Defending the Defenders

July 14, 2016


The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network.  It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues).  At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television.  It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political.  Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction.  While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down.  It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD.  Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season.  It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men.  Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.

Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air.  Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere.  The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto YouTube).  Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments.  Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation.  That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.

Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.

Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a gibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man?  Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation?  First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too.  Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness.  The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.

You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season.  Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.


The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason.  If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases.  Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable.  As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it.  (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks.  The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)

It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand.  Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether.  In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories.  “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air.  “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car?  But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).

Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience?  I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map.  The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps.  Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it.  The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit.  The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season.  The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.


Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution.  The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor.  Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing.  (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.)  But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66.  A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of belated mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule.  The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a subconscious acknowledgment that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.

I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek.  Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff.   It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril.  

In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series.  “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it.  (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.)  The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it.  Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel away the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it.  12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece.  (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.)  As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added?   (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts.  So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)

Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it?  And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage.  The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back.  There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy.  Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.”  (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition.  Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?)  The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day.  The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year.  Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.


For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great.  Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism.  The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt.  Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly.  In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is depicted as a refuge of barbarians.  This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable.  Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks.  Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of hand-wringing or soul-searching.  He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works.  Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience.  When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair.  Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.  

All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama.  The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.

After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones.  “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism.  “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors who use strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying against it.  “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their idealism when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi.  “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either.  Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.


I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the high-mindedness of 12 Angry Men.  Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series.  Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between.  An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air.  Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought.  Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.

The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it.  Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode.  Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.


I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD.   (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.)  Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.  

(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)  

Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?”  The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation.  The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.

Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.

47 Responses to “Defending the Defenders”

  1. Is that William Daniels in one of the screen shots? Appropriate, since “St. Elsewhere” has the same problem of a weak first season.

  2. David Bushman Says:

    I was program director at TV Land back in the midnineties when Paramount, a sister company, finally cleared whatever hurdles existed to licensing repeats of The Defenders (as I recall it had something to do with the DGA, but that might be faulty). I fought long, hard, and futilely to persuade our VP of programming to buy for the 11 pm to midnight hour, which was occupied by Mannix at the time, but this was a woman whose idea of great television was The Brady Bunch. She wasn’t interested in a sober black and white socially conscious legal drama. Awesome, awesome piece, Stephen.

    • Neville Ross Says:

      Pardon my saying so, David, but she was/is a stupid ignorant dolt, and clearly an indicator of why that channel has suffered the mission creep it has (no longer airing reruns, but now airing new original programming like Hot In Cleveland, and constantly airing and re-airing shit like The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island because people absolutely love shows in which nonsense happens, causing people to lose interest in reruns, therefore making said mission creep happen.) Kind of like how the Sci-Fi Channel no longer shows that much sci-fi (and changed its name slightly to SyFy.)

      Too bad the the channel couldn’t also show Slattery’s People, The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, and East Side/West Side, all of which are similar to The Defenders in tone. Too bad also that we can’t get another cable TV channel similar to TCM, but for TV, as this article states, so that shows like The Defenders could be shown in all of their glory.

      • Elise Richey Says:

        it just occurred to me that Robert Reed was a regular in The Defenders, playing a character with thought provoking scenes, and then slipped into a role where he got to play “nonsense” in The Brady Bunch.

  3. Lex Passaris Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful bit of context on the first year.
    My memories from the original run did not extend much farther than the stirring theme and bold images of Foley Square (I was 5 when it premiered). Yet even then, I knew it was an important show. I saw some episodes during its syndication run in the late 60s and read what little I could find about it over the years. On my first visit to what is now the Paley Center (then known as the Museum of Broadcasting) in the early 90s, I eagerly watched “The Blacklist” episode (dubbed from a pretty shabby print, I will add). Later, I inhaled the thirty or so extant episodes readily available amongst collectors, plus a few others I found through other means.
    I’d all but given up on this holy grail of TV history — until the Shout Factory announcement.
    With eager anticipation, I received my set on the first day of purchase (Tuesday) and have made my way through the episodes in order – and, ironically, given your suggestion, just last night finished the episode, “The Attack.”
    While I fully expected “growing pains” at the beginning (I’ve had the honor to be involved in a few long-running programs and know full well the grace period needed to find itself that all shows should be afforded – sorely lacking these days). Apropos of your remarks, I did notice the dramatic unevenness of this season so far – even close to the halfway mark. My guesses as to why were similar to those of your more researched observations. Most of all – I can imagine the network asking for more and more “Perry Mason” like stories (hence, no doubt, the brow-beating of Pat Hingle in “The Trial of Jenny Scott.”)
    Two observations/questions came to mind. I was prepared that high end restoration was unlikely and much of the original materials may not even still exist, and the “adequate” quality of the prints holds fast with this expectation. However, before “The Perjury” there is a disclaimer that the print was sourced from the best material available. While most of the print roughly matched the quality of the others — there were a few scenes which dropped in quality — do you think this was restored footage added back from syndication cut-downs?
    Also, given that the show premiered in September of ’61 (and probably was not even ordered from pilot until Spring of that year) most of the exterior shots from the first ten or so shows aired have snow on the sidewalks and streets, but to make the air dates – production would have had to commence in the Summer. Any thoughts on the look of this? Could they have started production the previous winter?
    Oh yes, and thanks for clarifying why one of the episodes was primarily shot in LA.
    Nonetheless, as you pointed out, even the clunkers have merit and I fervently hope that Shout Factory will see fit to release the remaining seasons.
    Again, thanks for all you have written on this amazing series over the years (and everything else you write, for that matter).

