It’s early yet, but I’d be inclined to put this episode up as a kind of archetype of the whole Lou Grant series. It can’t be, on one level, because it makes far too little use of the whole cast – very little Rossi, Art Donovan and Animal still confined to very limited roles and Mrs Pynchon not to be seen – which makes it unrepresentative. But in its wholly liberal stance, its intention to confront repressive circumstances, and its willingness to make its audience uncomfortable, this was an episode four square in the show’s principles.
Nowadays, and back in 1978, that stance would be called impeccably liberal, and that would be meant as a slight. When the show started, Jimmy Carter was halfway through his term as President, and Ronnie Reagan and the world’s lurch towards the Right was in the wings. Lou Grant was still largely part of the consensus, but it would end up swimming against the tide, which arguably led to its eventual cancellation.
Not that many could argue with the theme of this story. The episode tittle is blunt: this is about American Nazis, or the National Socialist Aryan American Party. They may be a small party, four men dressed in Nazi unifoms, with swastika armbands and a big swastika flag, invading a small pro-Israel demonstration in the Park, chanting ‘Hitler had the right idea’ (classy) and provoking a riot in order to make their Jewish victims into the aggressors, resorting to violence when the Nazis are being entirely peaceful. Cheap, crude, effective, superficially.
The story attracts the eye of Rossi, who wants to write it. Charlie Hulme’s against giving it any more than minimal coverage, to deny these people the publicity they’re seeking. Lou thinks it needs to be written but won’t let Rossi have it because his mind is already made up. Instead, after she asks to do it, and demonstrates the correct instincts – i.e., get the facts, then decide the story – he lets Billie Newman have it.
It’s good continuity, and an opportunity to showcase Linda Kelsey. She’s a feature writer rather than a news reporter at the start, she’s not pushy (though she’s going to get there) and she’s patient and thorough. And Billie’s constant digging turns this story into a study of the Nazi leader, Commander Stryker (a magnetic, indeed charismatic performance by guest star Peter Weller). Who, in a reversal inexpected in those days, turns out to be himself Jewish.
It’s a classic, yet horrible case of a rigid-minded man who, as a result of persecution. turns to identify himself with the aggressors, becoming in the process one of the more fanatic of them. There’s a telling moment, all the stronger for not being highlighted, when Stryker – or Donald Sturner, to give him his true name – relates to Billie a story of being thrown out of school for beating up some scrawny punk intellectual and breaking his arm, when we’ve already learned that Sturner was the victim of the beating, and of the broken arm.
There’s an equally intense scene when, with the Trib about to print Billie’s story, Stryker turns up to plead with Lou and Billie not to run it. He offers an even better story in exchange for suppression, at least in his lights, homosexuals in the Ku Klux Klan, names, addresses. Lou, with a very patient undertone, reduces this story to nothing by saying there are homosexuals everywhere, why not in the KKK? Weller makes Stryker pathetic, but not in that sense. Printing that story takes everything away from him, his ‘friends’, his schemes, his life’s work. All that hard work. He descends to threats before stalking out, and it’s a mark of Weller’s inhabitation of the role, turning it out of caricature, that Billie’s comment that she almost feels sorry for him doesn’t sound like a scriptwriter’s platitude.
So Stryker assembles his men, in full uniform, immaculate. He checks his gun. We cut to the Trib, security insisting in seeing ID on the way in, even Rossi. When they gang gets off at the Fourth Floor, Lou is waiting for them, or rather Billie. Stryker has committed suicide.
Billie is in tears, struck by guilt, taking onto herself responsibilty for Stryker’s death, because she wrote that story. Lou, with unaccustomed gentleness, talks her out of it, or sufficiently far out of it for her to be enable her to function whilst she does the rest for herself, telling her that she cannot let fear of the effect of herstories to interfere with the writing of them.
Stryker’s an easy case, given that he is extreme, unbalanced and palpably in the wrong, and we can be sure that the reporters and the City Editor of the Los Angeles Tribune will only ever exercise their weight in righteous causes, but there’s no denying that when you observe the practices of the British Press this past forty years, down to the Guardian‘s malicious distortion of a Labour members poll on Jeremy Corbyn, only last week, the maxim causes a distinct shudder.
And if we’re going to introduce 2019 politics into a 1978 TV drama series, then I’m bound to say that Stryker’s meeting speech was uncomfortably like Donald Trump’s statements. Only one of them was a card-carrying Nazi. Just saying.