Plot: In times of legal peril, a competent attorney can be the difference between freedom and the view from behind bars. But when the accused is unable to afford representation, this doesn’t spell certain doom, as a public defender is brought in, to lend a hand to those in need. Bart Matthews (Reed Hadley) is such a public defender and he has been involved with cases of all kinds, from small time offenses to capital murder trials, as well as all stops in between. His unique position brings him into contact with people from all walks of life, often in some of the worst times they’ve experienced, but he strives to make sure everyone is fairly represented. In Public Defender, Matthews is our stand-in for real life cases all over the United States, instances where the stories are all too real, but the names changed to protect the identities of those involved. The cases and the tension are all real, making Public Defender an always interesting watch.
Entertainment Value: I really like the premise of this classic television series, to bring to life actual cases from all over the nation, with Reed Hadley as the proxy for all of the public defenders involved. A kind of “ripped from the headlines” before a lot of these crimes would make national news, which is cool, I think. Of course, some of the stories are minor infractions and as such, wouldn’t rate national coverage even now, but that shows the diversity of cases the office handles. In any episodic series in like this, some of the narratives are going to be more interesting or unique than others, so this first season can be a little uneven. But I think overall the story choice is good and shows a wide scope of potential cases a public defender might be tasked with, so there is still some value even in the weaker episodes. I do think an adjustment period might be needed for some viewers, as the slower pace and more straight ahead investigations are a huge shift from the modern, twist driven shows. This is just good old fashioned lawyer work, sometimes a little more involved than others, but rarely all that complicated. I think the show holds up well and offers a valuable time capsule of sorts, with a nice selection of stories and guest stars to appreciate.
The series is episodic, so the stories are self contained and little carries over between episodes, if anything at all. Reed Hadley is the defender on duty, but he isn’t given much of an arc as a character, other than learning a little about him and his methods as the stories unfold. At the same time, he anchors the show well and provides an always capable lead, even if he isn’t given much depth to work with. This material calls on him to be a good, honest lawyer and that is just what he provides, in a solid, engaging way in most of these episodes. And it was crucial that he be that good anchor, as the rest of the show cycles between episodes, so he is our lone connection between stories and needed to come through. No one else returns for more than a few episodes over the entire run, but we do have a parade of interesting guest stars that pop up. Some have smaller roles or weren’t yet well known, but it is a fun meta element of Public Defender, to spot the famous faces that wander into the episodes. In this first season we see Harry Carey, Jr., Hugh Beaumont, Lyle Talbot, Alan Reed, Gloria Talbott, Walter Reed, Mary Beth Hughes, Richard Jaeckel, and numerous others.
The Disc: ClassicFlix launches this first season of Public Defender as part of its Silver Series, with transfers sourced from the original Hal Roach masters. This results in much cleaner, clearer presentations than you might expect, as age related woes are minimal and the show’s visuals come across well. The black & white images are sharp and well balanced, thanks to smooth, consistent contrast. A little softness is seen at times, as well as some light debris here and there, but overall, this is a huge improvement and classic television fans should be thrilled. Let’s hope ClassicFlix is able to give even more shows this kind of lush treatment down the road.