, because all parts of production need scripts).  By the time that first episode is finally finished, with cast, costumes, sets, and everything, the writing staff has usually progressed writing up through episode six or so.  That’s when the staff can actually see and hear who they’re writing for, and characters and relationships start becoming much more than just words on paper.  They become people who interact, and if the actors are any good, they give added pieces to the character, which the writing staff can then see and work into the series, developing the characters even more.  Those first five episodes are written “blind”, so to speak.

The Cape starts in January. Don't let it end by February.

Episode six is really when shows start to take shape and become something worthwhile.  Sadly, many shows never reach this point these days, due to the knee-jerk reactions of networks and ratings battles.  (Yes, I know it’s not always just ratings.  I’ve heard of shows getting the ax simply because someone else championed them, and that person was no longer with the network when the show finally aired.  The series got shuttled into a lousy time slot with no promotion, and then the new regime could point and say “See, that previous person’s opinion was completely wrong, you made a good choice in putting me in charge instead!”)  Read about New Amsterdam to see just how this works.

On my last show, the writers slowly killed off all the actors and characters we didn’t like until we had a cast of characters we felt we could work with.
–Denis McGrath, writer on Stargate:  Universe, Blood Ties, and The Border

But in the course of making a good show, the sixth episode is vital, not just to the development of the characters, but in the evolution of the style of a series.  Shows (particularly their writers and actors) figure out what works, what doesn’t, and can build to the newly found strengths and eliminate the weaknesses.

Characters don't have to be killed off...

Best example:  I wrote about The Paper Chase recently, and if you look at the opening credits you’ll see the character of Asheley (played by Deka Beaudine) featured there.  Kudos to her agent for negotiating her a special opening credit for the first thirteen episodes… but she actually appears in only three, and even in those her appearance is slight.  (Her part was so small that I decided not to even mention her in the article, other than an oblique reference to being the wife of one of the students… and the husband was also gone by episode thirteen!)  The producers figured out quickly that, no matter how good of an actress she may have been, the character was superfluous to the real drama of the series.  She was the one character who wasn’t actually part of the school, and therefore not really integral to the developing stories and interpersonal relationships.  Give a show six weeks, and the makers will figure out what works (and what doesn’t), and any show will be better off… and so will the viewers.

If the premise is any good, you don’t have to kill off or write out any characters (and if it’s well cast, you don’t have to get rid of particular actors either).  But what the production staff has to do is learn, through experience, what works on the show and what doesn’t, and then tailor the rest of the series accordingly.  Voyagers! did an abrupt change halfway through their season, brought on by the desire to appeal to a larger (and more adult) audience.  The character of the Devil became a more integral part of Brimstone once the staff saw what John Glover did with the role.  The changes may be small, but hits like Seinfeld and Hill Street Blues prospered because of them (after rather slow starts), while Cop Rock refused to and failed.  It’s one more part of the process that most viewers aren’t aware of, and one more way that shows can become great… or become pale imitations of what they could have been.

Network exec or Record label honcho? Neither, actually... they don't wear Santa suits!

We can blame the lack of one-season wonders available on DVD on networks, studios, or record companies.  Thankfully, that problem is at least starting to be fixed, with alternative distribution models like Hulu and Made-on-Demand titles.  But the problem of quickly canceled shows not even getting a chance is still prevalent, and that’s the situation that really needs the most fixing.  Failed shows might mean more fodder for articles, but I really would prefer shows to succeed… or at the very least, be given a good opportunity to do so.  If they can produce (and air) beyond an episode six, they’ve got a better possibility for that success.  And even if they don’t (and end up being canceled far too soon), at least I know that many, if not most, of today’s supposed “failures” will be available on DVD so that I can mine the nuggets of gold that might be hidden there.  And I can spend another Christmas with great shows to watch (or re-watch), and have more terrific television to share.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

–Tim R.

“A Very Special Blog” this week… no particular show (as I found it rather unfair to single out a specific series for Christmas week), but instead have written a piece on what my Xmas wishes were, both for the kinds of shows I cover here, and for networks going forward in creating and nurturing shows in general.  I do get to talk about a few of my favorite shows of all time in the process, however, so here are some hints to those.  Five quotes:

It is believed that 108 original half-hours are lost for eternity.

