This week’s episode of Lou Grant was very much a demonstration of the difference between television 1978 and television 2018.
The title’s a dead giveaway, though the episode opened with a neat bit of misdirection. Carla’s at a Press statement by Mrs Cardell, whose industrialist husband Luther has been missing for a month, presumed kidnapped. She’s had yet another fake ransom demand. The conference is disrupted by the arrival of TV, whose irritating front man steals Carla’s question. As complaints about the blow-dried presenters had already been made, the scene was being set for an enjoyable Press vs TV story.
Not so. The Cardell ‘kidnapping’ is to be our McGuffin. Lou is approached, the next day, by an old friend/colleague Jack Reilly, with whom he worked in Chicago. Reilly used to be the best rewrite man in the business, but his career has fallen down a cliff in the last eight years, after arthriris left him unable to type.
Reilly brings a story: Luther Cardell is alive and well, and in Cuba, where he’s aiming philanthropically to teach the locals how to feed themselves better (he’s an agribusiness tycoon). Cardell has secretive demands, third party contact, Reilly only, explicit instructions to be followed to the letter or else. It’s all very cloak and dagger, and Lou fears it is a hoax.
It is a hoax. It looks like a hoax, smells like a hoax, it practically quacks like a hoax, but inside, Lou and Rossi – who starts out as total sceptic but gradually gets sucked in – come to believe in it because they want to believe it. It’s a hell of a story.
There’s a lot of building to it, testing Reilly’s plausibility, getting details no-one else but Luther Cardell will know. We’re waiting for the twist, for the show to double back on us and produce Luther Cardell, though once the plan is revealed to be a meet in Jamaica, with first class flights, fourstar suites and Reilly buying ice crean suits for all three, on the Trib’s budget, it pretty much sticks out of the water.
Because it is a hoax: Luther Cardell’s body is found, with that of his girlfriend, in a crashed sports car at the botom of a canyon, where it’s been for a month. Lou’s been taken, Reilly’s gotten some fun in a now miserable life, and he still thinks he’s done Lou a favour by sharing a memory of the old days with his friend.
Of course, he’s actually put Lou’s job at risk, something he regards as negligible: people like Lou can get a job anytime, any place they want (this really isn’t the twenty-first century, is it?). This kind of favour you don’t need. Lou survives, of course, this being only episode 3, and via Mrs Pynchon he gets the story into the Trib, before the Times picks it up. Of course, he has to own the story, so Mrs Pynchon wants complete accuracy, especially when it comes to depicting the City Editor who fell for it as a complete ass.
It’s an enjoyable story, and it’s a demonstration of the integrity, sometimes self-conscious integrity that the show would bring to its depiction of the Press. It’s also a farewell to Rebecca Balding who, for reasons I’ve been unable to discover, left the show after this episode. I’d forgotten her completly, remembering only Linda Kelsey, who replaces her next week. Ironically, for all the snarky remarks about blow-dried TV frontmen, I think Balding was let go because she was too blow-dried herself. She was a pretty woman with immaculate hair, but she lacked an internal fire in regard to her job. Carla was just too lightweight in Balding’s hands.
But I opened this piece by saying that this episode embodied the difference between TV then and TV now, and that difference was pace. So much ofthis pisode, especially in the early stages, very especially in the budget meeting scene where Lou first brings the subject up, is strung out, played slowly, uses far more dialogue than we would nowadays be comfortable with. Lou takes a good minute to a minute and a half to even bring the subject up, covering his intended item with so many caveats and reservations.
It’s in keeping with the scene, it’s played to be time-consuming, so that Lou can be pressed into finally saying what’s on his mind, but it wasn’t half long-winded and, since you knew it would happen, in 2018 it felt slow, in a why-doesn’t-he-just-get-on-with it? manner. Written by a modern scriptwriter, the episodewould have lasted thirty minutes, tops.
And I do prefer the crisper, faster approach, making less concessions to the audience, spelling less out, and just generally being decently brisker.
We’ll just have to see how this pans out over the rest of the series.