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I really don’t know what elements CBS had to work from, and I haven’t seen the DVD release yet, so I can’t comment on that.

      In terms of the chronology: The pilot (“Death Across the Counter”) was shot in January or February 1960, in Los Angeles, because Rose and Brodkin were still finishing their final Playhouse 90s, which were taped at CBS Television City. The pilot was rejected for the 1960-61 season that spring, but revived (I’m not quite sure why) around the end of the year; it was in production for a 26-episode commitment by mid-January 1961. So, yes, the first episodes would’ve been shot in winter. Production continued until early August, laid off for a month, then picked up again on September 5. On September 8 Rose told Billboard that they had 18 episodes “finished” (meaning, in the can or fully edited?), with “The Benefactor” in front of the cameras on that date. (Which means that more than half of the first season was in the can before the premiere — “The Quality of Mercy” was filmed in June — so CBS had a lot of leeway in selecting airdates.) If they only finished 18 episodes in seven and a half months, they must’ve either had unusually long schedules or another hiatus sometime in spring of ’61. The company broke again for a month in December and January, picking up again in mid-January of 1962 (I guess for the “back six”)? Do some of the last first season episodes also look wintry? The Nurses started production in May 1962 (normal for a fall debut), but The Defenders was in production before that, in April. So I guess they shot the first and second seasons back-to-back, with several breaks of no more than a month. Wow. You really get the sense that Brodkin’s company was really figuring out on the job how to keep a weekly filmed show going during that first Defenders season.

      I swear I had a list of the first season’s production sequence somewhere; if I find it, I’ll post it.

      • Lex Passaris Says:

        I look forward to that production list if you find it – and thanks.

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        I can’t say for certain without schlepping uptown, but I’m guessing that the production sequence matches the order of Reginald Rose’s scripts at Columbia:

        A Back Stage article that ran on May 26, 1961, lists the title of the episode then in production (“The Best Defense”) and the one immediately preceding it (“The Bedside Murder”), as well as the projected shooting schedule for the next eight episodes:

        “The Young Lovers” (June 6-14)
        “The Quality of Mercy” (June 15-23)
        “The Treadmill” (June 26-July 5)
        “The Empty Chute” (July 6-14)
        “The Point Shaver” (July 17-25)
        “The Storm at Birch Glen” (July 26-August 2)
        “The Girl From Sutton Place” (probably an early title for “The Prowler”) (August 4-14)
        “The Locked Room” (August 15-23)

        You can see that this starts to diverge from the Rose scripts once it gets to “The Point Shaver,” but of course that’s about seven weeks after the article ran; it’s plausible that Plautus subsequently shuffled the shooting schedule in a way that matches the Rose scripts. Also the August hiatus I mentioned above probably delayed filming of the last one or two titles on that list. The Back Stage article also lists directors assigned to some scripts — “The Point Shaver” (John Brahm), “The Storm at Birch Glen” (Paul Bogart), and “The Locked Room” (Buzz Kulik) — who ended up not doing those episodes, again suggesting a reshuffle after the directors were booked for certain slots (i.e., “Storm at Birch Glen” was moved up a week in place of “The Point Shaver,” so Brahm directed “Storm” instead; Bogart was booked for the following slot and ended up doing “The Prowler” instead of “Storm”).

