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The Paper Chase is a bit of a relic. Made in the late 70’s, the CBS series was the sort of comedy-drama that evolved into what we now call dramedies, a combination of drama and comedy, a la Freaks and Geeks. Unlike the popular nighttime soaps that would take off in the late ’70s (think Dallas), each episode of The Paper Chase was a contained story in which everything was resolved by the end of the hour and didn’t carry over from week to week. Shout! Factory has just released the entire first season on a six-DVD, no-frills box set.
Based on a 1970 book by John Jay Osborn and the 1973 film starring Timothy Bottoms and John Houseman (for which he won the Academy Award), The Paper Chase follows the exploits of a group of friends attending the Harvard School of Law. Houseman reprised his role of Professor Kingsfield, the world’s leading authority in contract law and one of Harvard’s toughest professors. The true star of the show was James Stephens as James T. Hart, a first year law student from Minnesota who is somewhat unprepared for the intensity and competitiveness of the school. To help himself cope, he joins a study group formed by one of his dorm mates, the fastidious Franklin Ford III (Tom Fitzsimmons) whose father runs a prestigious law firm. Ford brings together the group of people who create the ensemble of the show.
Part of the charm of The Paper Chase is that it’s quaint; you’ll watch the show with a smile on your face because the characters are likable enough, but you won’t be running to your DVD player to find out what happens next to them. This is not to say that The Paper Chase isn’t well executed. The direction is solid, the writing (many of the episodes were written by Osborn) is on par with the best of the period, and the acting is fine. Stephens is very likable as Hart and appears more human and well rounded than he was written. Furthermore, it’s always a great pleasure to watch John Houseman, no matter what he was performing. The actor was in different league than the rest of the cast, yet he never seemed to be showing them up in the scenes they shared together. I believe the professionalism he brought to the set rubbed off on his costars.
I was intrigued by how The Paper Chase approached the college atmosphere on the series. Drinking, smoking, co-eds hooking up — all of these topics were covered in the show. These may not seem like revolutionary subject matter in this day and age, but at the time, the producers appeared to be trying to tackle weightier themes in between the goofy charms of the actors and stories. Still, the attempt to be hip to a younger audience doesn’t always pay off for the show, and often The Paper Chase just comes off as square. Like many dramas from the late ’70s, it has a tendency to drag; I found myself checking my watch numerous times during the episodes, never a good sign.
Something else that made watching The Paper Chase difficult to watch was the quality of the actual prints. Despite Shout! Factory’s wonderful packaging, the prints that have been used are grainy, faded and, in some episodes, full of scratches. Coupled with the fact that the DVD set comes with no extras, my best recommendation is to rent The Paper Chase, unless you really loved the show and need to add it to your collection.
After just one season, CBS canceled The Paper Chase. PBS then repeated the series for a couple of years until 1984, when Showtime began producing new episodes (with much of the original cast). The reborn version of The Paper Chase went on to win awards, so I must assume the show got better. When the subsequent seasons are released on DVD, I would be interested in seeing the improvements that were made — but I won’t be in any rush to go out and get them.