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Vol. LXIV, No. 50
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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“Self-Possession in a World of Distractions”: Stanley Fish Celebrates “The Fugitive”

Ellen Gilbert

Introducing him as “the original Stanley Fish” at last week’s Lewis Library event, Law and Public Affairs Program Director Kim Lane Scheppele acknowledged the guest speaker’s lengthy list of titles, many accomplishments (he is a Milton scholar), and reputation as a provocateur (among his essays is one on the Randy Newman song, “Short People”). As if that wasn’t enough, he is currently a regular contributor to the New York Times’s “Opinionator” blog.

This time the subject of Mr. Fish’s sure-footed scrutiny is the 1960s television series, The Fugitive. Reading from his new book, The Fugitive in Flight, Mr. Fish made a case for the show’s success in terms of “the primacy of self-possession in a world of distractions.” While Vietnam, student uprisings, and racial strife rocked the rest of the world, the very success of The Fugitive had to do with “staying on message” and maintaining an absence of surprise or change. “The Fugitive is good because it’s not about ideas,” Mr. Fish contended.

Subtitled Faith, Liberalism and Law in a Classic TV Show, Mr. Fish’s book describes how the show de-emphasized plot and barely acknowledged current events. Instead, he suggested, the focus was on the interplay between characters: Richard Kimble, a physician wrongly accused of his wife’s murder, and the individuals he encounters in his flight from the law and efforts to find the real murderer.

Cast in what Mr. Fish described as “the role of a lifetime,” actor David Janssen (1931-1980) played Kimble, meeting up each week with characters who fell into two categories: they either wanted his help or were intent on harming him. Darkness was so pervasive in these scenes that a show of light, according to Mr. Fish, was evidence of the writers having “temporarily forgotten what the series was about.”

Mr. Fish credited series creator Roy Huggins with setting the somber, moralistic tone. Huggins, who was also responsible for programs like Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Rockford Files was a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA. He wanted The Fugitive to be “about something,” said Mr. Fish; thus its “leisurely unfolding of moral questions and dilemmas.” Mr. Fish suggested that the series would never survive in today’s fast-paced entertainment environment.

The book’s genesis had to do with the fact that the author routinely watches television while he’s writing. In the case of reruns of The Fugitive, he was “riveted,” and unable to focus on his own work. Further confirmation of just how compelling the series is occurred when Mr. Fish’s television-averse wife, literary critic Jane Thompkins, would be unable to walk away if The Fugitive was on.

In the question and answer session that followed the talk, Mr. Fish did not respond directly to an audience member’s suggestion that The Prisoner, which also ran during the 1960s, bore some resemblance to The Fugitive. Nor did he touch upon any possible similarities to Rod Serling’s morally-driven, cerebral Twilight Zone, which predated The Fugitive’s premiere by several years.

Given his stature, it is not surprising to know that Mr. Fish’s foray into TV Land has resulted in an article about him in The Chronicle of Higher Education, not to mention a ten-page piece by him in the Cardozo Law School Review. “The precise definition of liberalism is a matter of controversy,” he wrote in the latter, “but few would disagree that at its heart is a free-standing individual who bends the knee to no one, nominates his or her own values, and avoids obsessive, enslaving attachments either to persons or causes.”

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