      • Lex Passaris Says:

        It would be quite interesting to find out what caused the change of heart in the pick-up process – still glad that they did.
        There was a book a few years back – I think it was a biography of Nat Hiken – in which the supposition was put forward that the three shows, The Defenders, Car 54 and Naked City were (for a while) the last hurrah of scripted and filmed programming in New York – most other production had moved on to the West Coast. Seeing the caliber of acting in even most awkward of “The Defenders” episodes says a great deal about its success despite the low production values (especially the omnipresent “Brodkins”). Well, even a wonderful cast couldn’t much help “Gideon’s Follies” — if you haven’t seen it of late — have a strong belt first. Ironically, Zohra Lampert had been in the previous episode, The Prowler” (by air date at least), in a much better role.

    • Christian A. Says:

      Hi Lex, I noticed the same thing about the snow and they obviously started filming in early 1961. There were two notable snow events in early 1961: The January 19/20 ‘Kennedy Snowstorm’ which produced about a foot of snow and the February 3/4 which was over a foot of snow. (There was also a mid-December storm in 1960 if we think they started filming that early.)

      I found a video of one of the 1961 events:


  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I like “Gideon’s Follies”!

    • Lex Passaris Says:

      Just seems so odd for this series – more a drawing room murder mystery than anything else.

      • Lee Says:

        I just happened to watch Gideon’s Follies today. The ending is certainly…different. But up to that flashback sequence, it struck me as what a Burke’s Law episode would have looked like if E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed replaced Gene Barry and Gary Conway. It’s that same style and tone, even though Burke’s Law didnt yet exist.

        In terms of your larger thesis, Steven, from what I’ve seen of the series, The Defenders seems to have started out as a show that tried to incorporate all the different genres possible in a legal setting. Yes, there are Perry Mason knockoffs, as well as issue-oriented dramas; but there are also comedies, character studies, and suspense pieces. After the first season, as you describe, the series seems to have mostly settled into social dramas. The first season seems to reflect Rose’s roots in anthology drama. A lot of shows in that late ’50s-early ’60s period had that philosophy of “we have our observational regulars and beyond that, we are free to do anything we want this week.” Have Gun, Will Travel would be another successful example. Perhaps, after considering the first season, Rose and Brodkin realized that the issue-oriented dramas and the real legal questions made for their best shows and subsequently narrowed their focus.

        (On a totally unrelated note, just wanted to say to Mr. Passaris that I am a big fan of his work, and it was nice to see him commenting here.)

      • Lex Passaris Says:

        Good observations, Lee, and thanks for the nod.

  5. Rick Says:

    I have now watched the first eight episodes and two of them were completely ruined for me by defects. One (can’t recall the title) had unacceptable noise and hiss in the background. The one I am watching now – The Accident – has a constant clicking noise (about two times per second) throughout. Does anyone else have complaints about the quality?

    • Lex Passaris Says:

      I have noticed that the quality of the transfers is of a mixed nature at best. As I suggested in an earlier discussion – my guess is that many of the original elements no longer exist or were available only at a prohibitive cost. Remember that this series virtually vanished from syndication for decades and so did not enjoy many of the regular “maintenance” routines of periodic restoration that might accompany continual viewing of a series.
      Nonetheless, the quality of these far exceeds the dub of a dub of a dub of a dub that constituted the collector prints available for years – and for a series of this import, I can only hope that they continue with the release of subsequent seasons with as high a quality as possible, but with all episodes represented.

  6. SteveHL Says:

    A wonderful, very informative post about one of my most fondly-remembered television series. Thank you.

  7. Lex Passaris Says:

    I have been sidetracked of late and so today began watching the last two discs of episodes. The first one on disc 7 is “The Iron Man.” It is one episode that has been kicking about for years, and I remembered the basic story, but had forgotten many of the details. In watching the first scene alone, well, it could be something straight out of a Trump rally from this year. Prescience? or just a great example of the more things change, the more they stay the same?
    Of note, the technical quality of this episode’s transfer was among the better ones – I suspect that it has been maintained through the years due to its story content.
    Still a great series, I fervently hope that Shout Factory follows through with the remaining seasons. On to another episode.

  8. Adam Tawfik Says:

    I waited to watch the entire season before I read your article as I plan to do my own write up on it soonish. I must say Stephen, that you are spot on with your analysis. Watching the episodes, I thought they were good, or at least had interesting moments/themes, but I found myself wanting more.

    I think that The Attack is easily the best episode of the 1st season. It was interesting how they made the defendant generally unsympathetic and the writer doesn’t try too hard to make us have a change of heart for Richard Kiley’s vigilante. If anything, plot points problematize his actions even more. It’s one of the few episodes where Lawrence Preston is truly humbled and doesn’t look like the knight and shining armor.