The aired remastered episodes showed them, but Paramount then digitally erased the stains for the DVDs!

…which used the great Ray Charles vocal Georgia on my Mind to wonderful effect in the original episode.

Its second season was recently released with NO commentary at all on any episodes, and it’s considered successful as a series.

“…and suddenly something will grow out of it, and not only does it make that scene better, but it teaches us what we can do…”

Holiday wishes for all, and I appreciate the gift of your visiting Friday @ 8/7 Central this week!

–Tim R.

Chance:  “Things don’t always turn out the way I plan.  Things happen to me.  Lucky things.  Good, bad… it doesn’t matter.  I’m always there.  Rescuing people, winning the lottery.  If I go into a restaurant, somebody chokes.  If I go into a bank, it gets robbed.  My car’s had so many wrecks, you’d think it was magnetic.”

Dr. Richter:  “And you being apprehended, standing over a wounded police officer holding a gun, that was just one of those things?”

Chance:  “Do you smell smoke?”

Chance Harper

Viewers (and television writers) had the good fortune to be favored with Strange Luck on our TV screens in the fall of 1995.  It told the unusual story of Alex Saunders… or at least, that was his birth name.  At an early age, young Alex was apparently the sole survivor of an airplane crash that killed all aboard, including his family.  His foster parents gave him a new name, Chance Harper (D.B. Sweeney), due to his amazing survival.  But what he has to deal with in his life is stranger than they could have imagined, and goes far beyond what anyone would call “luck”.

Things happen to Chance.  I mean, a LOT of things happen to Chance, positive and negative.  He’s the walking example of the old Chinese blessing/curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  He’ll check his bank balance and find that there’s suddenly $2 million dollars there… and then discover that it’s mob money, and now the mob is after him.  A great many of us get the occasional ding in our car, but Chance’s car has a dent from falling airline poop.  It’s just his Strange Luck.

“Push your luck.  If you see a pretty girl in a bar, say something.  If your luck is good, magic can happen.  And if it’s bad?  You deal with her boyfriend when he gets out of the bathroom.”
–actor D.B. Sweeney, on the role of luck in his own life

Some of the other people in Chance’s life are aware of all this.  Chance works as a freelance photographer (and wouldn’t you sell some pictures, considering the range of amazing things that seem to happen all around?)  His editor at the Chronicle, Audrey Westin (Pamela Gidley) also happens to be his ex-girlfriend, unable to constantly deal with Chance’s unusual life, but more than happy to use it for the sake of her job (and to throw a little money Chance’s way when necessary).  She’s not unhappy with Chance, she would just like a bit more “normal” in her life than a serious relationship with Chance would bring.  Knowing his propensities, she also has to remind him “Don’t get sidetracked”, but that doesn’t stop him.

Chance and his three women

There’s also Angie (Frances Fisher), the waitress down at the Blue Plate Diner where Chance hangs out.  There could be something starting between the two of them, but again, with Chance’s luck, it could be love or it could be an accidentally poisoned sandwich, and he’d never see which one was coming until it was too late.

Dealing with this kind of life is rather stressful, so Chance also has another outlet.  After 23 arrests and no convictions (that’s what happens when you end up in the wrong place at the right time), he comes to the attention of Dr. Ann Richter (Cynthia Martells), a criminal psychologist who takes an interest in his Strange Luck.

After she puts him under hypnosis, he discovers lost memories of his brother Eric, mysteriously taken from the family just before the plane crash.  He later discovers Eric may hold some clues to both that fateful event, and to the rather weird patterns of his life… if only Chance can find him.

