The problem with a polemic, issue-oriented show, and especially one with a liberal, left-oriented viewpoint, is balance. Not between political opinions, nor even between idealistic fantasy and common or garden realism, but between entertainment and issue. Lou Grant is about the things that shaped our world in 1978 and thereabouts, but it’s also about Lou Grant, and Joe Rossie, Billie Newman et al. This episode lost that balance almost before it started.
‘Schools’ was, obviously, about the School System, and about fear and tension in schools, about teacher’s compromised abilities to teach, about armed guards in the corridor, teachers carrying guns, kids on drugs, the whole nine yards. It was piled on, viewers oblivious to the problem would no longer have any excuse to be oblivious, but along the way there was too little for anyone but Lou, in full-blown helpless-in-the-face-of-inexorability mode, to do, and despite at least one excellent guest role, the characters were too much Representative than real.
The vehicle for the plot is the L.A. Trib’s annual College Scholarship, which takes Lou to Whitman High to meet the candidates. There’s an obvious paragon, a straight A superstar student, a debut role as a minor character for Dennis Haysbert, and an underdog, a less than perfect kid but one who’s turned his life around dramatically, and who could really benefit from the Scholarship.
This is Wesley (Kevin Hooks), a special project of Guidance Counsellor Jenny Davis, a lovely, cool, in control performance by Lee Chamberlin, whose empathy and intelligence, and her authoritative balance of realism and optimism, attracts Lou’s attention. Jenny’s our centre, and Chamerlin is superb, but she’s neverallowed to be real or a person. She’s a function of the story and she’s why it all doesn’t work.
Both Wesley and Jenny fall foul of the ignorant dickhead Haskell, and it’s all because of a radio. Haskell is toxic black male culture at its worst, ain’t no-one gonna tell Haskell what to do. Jenny humours him into turning his radio off, only for his buddies to tell him he’s been disrespected. And Haskell reacts in defence of his precious manhood, by slashing Jenny’s tyres, by provoking Wesley into a fight defending Ms Davies that gets him arrested and kills his chance at the Scholarship, and then by trapping Jenny in her room, beating her, and raping her.
So Jenny, this paragon herself, decides to quit, and run back to Texas. Victor the student paragon wins the Scholarship. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, still young but already the showman, provides an inspirational speech-cum-sermon. Wesley regathers himself to start again. But Jenny, no, the damage has been done, the cut is too deep. It wouldstill have been schematic to end with this defeat, a touch-eyed appreciation of how hard it can be and how sometimes it can still be too much for even the best of us, but no, the show can’t leave well alone, and another inspirational plea from Lou overturns Jenny’s mind and she stays to fight the good fight still.
But too much of this episode was about the situation and far too little of it about making the people who were in the midst of the situation into people and not causes. My old adage applied here: the irreducible minimum rquirement of fiction is that it makes you care about something that never happened to someone who never existed, and it failed because the people who never existed were never allowed to exist.