    Despite all the controversy surrounding The Benefactor, it really isn’t the super strong pro-choice rally that you’d think; it’s a teensy bit more lax than a pro-life stance with the exception of rape annd incest. The overall quality suffers from the series general indecisiveness and trying to have it all ways as if to not truly offend anybody. Honestly, I thought The Young Lovers dealt with similar themes of rigid, narrow-minded adults and inexperienced teenagers over their head better than Benefactor.

    I have seen a few of the episodes from the later seasons from a “private collection” and yes it seems like the show wasn’t as afraid of moral ambiguity. I certainly hope that Shout Factory releases the other 3 seasons. I’ll buy them in a heartbeat. Stephen, If you have any clout, maybe you’ll get them interested in releasing Slattery’s People. From reading Joseph Harder’s essays it sounds like an interesting show.

    Thank you for another excellent article on the unfairly neglected early 60s TV Drama.

    • Neville Ross Says:

      If you have any clout, maybe you’ll get them interested in releasing Slattery’s People. From reading Joseph Harder’s essays it sounds like an interesting show.

      Getting that show released will probably be harder than anything, as it too hasn’t been seen in decades and looks like it’s barely remembered. And I want to see that show on DVD, too (as well on any streaming services.)

  9. Neville Ross Says:

    This show needs to be on Netflix and Hulu as well.

  10. James Elliot Singer Says:

    Decades TV should obtain the rights to this show, if not for a weekend marathon, at least a regular spot.

  11. […] in terms of the historical record. That said, the show’s first season is weaker than the rest, if its fans are to be believed. (Most of the series’ most beloved episodes came from its second and third seasons.) Like many […]

  12. Dan in PoCo Says:

    It’s been a long time between posts – hope all is well! Miss reading and thinking about the latest great blog posts here…

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Yes, thanks for asking. I’ve gotten lazy in my old age but there are several long pieces in the works, which should start trickling out this month or next.

  13. Peter Harris Says:

    Other than Star Trek, how many TV series had the first season as the best season? And I’d even count Star Trek’s best work in the shows airing from December 8, 1966 (“The Conscience of the King,” filmed and shown 13th) and December 29, 1967 (“The Trouble With Tribbles, filmed 39th and shown 44th.) It just takes a little while to get a show going. Then it takes even more to sustain a show — if you want to see a show drop off the cliff, watch “The Trouble With Tribbles”: and “The Gamesters of Triskelion” the following week. I tend to put a series fourth season — if it wasn’t already facing the ax at the time — as the ne most likely to be the highest quality. Maybe the actors, writers and producers are anticipating the fifth season and big bucks from rerun sales and from salary negotiations, and want to make sure people REALLY like the show as it rolls into the option year. Any suggestions?

  14. Peter Harris Says:

    The Defenders started just after I was born and ended before my parents got a TV set, so I haven’t seen anything more than a minute-long clip or two from it. I had heard that it was still getting decent ratings at the end of its fourth season. Maybe CBS panicked when it almost lost its lead in the yearly season ratings (hits on the other networks, such as ABC’s “Bewitched” and NBC’s “Daniel Boone,” and mediocre numbers form other CBS shows, may have caused the network to panic and pull the plug.

  15. Peter Harris Says:

    Has anyone ever seen “For the People”? That was William Shatner’s first starring role and it plays very much like a mirror-image of “The Defenders.” Thing is, CBS put it up against “Bonanza” at the latter show’s peak, and “For The People” was canceled about as quickly as it could have been at the time (13 weeks). In fact, the show’s quick demise freed Shatner up to film the second pilot for Star Trek that fall. If anyone has seen For the People, did it have anything like the quality of “The Defenders?” And was it supposed to be a spin-off-of-sorts of the other show? It seems like the same production team was involved.

    • Mike Stidham Says:

      “For the People” was indeed a spinoff from “The Defenders”, the idea of presenting legal dilemmas from the prosecution’s point of view. It came off more like a junior varsity version of “Defenders”, actually more like the Paul Burke episodes of “Naked City” as there were a lot of parallels between Burke’s Adam Flint and Shatner’s David Koster. One flaw is the tendency for the characters to shut down any plot momentum to make long-winded, pretentious speeches.
      There were a handful of episodes up on YouTube a couple of years ago, but were taken down due to copyright challenges.

