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Why quality TV comes from New York, not Hollywood

The landmark 1960s legal drama "The Defenders" starred

The landmark 1960s legal drama "The Defenders" starred Robert Reed, left, and E.G. Marshall. Credit: CBS-TV

No offense, Hollywood. But for quality TV, New York is the place to be. From groundbreakers like USA’s hot hacker study “Mr. Robot” to network gems like CBS’ “The Good Wife,” city-shot shows just seem to deliver a smarter tack on characters and issues. (Not to mention the best “back lot” streets in the business.)

But NYC’s bona fides reach back to TV’s earliest years, when 1950s broadcasts beamed live from Manhattan studios, and then when ’60s series put their urban work on film — using city playwrights, directors and stage stars who would employ “the boob tube” as an intelligent, provocative medium.

DVD proof arrives in the new Season 1 set of legendary law drama “The Defenders” ($45 for 32 episodes on 9 discs, Shout). Its 1961-65 CBS episodes tackled everything from abortion to vigilante justice, topics “ripped from the headlines” decades before NBC’s “Law & Order.” Actors Studio veteran E.G. Marshall (“12 Angry Men”) and up-and-comer Robert Reed (“The Brady Bunch”) starred as father and son attorneys, who embodied, respectively, the logical head and the emotional heart of hot-button issues.

“The Defenders” directly stirred controversy — as dramatized by AMC’s ’60s-set “Mad Men,” in a 2008 episode where sponsors shied away when the TV defendant was an outspoken abortion doctor. (That 1962 hour, “The Benefactors,” is on Shout’s set.)

But for all its renown, “The Defenders” had been seen by virtually nobody since its ’60s run. To get Season 1 released this month took both DVD distributor Shout Factory, with its trademark pop culture passion, and a Long Island TV collector of dogged determination.

Mark Topaz of Long Beach is 58, not quite old enough to recall “The Defenders.” But his love of vintage TV connected him with other collectors in trading rare tapes/films. “I started to look for shows that I’d never seen, and I became a big fan of socially relevant shows of that era,” says Topaz, whose work in TV graphics helped expand his network of contacts. As he met staffers at DVD companies, he’d push for “The Defenders” to join other ’60s shows-with-a-conscience — cop drama “Naked City” (on DVD from Image), road-trip “Route 66” (from Shout) — for current-day viewers who’ve taken to the complex characters and issues of our own cable-led “golden age of television.”

Mercy-killing, free speech, religion, pornography — “The Defenders” was a parade of contentious topics handled with taste, tact, facts and compassion. Which had already put it in Shout’s sights. “We’d been talking to [series rights-holder] CBS about ‘The Defenders’ since 2008,” says Shout acquisitions chief Jordan Fields. He met Topaz through Shout’s “long and fruitful history consulting with ‘super fans’ on our releases.” Fields says, “When Mark said ‘The Defenders’ was his favorite show, he became the obvious choice to produce the extras.”

Celebrated “Defenders” creator (and “12 Angry Men” author) Reginald Rose had died (in 2002). So had stars Marshall (1998) and Reed (1992). But Topaz snagged new DVD interviews with associate producer Bob Markell, now 92, and veteran writer-director Larry Cohen, who’d cut his teeth scripting “Defenders.”

He wasn’t alone. The series’ young directors included later Oscar winners Franklin Schaffner (“Patton”) and Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa”). Among its guest roster in Season 1: Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Martin Sheen, Jack Klugman, Richard Thomas, James Earl Jones. Even William Shatner — who had starred in Rose’s 1957 live teleplay, “The Defenders,” template of the show in which Reed took his role.

Shatner’s “pilot” can be seen among Shout’s DVD extras (in a grainy kinescope print; the later 35-mm film episodes are sharp quality). “Boston Legal” fans may already have seen some vintage clips on that recent ABC series — employed as half-century “flashbacks” for Shatner’s character, Denny Crane.

“The Defenders” continues to reverberate in fascinating ways.

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