Edited by Wisconsin Mark on 8/12/2015, 6:03 pm
Circumstances suggest that ABC had less than total confidence in the show. For one thing, they ordered it at a half-hour length, and it is difficult to write compelling legal drama without a little more breathing room than that. For another, they buried it in the Friday 10:30 PM time-slot.
The series lasted one season of 32 episodes and was canceled, but Whitmore pushed hard for its survival. There was a considerable fan response to the cancellation, the precursor of many later “Save this show” campaigns, and ABC did bring The Law and Mr. Jones back for an abbreviated second season of 13 episodes in the spring and summer of 1962. That momentum did not carry it into a third season, however.
The series was rebroadcast many years later on The Nostalgia Channel, and I have seen a gray-market offering of 42 of the 45 episodes, possibly drawn from those re-airings. I have only seen one episode myself, available on YouTube, which bears the Nostalgia logo, and at 23:43 has probably been cut by about three minutes from its original length.
One episode is not much of a basis to judge, of course, but “A Very Special Citizen” makes The Law and Mr. Jones look distinctly like the anti-Perry Mason. I can’t explain why without going into spoilers, so if you’re up for that….
OK. The shocker in this episode is that our hero loses the case! And not only that, but he takes it very matter-of-factly – win a few, lose a few. This obviously runs completely counter to the Perry-Mason-as-magical-lawyer ethos, where losing is simply unthinkable.
Young country doctor Thomas Bigelow, played by Vic Morrow, is being sued for malpractice in a Good Samaritan incident. The slick, scary plaintiff’s attorney Marek is brought to life by Simon Oakland (perfect casting). Mr. Jones warns the doctor that Marek will use “every trick in the book,” and in fact he does trip Dr. Bigelow up on a brilliantly effective bit of questioning involving an unmade phone call. Jones clearly didn’t anticipate this line, and has no comparably impressive return shot, as Perry Mason certainly would have done. He gives a nice enough closing argument, but the damage has been done.
The plaintiffs don’t exactly wind up satisfied either, though. They had asked for $100,000 (a lot in 1960), and Marek expressed willingness to accept no less than a $20,000 settlement offer. The jury only awards $7,000, so no one is happy!
Look at how realistic this all is. Mr. Jones is good, not great. Mr. Marek pulls off a coup in court, but not to the extent of scoring the big dollars. The plaintiffs and the defendant are all in a worse mood after the trial. The young doctor is ready to throw in the towel on his small town practice and become a cynical city practitioner, since clearly no one cares about his good motivations.
And it gets better, because as Jones prepares his appeal, he admits to his assistant that the judge was right to sustain Marek’s objections against him, because he really was browbeating witnesses. Holy moley! Hot-shot television protagonists don’t admit imperfections – at least not until David Janssen’s Harry O they don’t.
When you think back over the episode, you realize that pretty much everyone comes off mildly unimpressive and unprepared. The doctor truly was foolish to not be carrying insurance (Jones’s facial reaction when he finds that out is terrific) and to not make that telephone call. Jones doesn’t anticipate Marek’s strategies. Marek oversells what he can deliver to his clients. Up and down the line, people are fumbling through life, just as real people do.
If other episodes of The Law and Mr. Jones are anything like this, maybe that’s why the show only found an enthusiastic small audience instead of a sizable one. It seems to have been low-key, subtle, and realistic. The Wikipedia article on the series notes that Jones’s cases “did not usually involve violence but [instead] white collar crimes, such as fraud, embezzlement, taxes, and contracts.”
But audiences like murder, and melodrama, and fireworks, and a reassuring figure like Perry Mason who always uncovers the real culprit. Nor has this changed much. Look at a current legal show like Suits, in which Gabriel Macht’s entertaining alpha-male attorney Harvey Specter is no less a magician than Mason was.
Mr. Jones – Mr. Abraham Lincoln Jones (that’s NOT subtle!) – is a solid, scrupulous working attorney. It may not be possible to make a wildly successful television series based on that premise, but I love the fact of the attempt.