Lou Grant: s01 e22 – Physical

Lou and Chris

We’re at the end of season 1 now, with another low key episode that leaned more to the melancholic than most of the fledgling year, signing off with a personal story. Season 2 has already been bookmarked.

It’s time for the staff to have their annual physicals, except Lou is digging his heels in. He’s already had a physical, in the Army (Grant specifies that he’s 50, putting his birth in 1927: we’re talking Second World War here.) Of course he’s not afraid of what he might find: the permanent tiredness, especially in the mornings and after a good night’s sleep, means nothing. But what he does find, when he submits to it, is a malignant nodule on his thyroid, or to put it more bluntly, thyroid cancer.

The answer is surgery, a common procedure, straightforward, inevitably successful, a week’srecovery, ten days tops. These are the facts and this is the outcome, there are no melodramas around this. That’s not what the episode’s about. It’sabout reactions to news like this, about Lou’s fearsandapprehensions, filtered through a fifty year old man from a generation raised to be tight-lipped abot their feelings, and it’s about the reactions of everyone around Lou.

Prominent among these is Joe Rossi. All season long, Rossi’s been the jerk, great writer, awful human being, thin-skinned, egotistical, just a pain. The word’s come through that not only has he been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (again), but that he’s odds on to win it. Sure, he’s super eager about it – who wouldn’t be? – but he’s also unselfish and thoughtful about Lou, there to help even if it’s only keeping company, and he’s the oonly one not being reassuring.

He ends up losing, but that’s in a throwaway. Rossi’s more concerned that Lou’s operation goes well, and that theTrib has won a Southern California award for most improved local reporting, and that’s a reflection on the editor, right?

There are two other mini-stories going on around this, both involving would-be reporters. David (Daniel Zacapa, then going bythe name Garret Pearson) has it all going for him, college student, editor of the college paper, stringer for the Trib, prolific writer. Chris (Thomas Carter) is a copy boy, a High School student who’s lied about his age to work there, who has no advantages except a willingness to learn, a City Editor willing to give him shots, and the smarts and the guts to understand that harsh criticism of his inexperience and failings will teach him more than soft blows ever will.

There’s a schematic symbolism in that David is white and Chris is black, but this is a point that’s left strictly to the audience to absorb and make of what they will. Nothing is signposted, but, inevitably given the times and the show’s leanings, it is David who fails.

It’s signalled in the episode’s opening scene, rehearsals for the College’s homecoming Queen contest (my god, beauty contests! We are a long ways back). Four women, and one man, who’s entered for a joke. It’s only a joke, and he doesn’t articulate it at all well, but we see David putting words into his mouth, turning the joke into a political gesture, linking it to the then in process Equal Right Amendment to the Constitution (which failed to achieve ratification by its 1979 deadline), and framing it as a regressive protest against reverse discrimination.

David’s a bit slippery then, from the outset and his slipperiness costs him. He sneaks an abstruse joke into a piece about an awards ceremony, a latin tag that’s actually a direct sexual reference. Lou fires him. A newspaper has to be trustworthy (re-read same old reference to the times between then and now that I’ve said many timesalready) and David with his privileges hasn’t understood that, whereas, without having to have it pointed out to us, we know Chris has got it by instinct.

I’m still mildly disturbed by the white/black symbolism here. A few years on from here, Hill Street Blues, one of my favourite series of all time, made its debut. Love it as I do, it can’t be ignored that the show featured two leading partnerships, Hill/Renko and LaRue/Washington, each of black and white, with the white character the cowboy, the unreliable, the fuck-up, and the black the upright, wise, reliable, steady man. It’s a bit of symbolism that’s actually a bit crude, but it’s a reflection of the era, and of liberal concern with what’s now called virtue signalling. It’s reverse discrimination, as is the underlying factor here with David and Chris: after decades of demeaning portrayals of blacks on TV, the pendulum was being shoved over to the opposite side. As with all such reactions to injustice, there is an understandable period when the oppressed are elevated, idealised, beyond true equality. That was the reality then. Lou Grant was subtle in this respect, but you couldn’t help but notice that Chris was the first black staffer at the all-white Trib…

In the end, that story was a technical diversion. Lou had his surgery. He emerged croaky. Everyone came to visit him in his hospital room. They gathered around, chatting. The season’s final shot was an overhead one, of the group, emphasising the ensemble nature of the characters. Hill Street Blues was the first truly ensemble show, where everyone was the star, and Lou Grant is Lou’s show. But it built itself upon a very believable, sometimes too-good-to-be-true cast, and a genuine interplay between characters, without which the series’ stories would be sterile.

Here’s to season 2, starting next Thursday.

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