“I’d love to sleep nights, like other people.  Get a normal job.  Get married, have kids.  The whole boring thing.  But it’s not going to happen until my luck runs out.”
–Chance Harper

Chance didn’t ask for this kind of life, but that’s what he’s been dealt, and while he doesn’t necessarily go looking for trouble, it finds him anyway.  In most “franchise” shows, like the typical lawyer, cop, or doctor series, stories come from the clients/crooks/patients that come through the door on a regular basis.  In Strange Luck, stories come to Chance as well, but they can take the most unusual routes possible to get there, and it’s still all part of the show if you accept the initial premise.  (There’s one episode that concerns itself with a potato shaped like the image of Elvis Presley’s head.  No, really.  And it’s a pretty good episode, despite the almost ridiculous idea.)  This is a gold mine for television writers, as suddenly most of the regular rules of television fly right out the window.

Good television writing requires rules of the road, so to speak.  Characters must face some type of jeopardy or emotional crisis just before every commercial (to entice the audience to stick around through the ads), so much of the previous script is devoted to leading up to that event.  Similarly, a new character can’t just show up at the end of the story to present necessary evidence in a mystery, or the audience feels cheated.  The world of a particular series is a fairly predictable place, unless you’ve established it as science fiction or fantasy, and even then certain rules are created for that universe.  With Strange Luck, the only rule needed was that, around Chance, anything could happen… and probably did.

Jeopardy?  Easy, a shooter shows up at a car crash Chance has discovered, while passing by, which leads to Chance being mistakenly arrested instead.  That final clue to the mystery?  Again, Chance finds that clue through the least likely person, someone Chance may have met, but through completely different (and entirely unrelated) circumstances.  You can have almost anything happen as long as Chance is in the vicinity, no matter how unlikely… the simple fact that he has a 1 in 7 chance of winning the lottery instead of 1 in a million doesn’t mean he’s a millionaire, it means that something will likely happen to the money long before he could spend it anyway, so he doesn’t even try anymore.  He’s got other things to deal with… all the time, it seems.

“The whole notion of when you get in a car accident, and you think to yourself, if I had just been taking ten seconds more getting out the door, I wouldn’t have been going through that intersection at that moment.  What is that about?  Why was I there at that instant? Then when you find yourself in a situation like that, what’s your responsibility?  I think everybody has those moments in their life that make them think about ‘Why am I here on this planet?’  For Chance, those moments just come up every episode.  That’s sort of the snapshots of this life that we’re taking, when things get really interesting.”
Strange Luck creator Karl Schaefer

“If I see a situation where somebody’s needs help, I get involved.  I don’t think about it.  I just do it.”
–Chance, after saving a woman jumping off a building… by jumping with her.

Ordinary characters don’t get network television shows.  That’s why Schaefer created Chance Harper.  Strange Luck was far beyond ordinary, and so was Schaefer.  He was an executive producer on Eerie, Indiana (mentioned in passing on Strange Luck, as Chance had occasionally sold photos to the Eerie Examiner, the town paper in that series).  He later went on to produce the first season of the quirky Eureka, as well as being instrumental in production of both The Dead Zone and Ghost Whisperer.  If anyone could do weird or strange and make it work, it would be Schaefer.  Besides, he had personal experience.  He can tell the story….

“On the way driving from the airport into the office, upon arriving in Vancouver the first day I got in an accident.  I’ve been attacked by a naked psychopath and battled with him for 45 minutes while on the phone with Grant Tinker.  Pulled a woman off a bridge who was trying to jump onto the Santa Ana Freeway.  Saw a woman drowning in the Los Angeles riverbed, some friends and I.  We weren’t able to save her but we saved a companion of hers.  Just, you know, things happen to me.  I’ve probably dialed 911 more times than just about anybody in L.A.  I have an office on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga that is actually in the building that Raymond Chandler put Phillip Marlowe’s office in.  It looks right down Hollywood Boulevard, and I wrote at night for years.  Sometimes, I would call 911 two or three times in a night, just going, “Yeah, there’s another woman screaming out there on the corner.”  I think that’s what drove me to write this idea, is like wondering why does anything happen to anybody.  What is that about?  Life.  There’s a million little coincidences that we all swing through everyday; and if you take every one and spin it towards yourself and say, is this something I need to get involved in?  Is this something I’m responsible for?  Then, you know, you’re going to get involved in a lot more strange occurrences and incidents.”

And you thought Strange Luck was about a fictional character?  Not a chance….