  16. Peter Harris Says:

    “The Defenders” like TOTALLY spoiled Robert Reed for anything else.. Maybe he only did “The Brady Bunch” because he liked working with the kids and kept vainly hoping it would be a good show someday (not to mention all the money he must have pulled in from the remakes and spinoffs). Maybe he got a perverse pleasure out of doing a so-bad-they-love-it show (cf. “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour”).

  17. srmallery Says:

    My father, Jerome Ross, (see your obit article) was one of the writers of “The Defenders”. He was always proud of having been part of this series, as were we. Thank you for sharing this article. It was a fine show, worthy of high praise.

    • Dorothy Lipovenko Says:

      Two of your father’s episodes are in Season 1 (The Crusader, Storm at Birch Glen), so I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to see them,(their synopsis sound fantastic!), as the first season is the only one released so far.
      Curious, I looked up your father’s writing credits on IMDb and noticed several for Dr. Kildare. Funny that a seven-year-old could absorb Kildare but The Defenders was way over my head (at the time).
      Watching The Defenders now, for the first time, is less entertainment than being able to reflect on all the change of the last 50+ years.

  18. thomas tucker Says:

    Are you planning to continue with this excellent blog? It’s almost been a year since you posted. Many thanks for all of the intesting artilces and reviews.

  19. Peter Tolan Says:

    I have no memory of “The Defenders,” but it must have been in the zeitgeist for a while; it’s mentioned as part of a joke – and I use that word loosely – on an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” (I say “loosely” because that show didn’t rely on jokes that often.) And there’s a callback reference in the episode as well!

  20. Dorothy Lipovenko Says:

    My hubby and I (little kids when The Defenders aired on TV) just this week started watching Season 1, which we bought on the strength of so many enthusiastic reviews.
    We’ve watched four episodes are just blown away by all of it: the intensity, quality of the writing, subject matter, relationship between father and son/ mentor and protege (especially revealing in episode 3, “Death Across the Counter.”
    Like a rare bottle of wine, every drop of dialogue is meant to be savored. If we don’t ration our viewing, we risk finishing the entire season quickly, it’s just that good.
    The author thinks it took the first season for The Defenders to find its footing; Respectfully, I disagree.

    • Lex Passaris Says:

      Sadly, “at this time” Shout has no intention of continuing to release the other seasons, so you may never have the opportunity to see how much better they got in the subsequent outings.

  21. Dorothy Says:

    Hello fellow travellers of The Defenders:

    “How many left?” It’s become our mantra each time we slip a disc in to watch. Deprivation began to set in long before that ‘pay attention!’ theme music will usher in the two remaining episodes.

    This show is without peer on every metric, and a gift to those who were too young in the early 1960s to remember or understand it. I have emailed Shout Factory, pleading for another season.

    • Lex Says:

      I have sent them several emails and the best reply I have received is “no plans at this time.” Further, I have checked with a few people who have some inside knowledge and the answer is beyond doubtful.
      Very disappointing, to be sure.

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        The extras producer and I went back and forth on whether we should advise SF to do a best-of set, or hold out hope that there would be enough support for season sets to continue to the end. We ended up putting our thumbs on the scale of a best-of, and now I wish they’d listened.

      • Lex Says:

        Stephen, that would ABSOLUTELY have been the right way to go — just having the guest stars of subsequent seasons, Redford, Shatner, Hackman, etc. plus the devastatingly great episodes like “Blacklist” or “Moment of Truth” would have gone so much farther with getting interest and momentum going for season sets — not to mention that they didn’t hit their creative stride right away which accounts for the uneven (though still satisfying) first season.

  22. Dorothy Says:

    Anyone else spot a young Ed Asner in the courtroom of one of the last episodes in Season 1?

  23. So here’s my question. Nobody without an eidetic memory (and even then) has THAT kind of total recall of unreleased episodes from the early 60s, which would “suggest” you had a recent refresher. So spill the beans (or at least hint at the beans) please: How and where did you get access to seasons 2 through 4 to make that detailed a survey? Smiley emoticon here.

  24. Christophe Vetter Says:

    Hello. I ‘m sad and afraid that it seems that Shout Factory’ has decided not to release futher seasons of ‘The Defenders’. So dispointing.

  25. Christophe Vetter Says:

    Hello. I ‘m sad and afraid that it seems that Shout Factory’ has decided not to release futher seasons of ‘The Defenders’. So disapointing.


    My contact at Shout Factory says they need to sell a certain number of units in order to justify doing more sets, so if you want more, spread the word to get people to buy it. Money talks.

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