Friday, August 15, 2008

The best offense is a good defense

I first read about this over at Toby O’Brien’s Inner Toob—in which a recent episode of AMC’s series Mad Men (“The Benefactor”) pays homage to a same-titled episode of CBS Television’s landmark 1960s legal series The Defenders—but it’s Stephen Bowie at The Classic TV History Blog who fleshes it out a bit more. The Mad Men installment tells the tale—loosely based on real-life events—of how the Tiffany network scrambled to find a backup sponsor for The Defenders’ telecast of April 28, 1962 after the series’ regular bill-payers objected to an episode that features the father-and-son lawyer team of Lawrence (E.G. Marshall) and Mike Preston (Robert Reed) defending a doctor (Robert F. Storm) charged with performing illegal abortions. (The ad agency featured in the AMC series attempts to lure a lipstick firm into sponsoring “Benefactor,” arguing that they’ll be able to purchase time for pennies on the dollar and the subject matter of the episode will have a tremendous appeal for women—the lipstick’s primary customer base.)

You really do need to read Stephen’s piece if you’re fascinated (like I am) with The Defenders; considered by many to be “the finest television drama of the actual sixties” (Bowie’s own words). Here’s just a sample:

Michael Dann - incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” - remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use.

I have been actively searching for (and I’m not ashamed to admit this) unauthorized episodes of The Defenders on DVD for sometime now, particularly since whoever is currently in control of the rights has a rather blasé interest in sharing them with a fan base that fondly remembers the series as one of the bright spots in TV’s “vast wasteland.” There are a few websites that advertise the entire show for sale (I picked this one out at random) but I’m more than a little suspect since an unsatisfactory purchase of some Felony Squad episodes a while back. I asked Martin Grams, Jr.—vintage TV connoisseur, OTR historian and all-around bon vivant if any of these sites could deliver the goods and he told me that while it was not theoretically impossible for someone to have the full series of The Defenders, he remained skeptical. (I’ve scouted around to see if anything’s available but the best deal seems to be this 20 DVD set containing 35 episodes.) For a long time, I honestly thought that The Defenders never made it to syndication, but Martin set me straight on that and Stephen backs him up:

If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.

If such a thing were to occur, I have a feeling my work would be done here. I’d be able to hang up my guns…settle down…maybe get a nice little spread and a few cattle…and I’d sure as shootin’ marry up with Miz Lucy, the…sorry—I seem to have gone off on another tangent. I’ll confess I haven’t watched Mad Men (it is my firm belief that cable channels that label themselves as “American Movie Classics” ought to behave as such) but Stephen gives a heads-up that the “Benefactor” episode will be repeated this Sunday (August 17th) at 10:00am, so I’m going to do my best to catch it. In the meantime, I’ll just sit in a holding pattern and wait to see about the future of The Defenders on DVD…and if I need an E.G. Marshall fix, The Bold Ones is right around the corner.


Sam said...

I have no trust at all in AMC or whatever those letters stand for at this point. I've had everyone tell me that "Mad Men" is a great show that really should watch, but I feel as though I was betrayed by the network when they flipped to commercials. It sounds petty, but I think I'd rather watch "Mad Men" on DVD.

One more thing since I am ranting: I think that at least some cable outfit should come along that rebroadcasts The Defenders and other classic shows, ala Turner Classic Movies. No commercials, just god old REAL TV.

Linda said...

Too bad RTN can't (or maybe won't) get it. I remember a couple of DEFENDERS questions on ASK THE MANAGER back in the 1980s; it had been syndicated, and it hadn't done well (plus the old black and white bugaboo). Wouldn't you just like to start a cable channel called Good Ol' Black and White?

Rob said...

I don't know why anyone is STILL holding some grudge against AMC. If you're not watching Mad Men, it's truly your loss. Best TV show of the past 10 years, easy.

Doc Quatermass said...

AMC, Bah, Humbug.

Rent the first season of Dexter.

comicsnstories said...

Yeah, and then rent the first season of Mad Men. Seriously, if you aren't seeing this show, especially due to harboring resentment to AMC for their frequently ridiculous programming choices, you are missing out on the single best TV drama in many, many years. It's simply excellent.

Doc Quatermass said...

Last night finally watched the "The New Girl" new ep for last weekend of Mad Men that I DVRed. Not as entrancing as Dexter but good series. AMC is running a marathon starting at 5 PM ET today (Sunday) leading in to the new episode at 10 PM ET.