D.B. SWEENEY (Chance Harper) has been featured in numerous recurring roles on TV, appearing in Jericho, Life as We Know It, Now and Again, Harsh Realm, Criminal Minds, and The Event.  His movie roles include stellar performances in Eight Men Out and The Cutting Edge.  His newest projects are starring in a TNT pilot (currently filming) called Brain Trust, and creating a website called Letters from Hollywood which supports the US troops overseas with messages of encouragement and thanks.

FRANCES FISHER (Angie) has had an eclectic and varied career, appearing in two Oscar winning Best Picture movies (Titanic and Unforgiven), numerous TV series (Eureka, The Mentalist, Becker, The Shield), and starring in theatre productions in New York and Los Angeles too numerous to mention here.  She has been on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, and portrayed TV legend Lucille Ball in the TV biopic Lucy & Desi:  Before the Laughter.

PAMELA GIDLEY (Audrey Westin) first found fame winning the title of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” from the Wilhemina Modeling Agency in 1985.  She played regular and recurring roles in Tour of Duty, CSI, The Pretender, and Skin.  She also had a featured role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk with Me.

CYNTHIA MARTELLS (Dr. Anne Richter) is a Tony nominee for August Wilson’s Two Trains Running on Broadway, and was a regular on another loved but short-lived series Veritas:  The Quest.  She was originally a pre-law student before catching the acting bug, which led to her being admitted to the prestigious fine arts program at Rutgers University and a long string of New York theatre parts, on and off Broadway.

Fate's long shadow

Strange Luck was designed to be a companion piece to the previous season’s The X-Files, which aired immediately after it.  Luck even referenced that show indirectly, with a message to Chance from his brother Eric that, should anything strange happen to him, Chance should call an Agent Mulder at the FBI.  I’m not sure the phone would ever stop ringing….

As a TV series, Strange Luck has its own good and bad karma (of course).  It was one of the highest rated shows that ever aired on FOX in the Friday 8/7 Central time slot, and yet didn’t see a second season.  The series was blessed with music by artists like Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKennit, Sinead O’Connor, and John Lee Hooker… so of course there’s no DVD available (let alone a soundtrack), most likely because of the costs record labels charge for music rights.  The episodes are available in chunked form on YouTube, but you can tell that these are taped broadcast copies, with occasional drop-outs and somewhat messy edits in and out of commercial breaks… but at least they’re there.  The Unofficial Strange Luck homepage has some decent information, but links there to a number of other Strange Luck sites are dead, so again it’s a win/lose situation.  Even my own experience in researching and writing about Strange Luck has been both blessed and cursed, because normally with these articles I have an abundance of pictures to choose from and very few quotes available, and Strange Luck seems to be the opposite.  The limited number of pictures from a full-season show that aired in 1995 is almost unheard of.  (I had more to choose from for 1978’s The Paper Chase and 1966’s The Green Hornet in the last couple of weeks….)

But then, maybe that’s what Strange Luck actually celebrates… the improbable, the unusual, those occurrences that each of us only notices occasionally, even though they’re likely all around us.  It helps us see the events that we take for granted in rare numbers, but are more noticeable when they’re experienced in the way Chance does.  I hope that experiencing these articles makes everyone more aware of those hidden gems and rare shows that didn’t get noticed the first time around… and might finally get that DVD release, or just the renewed memory of the fun and adventure from the past.  I can only wish to have the some of the luck that Chance Harper did, and that the Chinese curse about interesting times will apply to me as well.  If so, I’ll continue to enjoy these wonderful, forgotten, interesting shows… and have the good fortune to share them with all.

(p.s. I ordered the bootleg DVDs of this series a full three weeks before I was going to begin writing this, and in true Strange Luck fashion they arrived the day AFTER I finished the article.  Not only that, but the envelope looked like it had been run over at least once.  Tracking shows that the package did more traveling than I have personally over the last year, and came close to hitting both coasts… but it’s here, and it works, so I’m grateful.  Like Chance, you just never know….)

