Slattery’s People ‘Unborn’

Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence. (This series ran originally in the Classic 1960’s TV Facebook group.)

#33: Slattery’s People: ‘The Unborn’

Source: IMDb

This week’s subject is yet another of those “short-lived wonder” series which have since been almost completely forgotten, but which are still worthy of interest for television historians and scholars.

Slattery’s People, which premiered on CBS during the fall of ’64, presented a somewhat novel format for the time – a political drama. Richard Crenna played the leading role of James Slattery, a member of the legislature for a never-named state. The show focused on Crenna encountering various social issues within his community and attempting to propose or lobby for legislation to address those issues. Crenna saw the role as an opportunity to break away from the stereotype of the comedic roles (i.e., The Real McCoys) he had been known for in the past and was enthusiastic in promoting the series.

Despite its premise, Slattery’s People made it a point to be apolitical and balanced in its approach – Slattery’s political party was never identified.

CBS was supportive of the series and renewed it for a second season in spite of ratings which could be most charitably termed lackluster, while adopting several changes in format and tone in an attempt to draw in more viewers. But the writing was on the wall, and in spite of almost unanimous critical approval and four Emmy nominations (including two acting nods for Crenna and best drama), Slattery’s People got the axe before the advent of winter in its second season.

Prior to its demise, however, the show gave the world a groundbreaking moment in television.

With the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision still years in the future, the episode “The Unborn” (October 8, 1965) thoroughly examined the legality and morality of the issue of abortion.

Joyce Van Patten guest stars as Barbara Harrison, a woman who suffers a case of German measles during her pregnancy and has just learned that her child will likely be born with severe disfigurements and disabilities. She makes the difficult decision to end her pregnancy, but of course is unable to legally obtain such means, so she enlists the services of a black-market doctor.

When Slattery learns of the case, he ponders his own feelings on the issue. While not condoning the woman’s action, he attempts to formulate what legal options should be available to a woman in her situation.

The episode was noted at the time for its balanced presentation of the issue, as it explored both the pros and cons of the matter, and Van Patten’s character did not escape her decision unscathed. “The Unborn” should have been recognized as a landmark moment in series television history, and it’s unfortunate that the episode has been buried by the passage of years and is almost completely unknown today.

Slattery’s People, incidentally, is notable for giving the legendary Ed Asner his first regular series role as newspaper reporter Frank Radcliffe.

(Top photo: Richard Crenna in ‘Slattery’s People.’ Source: IMDb)

About Todd M. Pence

Todd M Pence has been an amateur historian and scholar of American television for the past 35 years. “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960” is the product of decades of research, not just in active viewing but in extensive combing of newspaper and magazine archives to read the original reviews of programs at the time they aired. He has also reached out to fellow television researchers to get their opinions. Pence maintains that the decade of the 1960's constituted the zenith of American primetime television drama, and that we will probably never see its like again. His purpose in compiling this list was to preserve this history and to spotlight many exceptional programs which have been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. Pence holds a BA in Journalism from West Virginia University and has worked for the past 20 years in the Fairfax (Virginia) County Public School system

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