Lou Grant: s01 e18 – Sect

For once, this was a personal, character-driven episode of Lou Grant, albeit one centred on a difficult topic that the show handled fairly in its typical style.

The story started with a couple of disparate elements, though it showed its hand rather early as to which would be the main thread. There was Billie, forced to work with veteran, and stiff-necked writer Mel Cavanaugh on the Education beat, there was Mrs Pynchon demanding the paper appoint a new Religion editor without having to go the length of a Papal Conclave, and there was Charlie Hume, whose picture appears in Encyclopedia Brittanica against mild-mannered, kicking off in anger and frustration about practically everything. Even to Mrs Pynchon. Which of these is an episode long story?

The bug up Charlie’s butt is his son, Tommy, or rather Visnu Das (David Hunt Stafford). Tommy used to be your typical California kid, doing nothing, obsessed with his motorcycle, with the girl from Illinois. Now he’s joined the Hare Krushna sect. He’s shaved his head, adopted another name, wears saffron robes and chants in the street. He’s given up all his possessions and his fleshly urges. There is a difference of opinion over whether the Hare Krishnas accept donations, or just plain beg. And it’s doing Charlie’s head in.

What the programme is about is the question of whether Tommy genuinely believes in what, in 1978, was considered a fringe/outre ‘religion’, or whether he has been brainwashed by a cult, and is saying only what he is programmed to say. To Charlie, it’s obviously the latter. He just doesn’t understand what Tommy sees: all he can see are the robes, the ‘begging’, the filth, poverty and squalor (none of which the show depicts, suggesting that at least the last two of these are in Charlie’s head only).

Tommy, or Visnu Das, a name that represents Tommy’s love for Krishna and his desire to serve him, is calm, steady and happy. He tries to explain himself to his parents, or rather his mother since his father’s ears are closed tight, though all he can produce is happy-clappy platitudes, albeit sincere platitudes. The show would have been substantially stronger for having had the time to show Tommy as he used to be and what brught him to Krishna, but that’s being unreasonably demanding of impossibilities.

Charlie remained steamed up. Everyone around him was being fair to Tommy and to Hare Krishna (the one imdb review praises the show for the fairest depiction of the sect), which only fuels Charlie’s paranoia.

So he turns to de-programming. This was the moment I started to worry about where the show might go, though I should have known better. First we had a couple of parents who had had their daughter snatched from a cult (carefully distinguished to be not Hare Krishna), and who wanted to help others. This was cleverly handled: they did the talking, she sat between them, silent as they congratulated themselves on ‘saving’ her, or infantilising her which was what it looked to me. When the girl spoke up for herself, it was to echo Mummy and Daddy. She was happy to be doing something worthwhile now. She was studying Real Estate.

But this led to the seriously grubby part of the story, bringing in the actual deprogrammers. Tommy was to be lured to Lou’s apartment, alone, and there be brainwashed out of his beliefs. The elements of the deprogramming were elucidated by Lou, who didn’t like the deprogrammers from the start. As the details of restraint, imprisonment, intimidation etc., built up, Charlie began to get visibly nervous. The turning point, the moment the show opted for the mandatory happy ending, was when Tommy came alone. ‘He believed me,’ Charlie muttered, his conscience and his previously overridden love for his son kicking in, all at once. Whilst Lou got rid of the bad guys, Charlie walked in the rain, trying for the first time to understand his son, and accept that what felt like, what was a complete rejection of everything Charlie’s life represented might be a necessity for Visnu Das.

And the show neatly ended on Charlie’s use of the words Lou had intended but never got to use on his daughters, who never messed up and never got any ofthe Talks he’d planned: you’re still my son. Which is enough, and more than enough.

As for those other story strands, they were used as a lightweight counterpart to the main story, comic relief and something for Billie, Rossi and Donovan to do in small doses. And this was a win for Lou too: after Cavanaugh, a poor and hidebound writer too tied to his pals at the Education Board, played on Lou’s heart strings to avoid being fired, Lou came up with a brilliant idea to sink all ships: he made Cavanaugh the new Religion editor, and the guy promptly quit!

A deftly written story that was weakened by not having time to show Tommy’s back story rather that have us assume it, but strengthened by playing out with characters we knew and trusted. The danger of expanding the first part was of turning the story into a telemovie, so maybe we got the best of it afterall.

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