Vital Stats

17 aired episodes — none unaired
FOX Network
First aired episode:  September 15, 1995
Last aired episode:  February 23, 1996
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Just its luck, of course it did… and see what happened?  One season and gone.  Even the show’s real Strange Luck couldn’t save it from that time slot.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Odds are that you might remember this show, as it’s only from fifteen or so years ago.  But then, if you really want to play the odds, then the lead on this one is the right guy to have at your side.  (Or maybe the wrong one, as there’s very little middle ground here.)  You never knew what could happen, except that it wasn’t the expected by any means.  Five quotes:

“Things don’t always turn out the way I plan.  Things happen to me.”

…and he’d never see which one was coming until it was too late.

This is a gold mine for television writers, as suddenly most of the regular rules of television fly right out the window.

“I think everybody has those moments in their life that make them think about ‘Why am I here on this planet?'”

The series was blessed with music by artists like Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKinnet, Sinead O’Connor, and John Lee Hooker…

An unpredictable show, where odd plot twists didn’t just occasionally happen, they were mandatory.  Nothing ordinary about this one.  Come read about this strange show this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“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 leave thinking like a lawyer.”
–Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. in The Paper Chase

Hart and Kingsfield

Easily one of the most intelligent series ever on American television, The Paper Chase focuses on first-year law students at a prestigious northeastern university.  The students are in awe… and occasionally in terror… of Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), who teaches their course in contract law.  He is demanding, sarcastic, overbearing, and yet one of the most principled men you’d ever meet.  He holds his charges’ professional futures in his hands, a responsibility he takes extremely seriously.  He’s the best legal mind in the country, and he’ll challenge every single student each and every day to make them the best lawyers possible.  And in addition to learning the law, they just might learn something about life, and about themselves….

The biggest challenge is for new student James T. Hart (James Stephens), who’s left his mid-western home to learn from his idol Kingsfield, and runs afoul of him immediately.  Unprepared on the first day, Hart ends up being “shrouded” by Kingsfield for his inability to perform in class.  Metaphorically, Hart is dead to Kingsfield, proving the point to the rest of the students about the high expectations he has for all of them.  Hart tries to get Kingsfield to relent, but that really isn’t going to work….

Hart:  “Please give me another chance, Professor Kingsfield.  Please don’t keep me shrouded all year long….”

Kingsfield:  “Mr. Hart, you are no longer in high school, nor in college.  You’re in a professional school, a law school, where there is no room for error.  It is my obligation to prepare my students to exist in the most competitive of all worlds… where there is also no room for error.  Good day, Mr. Hart.”

Hart:  “But Professor Kingsfield….”

Kingsfield:  “Mr. Hart.  Can you imagine a lawyer who goes into court unprepared?  And after he’s lost his case, goes crawling to the judge’s chambers to beg for forgiveness, to ask the judge to give him another chance?  Good day, Mr. Hart.

Hart:  “I…”

Kingsfield:  “Good DAY!”

the study group

But Hart didn’t come here to be ignored, and he didn’t really come here just to learn.  He came here to prove his worth, to himself and to Kingsfield.  He forms a study group with other students, including the privileged Franklin Ford III (Tom Fitzsimmons), who is the latest in a long family line of lawyers; and Willis Bell (James Keane), whose disheveled looks and manner hide a perceptive legal mind.  Ford and Bell become Hart’s best friends, and like true friends they often come to each other’s aid when necessary, despite the incredible competition involved with the rigors of law school.

Rounding out the group are Robert Anderson (Robert Ginty), a smooth orator who is as good with the opposite sex as he is in the classroom; Elizabeth Logan (Francine Tacker), who sees the law as a social and political crusade; and married student Jonathan Brooks (Jonathan Sagall), who divides his time between his new wife and the demands of his studies.

Hart finds his way out from under Kingsfield’s “shroud” (in one of the best sequences of the series, the finale of the pilot episode), and begins his journey through both law and life, learning all along the way.  His friends do the same, and each of them have moments when they fall, some further than others.  One student doesn’t even last the year, others struggle, and together they all do what they must to find a way through.

