Monday, July 05, 2010

Shatnerthon: For the People (1965)

1965 was a busy year for William Shatner. It was the year he starred in a television series about a brash, headstrong young idealist who takes charge and makes impassioned speeches about truth, justice, and the American way. It was the year he filmed the first feature film in Esperanto. Oh, and he also filmed the second pilot for Star Trek.

For the People ran for only thirteen episodes, from January 31st through May 9th. Filmed on location in New York City, it followed the trials of Assistant District Attorney David Koster, a “dedicated man with a single-minded zeal to defend the criminal justice system of the United States of America,” according to Shatner. This was going to be his big break: produced by Herb Brodkin, with socially-conscious scripts, and a starring role in a series after turning down Dr. Kildare and The Defenders. The series, of course, was put opposite Bonanza and died after six months, presumably so that Shatner would be desperate for work and free to do Star Trek in July. (Incubus came in May. Which, frankly, may have heightened said desperation.)

But it's a shame, really, that the show was canceled. I've managed to see about half the episodes, and it makes me wish there were more. I should offer a caveat that I often give a lot of leeway to “things that mean well” which were produced before I was born, even when they sometimes get preachy or cheesy or narratively cop out in favor of the message. No doubt For the People suffers on all these counts, but there's something about its earnestness I appreciate. Judging by the first review on IMDB, it's also what turns some people off, but that makes it even more interesting to me that a show that was produced in 1965 is still irritating people with its liberal politics. To our modern eyes, it feels heavy-handed and probably not as original, but it must have been one of the first programs to deal with these issues.

Each episode's title, it seems, is drawn from actual court cases. “Guilt Shall Not Escape Nor Innocence Suffer” is somewhat unwieldy, and frankly though I've seen it I can't recall which story is. But it gives you some idea. Each week, Koster and his fellow DAs are presented with some sort of conundrum. Whether it's conflict over suspected police brutality and the unlawful procuring of confessions, or the unfairness of the legal system for those who cannot pay, Koster throws himself into his work. Sometimes to a degree which seems either unrealistic or just really obsessive, depending on how forgiving you're feeling. And at times, the narrative leaves him and his office entirely alone, in order to follow criminals (or suspected criminals) through the vagaries of the legal system who are far less compelling or sympathetic than I think the writers intended. It's not difficult to understand why it wasn't a hit, though critics reportedly liked it: It wants to teach you something about the legal system, and it's not necessarily how it works. It's more interested in the ethical and moral conundrums that come with slotting everyone into the same system, and politically, it tends to lean left.

But what I love about the show—and I do love it—is that it feels unusual for something with that sort of intent to even get to that stage of the game. And on top of that, the performances are solid. Shatner is great. He's young, arrogant, well-intentioned, and at 34 (okay, I'm shallow) really gorgeous. And my absolute favorite thing about this show is that it has, I think, one of my favorite married couples in all of fiction. David and Phyllis seem to have been married a few years, so like Nick and Nora Charles you're popping in to a story when most romances have long since ended. It's so unusual to see happily married couples who are both sexy and have problems that I find myself waiting for the scenes at home. Such as David's enthusiastic photography session with a patient but bemused Phyllis, or an entire episode which centers on some poor judgments on David's part which threaten to expose his wife's dark secret. The sort of secret that could ruin his career, despite it being, to our modern eyes, a fairly tame skeleton. David and Phyllis are very much in love, but the tension of his work being all-consuming and hers (she's a concert violinist) being not-quite comprehensible to him is definitely there. I've rarely seen a relationship on tv which feels this fresh and real, not to mention established. And incidentally, Phyllis is played by the gorgeous Jessica Walter, best known now as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development.

I've never been a big fan of procedurals, whether legal/police/medical, but there are always exceptions. And the focus of For the People, while sometimes dragging the narrative and pacing down, makes it unusual, as do the relationships it portrays. As much as I love Denny Crane, it's refreshing to watching something with something to say. And for those with limited experience with Shatner-the-actor, it's nice to watch something with limited potential for mockery. Of course, since it was never released on DVD, it's incredibly difficult to find—but if you do, it's worth taking a look.

Next up: Shatner stars again, only this time, I really should feel guilty about that pleasure.


Stacia said...

Wow, lots of great information! I have never seen this show and didn't realize he was hoping this would be his big break. Fascinating stuff.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Same here. The name of the show touched off a tiny spark in the dim recess I like to call my mind...but I really enjoyed reading more about this.