Elaine and I are making our way through our second year of law school. In other words, we’re watching the second season of The Paper Chase, Netflick by Netflick, and we just saw an episode we’d been giddy about getting to, “My Dinner with Kingsfield” (first aired July 24, 1984). The premise is wacky: a terrible snowstorm, and Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman) gets stuck driving to the airport. When he knocks at the nearest residence to use the telephone, who answers? James Hart, “Mr. Hart,” Kingsfield’s stellar student (James Stephens). Hilarity ensues, with broken plumbing, Bulgarian Beaujolais, and the spectacle of Kingsfield wearing Hart’s bathrobe as his own clothes dry. (“I just had it laundered,” Hart adds helpfully.) Later in the episode: a brief recitation from Bleak House and some memorable, even profound bits of dialogue about love and marriage and learning.
Elaine and I made some tea before sitting down to watch, and I chose Earl Grey. I said (and I have a witness) that if Kingsfield drank tea in this episode, it would be Earl Grey. So I went a little crazy when the professor set down his wine and asked Hart for a cup of tea, “anything that’s hot and sturdy.” Hart offers Earl Grey. Is that sturdy enough? Kingsfield says it will be fine. And as Hart calls to check on the whereabouts of a lady friend flying in from New York, Kingsfield stands and muses on a box of Twinings tea bags:
“Earl Grey tea . . . Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey, leader of the Whig opposition and largely responsible for the repeal of the African slave trade. He became prime minister of England in 1830.”Hart, on the phone, asks distractedly, “Who?” And Kingsfield, fiercely: “Earl Grey.” It’s all true.
Here’s a Kingsfield observation about marriage:
“Let me tell you something: all those years I was married, of course I kept thinking I should have spent longer sowing my wild oats, but the longer my marriage lasted, the more convinced I became that being married to someone, no matter how banal it might seem on the surface, was infinitely more satisfying and more exciting than the wildest of affairs.”And here’s another moment, when Hart admits that Kingsfield’s lukewarm response to his recent paper has made it impossible for him to begin work on a new project:
“James, for God’s sake, stop sulking. You’re an adult. You’re one of the better students in this institution: you should not need to be told that. You know your work is good: that’s all that matters. Doing your best should be its own reward, and you shouldn’t need me to tell you about it.”But students do need to hear about it when they do well (and when they don’t); even Kingsfield knows that. (Notice the repetition of should.) And yes, he now offers the praise that he withheld. If he were a different person though, he’d be intoning, “Stop . . . worshiping . . . me, Mr. . . . Hart.”
[“My Dinner with Kingsfield” isn’t the first takeoff on My Dinner with André (1981): My Breakfast with Blassie appearted in 1983. Kingsfield’s remarks on marriage are reminiscent of what André Gregory says about the shallowness of affairs and the mysteries of marriage: “Have a real relationship with a person that goes on for years: that’s completely unpredictable. Then you’ve cut off all your ties to the land and you’re sailing into the unknown, into uncharted seas.” Major props to the writers of this episode, James Bridges and Lee Kalcheim.]
Other Paper Chase posts
“Do the work”
How to improve writing (no. 42)
“Minds, not memories”