First Years, Second Impressions
November 1, 2009
Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center
Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year. The show had an unusual history. Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes. It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.
I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas. It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.
1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme.
But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular? Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning. Their status would change quite a bit from year to year. (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision). And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one. I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show.
2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed. This created a weird kind of disjuncture. I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be.
When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season. I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university. (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.) But, nope. The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it. Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place.
Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center. Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic. And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes. I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978.
If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.
3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea. The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework. Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard). In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law.
Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer. Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method. The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him. The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law. Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”). The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.
The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt. And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes. I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen). What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects. “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…” Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.
I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more. The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls. (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election). And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut.
When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow. I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days. I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.