Intimidating as ever

The series showed flashes of brilliance, especially when CBS didn’t get in the way of the intelligence.  There were a few episodes where the drama turned into a bit of melodrama, focusing instead on the private lives of Hart and company instead of their studies and how their schooling (and Kingsfield) affected them.  (Notoriously, Houseman even refused to appear in one episode, citing its poor writing and plot… but then, when you’ve been as good as this show usually was, the rare poor episode was rather surprising.  Houseman got his message across, and the “external” plotlines were dispensed with in favor of the regular characters and their “trials”, both legal and interpersonal, as framed by their study of the law.  Don’t mess with Professor Kingsfield….)

Kingsfield teaches contract law, which is appropriate since The Paper Chase is really a portrayal of the implied contract between students and their teacher.  Knowledge is exchanged for performance, with the understanding that either party withholding their part would make the experience meaningless.  The cases used in the classroom are real ones, and they usually reflect in some way on the personal conflicts of the students.  Contracts are about fulfilling obligations, perceived and real expectations, agreed terms, and reward and compensation for performance.  That’s not just classroom theory or legal-speak, it is how people live their real lives… and real life is what Kingsfield demands that his students prepare for every single day.

Kingsfield has a measured presence, with no tolerance for fools or excuses, and permits himself none as well.  He wants his students to become even better than they think possible, and makes sure that they realize the price of failure.  There’s a difference between being a tyrant, and demanding the best, and Kingsfield only seemed like a tyrant to those who would prefer the easy way.  To those (like Hart) who want to be the best, there’s the unspoken “contract” between student and teacher to live up to, and therein lies the drama.  Because Professor Kingsfield is a man you didn’t dare disappoint.

Ford, Hart, and Bell

There’s a challenge to the students… and there’s also a challenge to the viewer of The Paper Chase.  This show doesn’t have car chases, or cops finding a killer.  The Paper Chase celebrates intelligence, and the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is worthwhile in and of itself.  It shows learning as a noble goal, and that people’s lives could (and would) change because of it.  How many “entertainment” shows in the history of television can say that?

“Mr. Hart.  Here is a dime.  Call your mother, and tell her you are not going to become a lawyer….”
–Professor Kingsfield

Unfortunately, popular television (especially in 1978 when the series premiered) wasn’t exactly known for going hand-in-hand with intelligence.  This was the era when disco was king, and two of the top three shows on television were Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley… and guess what show was scheduled against them?  If you said The Paper Chase, go to the head of the class….

In a rare display of faith, CBS actually gave the low rated series a full season to try to prove itself, and although it was critically hailed, it didn’t really make a dent in the ratings, especially given such popular competition.  The people’s verdict had been returned, and after 22 episodes this case was closed.  However, there might be grounds for appeal….

“This is law school.  The whole point is to argue, to disagree.”
–Hart to Ford

This is where, technically, The Paper Chase breaks the law, not only on this website, but television “law” in general.  I could argue the letter of the law, that the CBS run of the show was only one season, therefore making it eligible for coverage here.  But reruns of the show found a home on, of all places, PBS the following year, achieving rather respectable numbers for the ratings-challenged network.  Others took note, especially then-fledgling cable channel Showtime, which was looking for something to add to their slate of Hollywood movies to make them unique.  The literate cache of The Paper Chase was perfect, so in 1983 (five years after the original series had premiered — actual law school only lasts three) Showtime began airing The Paper Chase — The Second Year.  Two more short seasons followed, with the students graduating in 1985, ending the series.

On cable, The Paper Chase was able to tackle more controversial subjects, including drug abuse, abortion, and senility (which were pretty much taboo subjects on network television back then), and an infusion of new students brought new perspectives and new storylines.  The series won two Cable Ace Awards for Best Dramatic Series, and proved for the first time that there was life after a network run.  (Would that more shows got a reprieve from death row cancellation.)  The “contract” with the audience had been fulfilled, and for once, a series that deserved more than one season actually got one.  Justice had been served.

