TV critics give a thumbs-down verdict to "The Defenders," which debuted last night on CBS. The L.A. Times' Mary McNamara notes that it "stars Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell as a father-and-son-like team of Vegas lawyers who, when not struggling with, respectively, an ugly divorce and a penchant for fly-by sex, take on kind of tough cases and use cheap showmanship and contrived last-minute breaks to win them. It's enough to make a grown TV critic cry. ... There's actually no reason this couldn't be a perfectly fine legal procedural, except there's no indication that anyone is attempting to make it one."
A shame. What makes the negative reviews so tragic is that "The Defenders" could have been great -- if only it had lived up to the promise of the classic 1960s TV series on which it was based. The original version of "The Defenders" was so good that it was one of the earliest Emmy sweepers.
The first "The Defenders" starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a daredevil father-son team of defense attorneys who took on controversial, topical cases about abortion, euthanasia, immigration, censorship and civil disobedience. Even more shocking: They often lost their cases back in the days when Hollywood believed firmly in giving TV viewers happy endings.
"The Defenders" won best drama series at the Emmys for three consecutive years — 1962-64. In its first outing, it beat "Ben Casey," "Dick Powell Theatre," "Naked City," the "Alcoa Premiere" drama "People Need People" and the Hallmark Hall of Fame's production of "Victoria Regina" starring Julie Harris, which won the Emmy as best program of the year. Marshall won best drama actor over Paul Burke ("Naked City"), Jackie Cooper ("Hennesey"), Vince Edwards ("Ben Casey") and George Maharis ("Route 66"). In 1962, "The Defenders" also won best writing and directing.
Marshall repeated his victory in 1963 when the show triumphed again, but he wasn't nominated in 1964 when drama and comedy acting performances were combined into single contests for actors and actresses, then divided into categories for continuing performances and individual ones. Instead, Jack Klugman won best actor in 1964 for starring as a shunned Hollywood actor in the controversial episode of "The Defenders" titled "Blacklist," which won best writing and was nominated for program of the year (losing to "The Making of the President, 1960" based on Theodore H. White's Pulitzer Prize-winning book).