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Reviewed by Will Harris
he 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 Kingsfield
A drama about a bunch of law students? Sounds like the perfect cure for insomnia, doesn’t it? Even in the 1970s, it’s hard to imagine that the network executives over at CBS looked at the pitch for “The Paper Chase” and saw the show sweeping the ratings.
Strangely enough, however, I have extremely fond memories of watching “The Paper Chase” during its original airing. Why is this strange? Because I was only eight years old at the time. Clearly, it was not a show that I would’ve spontaneously decided to watch at that age, but when my parents tuned in, I found it to be compelling viewing. 30 years later, the series is showing its age a bit, but it still proves far more riveting than not – and it isn’t simply because of John Houseman.
“The Paper Chase” was the spawn of the 1973 film of the same name, which itself had been the adaptation of a novel by John Jay Osbourne, Jr. In all three, we are witness to the experiences of a law student – James Hart – as he takes on the wild world of law school and must survive the king of contract law: Professor Charles Kingsfield. Though the role of Mr. Hart was portrayed by James Stephens in the series (Timothy Bottoms played the role in the film), John Houseman carried over from movie to TV. Thank heavens he did, as it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have possibly filled his shoes.
It’s impossible to underestimate Houseman’s importance to “The Paper Chase.” As Professor Kingsfield, he’s a glowering, menacing figure whose knowledge of the law is so well documented that his students are forever walking a tightrope: they’re scared to death of him, but they’d die to impress him. He stands before them and demands that they know the material he’s assigned, and if they do not, then they should brace themselves for a withering glance and a pithy comment in return. Even the dean is intimidated by Kingsfield, as well as should be. Although Kingsfield is forever snapping at his secretary, Mrs. Nottingham, “Never keep the dean waiting,” it’s made quite clear that it’ll be a cold day in Hell when he’ll accept that the administration might know more about his class or his students than he does.
Although Mr. Hart is clearly the focus of the series, the other members of his study group – Ford (Tom Fitzsimmons), Bell (James Keane), Anderson (Robert Ginty) and Logan (Francine Tacker) – get a fair amount of screen and story time during the course of the first season. Unfortunately, their personal storylines are the element of “The Paper Chase” which has aged the worst, as we’re forced to endure Logan dealing with sexism (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Once More, With Feeling”), Anderson battling an addiction to gambling (“Losing Streak”), and Bell’s sad-sack attempts to woo one of Hart’s ex-girlfriends (“Bell and Love”). There’s also a trio of heavy-handed issue-oriented episodes that may make you squirm on occasion: “The Man in the Chair” (about a handicapped student), “A Matter of Honor” (about an African-American student), and “A Case of Détente,” where Hart falls in love with a Russian gymnast. It’s worth noting that while that last one is arguably the easiest to skip over, due to the complete absence of John Houseman, it may amuse viewers to discover that Professor Kingsfield’s absence results in a guest lecturer: Trapper John, MD! (Okay, so Pernell Roberts’ character here is actually one of Kingsfield’s associates but you’ll still look at him and think, “Hey, it’s Trapper John!”)
Despite these attempts to keep up with the trends and events of the time, “The Paper Chase” still manages to resonate as a classic series because of its intelligence. Its best episodes focus on the amount of information that every student must absorb, the amount of stress involved with trying to maintain one’s studies and hold down a job, and how personal relationships fall by the wayside as a result of the pressure of law school. Though I can’t personally speak to the accuracy of the law school experience, it’s easy to imagine that there’s a fair amount of reality in an episode like “The Seating Chart,” where Bell is paranoid that the fact that he looks so dumb in his photo on Kingsfield’s seating chart is why the professor calls on him so often, or “Da Da,” where a student finds himself failing both at his studies and his marriage because his inability to master the former is so often keeping him from the latter.
There’s no question that John Houseman is the biggest reason you should take a chance on “The Paper Chase,” but as a whole, the series remains a testament to a time when networks actually trusted that its viewers were intelligent enough to be interested in a show that was more about the educational process than the students’ post-class activities. That trust has long since departed, alas, but at least we have proof that it once existed.
Special Features: None. Houseman certainly has a good excuse, but what happened to the rest of the gang? It would’ve been nice to see the whole bunch of them do a roundtable of reminiscing, but given that Stephens’ performance as the idealistic Mr. Hart was as integral to the show’s success as Houseman’s, you’d think that at least he would’ve been agreeable to reminiscing about such a great moment from his career. (Where’d he go, anyway? He seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, but if he’s died, no one seems to have any record of it.) It’s disappointing, to be sure.