The Prestons defend a doctor accused of the "mercy-killing" of an infant with Down's Syndrome (then called "Mongolism").

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Episode cast overview, first billed only:
...
...
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D.A. Charlie Grimalia
...
Dr. Bill Conrad
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Joan Miller
...
Dr. Lillis
...
Helen Donaldson
Helen Auerbach ...
Leona Warner
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Jerry Warner
Michael Lipton ...
Dr. McSorley
Alexander Clark ...
Barbara Bolton ...
Nurse Marguerite Tobin
Charles Randall ...
Coroner
Billie Allen ...
Nurse Charniss
John C. Becher ...
Anesthetist (as John Becher)
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The Prestons defend a doctor accused of the "mercy-killing" of an infant with Down's Syndrome (then called "Mongolism").

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Drama

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16 September 1961 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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A prime example of how what's considered 'right' and 'enlightened' on TV does change with time.
14 July 2016 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

The very first episode of this highly acclaimed series concerns a doctor who is accused of....make that admits to...killing an infant with Down's Syndrome out of a sense of mercy. The doctor is portrayed as a man of deep compassion; the father of the child agrees with his act and even gave him the go-ahead, essentially. The Prestons, the show's father-and-son team of attorneys, agree to take the case.

It is highly unlikely that this episode would be made today, considering how the knowledge of and attitude toward Down's Syndrome has changed since 1961 when this aired. Although the chromosomal basis for Down's as due to trisomy for chromosome 21 had in fact been discovered two years earlier, it appears the writers of this episode knew nothing about it, as a fellow doctor testifies that the cause is still unknown. That may not be unusual; news about new medical discoveries did travel slow then, especially in getting from the medical journals to Hollywood. Still, it seems that the writers were a bit too confident in their assessment of the condition considering the ever-changing nature of medical knowledge and treatments. The 'expert witness' doctor also says that Down's children cannot be educated. Today, we have already had shows like 'Life Goes On' which portrayed a character with Down's, who was portrayed by a real-life actor with the condition, who was quite capable of being educated even if not quite to the extent of everyone else.

Today, if a similar episode were made, the condition would not be Down's but perhaps Trisomy 13 or 18, both of which are much, much more severe and life-shortening. But I've even read of exceptions in these conditions---who knows what the future may tell us? But the point is, this was considered to be an enlightened, compassionate, progressive episode at the time. After 55 years, it does not seem so anymore.

The point is, when writers want to be moralistic, enlightened, compassionate, or progressive, they also need to be a bit more humble and admit to the nuances, as it is always possible that the future will hold their position to have been wrong.

I just received The Defenders on DVD. I fully intend to collect all four seasons if they are put out and watch them all. And I would encourage people offended by this first episode (as I imagine many will be) to not judge the series by this one alone. The show is regarded as a landmark and explores many other questions throughout its run, and I hope people give it a chance. Please do so. I do expect to see more nuance in its treatment of issues in later episodes. Still, this first episode serves as an example of how we all, writers included, have to have a bit more humility in our readiness to declare enlightenment.


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