After a couple of weeks in the doldrums, Lou Grant‘s second season bounced back with an episode based more in characters than issues, giving the show the chance to play to its cast rather than subordinate them.
The spine for the story was the the L.A. Tribune is facing financial difficulties and has turned to a paper doctor… sorry, media consultant, to update itself. Michael Barton (Peter Donat) has ideas that are horrendously familiar: brifht, snappy, sexy stories, lots of photos, more white space, giving the people what they want, not what they need. In short, Barton is the tabloid paper of today and far too long already. In 1978, the show could put him up as a warning, but the Barton’s had their teeth in the victim’s neck already.
Of course Lou Grant opposes him implacably, out of instinct as much as principle, and of course, when it comes to the showdown, Mrs Pynchon backs him, but even in this happy eding the show allows a touch of realism it oft times ignores, as her attitude is one of, if we die, we will die our way.
We see the effects of Barton’s circulation-grabbing ideas throuh his proposed ‘Singles Space’ in Metro, Lou’s beat. Rosssi and Billie try the dating scene, Rossi by video-dating, which attracts Erin (a lovely half-shy, half-independent performance by Karen Landry, attractive but not beautiful), whilst Animal gets half a dozen responses!
Billie, in contrast, tries computer dating and is matched with Philip (Philip Charles MacKenzie), a self-styled romantic, who proposes on the first date and bombards her with attention she doesn’t want, in a manner that’s superficially comedic whilst allowing the audienc to see the effects of what we now know is stalking.
Rossi, who in contrast is a hopeless date, ends up falling in love (Erin, who was Karen Landry’s first recorded part in imdb, would never return, which was a shame).
Even though it wasn’t part of the newspaper story, even Lou got caught up in the romance, sharing a couple of traffic jam smiles with a gorgeous blonde in a red dress, then rear-ending Susan (a police officer, played by Frances Lee McCain) when looking for the blonde. At the end, Lou gets to talk with the blonde, who brushes him off quite emphatically, leading him to realise that unattainable wish-fulfilment is one thing and real people you alreadyu kno sre another, and asks Susan out for dinner.
The essence of the episode’s pitch is easily exemplified. Billie sees Philip as a sa, pathetic, damaged individual who she never wants to see again in her life, Barton as a fascinating romantic figure who will make single young women buy the Trib. And he sends Animal to get paparazzi pictures of a famously reclusive and ex-beauty, aged actress, which Lou and Charlie refuse to run because they won’t infringe on her privacy (yes, this is 1978, and doesn’t it seem a dinosaur’s age ago?)
I liked the episode, but then I’m a dinosaur too. In reality, Barton would win, and his overthrowing be only a pyhrric victory. History will roll over Lou Grant’s principles and practice, but it’s good to see someone defending the right ideas from the tide, for however short a time.