The Paper Chase was a one hour dramatic series premiering on CBS in 1978 that won great critical praise, garnering the Emmy for Outstanding New Series. Based on the movie and novel, rural Minnesotan James T. Hart (James Stephens) is unprepared for the life of a first year law student at an Ivy League law school. In his first class, he elicits the ire of revered and feared contracts professor Charles W. Kingsfield(played by the brilliant John Houseman reprising his Academy Award winning movie role). But Hart is committed. And smart. And so is The Paper Chase. In order to keep up with the never-ending workload, Hart joins a study group for support. Each episode explores the trials and tribulations, the successes and failures, the competition and camaraderie that each student faces.
The chase is finally over for this shining example of a television series that didn't treat its viewers as if they had skulls full of mush. Based on the acclaimed 1973 film that was adapted from John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s novel, this 1978 series is literally old school. It presents education in general and the study of law in particular as noble pursuits. The students for whom we develop a rooting interest are the best and the brightest, and in Professor Charles Kingsfield we have an addition to the pantheon of great movie/TV teachers. James Stephens anchors the series as Hart, an idealistic first-year law student. In the Grade-A pilot episode, as in the film, he gets on the wrong side of the intimidating Kingsfield, his role model and inspiration, on the first day of class. How Hart gets back in his good graces sets the stage for episodes in which classroom drama proves to be just as compelling as the courtroom variety. Hart's study-group classmates include third generation lawyer Ford (Tom Fitzsimmons), genius Anderson (Robert Ginty), activist Logan (Francine Tacker), newly-married Brooks (Jonathan Sagall), and slob Bell (James Keane). The Paper Chase
got the prestige treatment. James Brooks, who directed the feature film, developed the series for television, Osborn wrote several of the episodes, and the venerable John Houseman recreated his Oscar-winning role as Kingsfield, a TV first. While Kingsfield was a monolithic character in the film, he is more accessible in the series. There is much more interaction between him and the idolizing Hart. Familiar faces in Season One include Marilu Henner as a sympathetic waitress in the pilot episode, Don Porter (Gidget
) as Ford's demanding father in "The Man Who Would Be King," Robert Reed as a professor who sexually harasses Logan in "Once More with Feeling," and Kim Cattrall as a struggling law student's wife in "Da Da." The Paper Chase
was a critics' darling, but just as bad grades could sink Kingsfield's students, so did bad ratings result in The Paper Chase
's cancellation after one year. Following reruns on PBS, the Showtime network picked up the series for three more CableAce Award-winning seasons. The Paper Chase
was no doubt to aspiring lawyers what All the President's Men
was to fledgling investigative reporters. Rarely syndicated, the series is just as gripping as when it first aired, its intensity and intelligence are undimmed. --Donald Liebenson