JOHN HOUSEMAN (Prof. Kingsfield) started his theatre career in a fruitful and occasionally stormy partnership with the legendary Orson Welles,  involving him with both Citizen Kane and the memorable radio production of The War of the Worlds.  Houseman started the drama department at the famous Julliard School for the Arts, and later produced numerous pictures for Paramount.  In 1972, director James Bridges asked him to play Kingsfield in The Paper Chase film, a role for which he won an Oscar (in only his second major movie).  Bridges notes, “Before there was Kingsfield there was John Houseman.  He was the Kingsfield to many of the actors, producers, directors on the American stage today.”  He wrote three volumes of his memoirs (Run-Through, Front and Center, and Final Dress; later combined into an omnibus edition entitled Unfinished Business).  He died in 1988.

JAMES STEPHENS (Hart) is best known (other than his starring role on The Paper Chase) as Father Phillip Prestwick, turning a couple of guest shots into a regular role on the Father Dowling Mysteries.  Other guest parts included Diagnosis: Murder, Matlock, and multiple episodes (and characters) on Murder, She Wrote.  He also directed an episode of The Paper Chase in its final season (we’ll call it his senior thesis!)

TOM FITZSIMMONS (Ford) was primarily a stage actor, appearing in many Broadway and regional productions.  His most significant stage role was in the long-running production of The Elephant Man on Broadway, playing the lead role of John Merrick off and on for two years.

JAMES KEANE (Bell) is an experienced voice actor, doing projects as diverse as Hey Arnold! and Spawn.  He also played recurring roles in both 7th Heaven and October Road, and is still active as an actor today, most recently in an episode of CSI this past year.

ROBERT GINTY (Anderson) and FRANCINE TACKER (Logan) met on the set of The Paper Chase and later married.  Ginty had been a regular on The Black Sheep Squadron, and later segued into directing and producing, including episodes of China Beach, Xena, Nash Bridges, and Charmed, and starring in the cult hit movie The Exterminator.  He died of cancer in 2009.  Tacker was a regular on the series Goodtime Girls, and later left acting and became a schoolteacher at the prestigious Sidwell Friends school in Washington D.C. (which you may have heard of, as it’s the school that President Obama’s daughters attend.)

JONATHAN SAGALL (Brooks) left Hollywood not long after his short stint on The Paper Chase (where he was credited as “Jonathan Segal”).  Sagall moved to Israel, where he’s become a leading movie and theatre producer/director.  His movie Urban Feel (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) won two Israeli Academy Awards, and many of his other prize-winning productions have been featured in film festivals around the world.

The CBS year of The Paper Chase is available on DVD, as is part of the Showtime run.  These are relatively recent releases, so hopefully further episodes will be available in the near future.  The initial “shrouding” sequence from the pilot is on YouTube as well as the show’s opening, and there are a couple of great TV Guide articles (one of which is even written by Houseman himself) about the larger-than-life figure of Kingsfield.  Of course, there’s also the source material of the original movie and book on which the series is based.  (The book is by John Jay Osborn Jr., who was also heavily involved in the series, writing a quarter of the episodes.)

“What I have learned a great deal about is the philosophy of the law as expounded by Professor Kingsfield and the nature of what the law should be in our national lives.  And I believe the popularity of The Paper Chase stems not just from Kingsfield but the whole conception of the law as a dignified, important, and philosophically justifiable function of our society.”
–John Houseman, on the impact of the series and its emphasis on the law

“Law” is really the rules society makes in order to get along.  It constantly evolves and changes as we change, becoming a living, breathing thing — just like the people who make it, interpret it, learn it, and teach it.  So much of our modern society has become about trying to take advantage of the law that we forget why it’s there in the first place.  It is not designed for us to find the loopholes… it is to make sure that we all have a standard to live up to.  Professor Kingsfield set an incredibly high standard for his students, and The Paper Chase set just as high a standard for its viewers as well.  More shows should demand the same, of themselves, and of us.  And, like Kingsfield, Hart, and the rest, we should never settle for less.

Vital Stats

22 aired episodes (CBS) — 37 aired episodes (Showtime) — none unaired
CBS Network (later revived on Showtime)
First aired episode:  September 9, 1978
Last aired episode:  April 24, 1979 (CBS); August 9, 1986 (Showtime)
Aired Friday 8/7 Central?  Tuesdays at 8/7 Central for the CBS run.  Multiple airtimes on Showtime.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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