It wasn’t immediately easy to see where the conflict of the title was coming from as this latest episode of Lou Grant seemed to be going in at least four directions all at once. There was Billie’s effort to start a campaign against having the trees in her street cut down to enable road-widening, Mrs Pynchon wanting to have an in-house staff member reporting on the paper’s faults and failings, Lou’s friendship wth the basketball team owner denying he’s moving the Stars from LA to San Jose, Lou starting an invstigation into the chief fundraiser of Mrs Pynchon’s personal charity and Marion Hulme loving her new paid job assisting a local politician. Where’s the focus in that?
Eventually, as I should have foreseen, everything coalesced around the Trib’s new ‘Watchdog’, with all the other elements of the story feeding into that in their individual way. Whoever got the Watchdog role would end up having no friends left, so Lou cynially chose the guy who had none to begin with, Joe Rossi.
This was so much a mistake. Rossi seized upon the opportunity to bombard everyone with criticisms. In essence, he was trying to remake every writer and editor on the Trib in his own image, without the least understanding of what he was doing.
Worse still, Mrs Pynchon was invested enough to promise him a column opposite Editorial, with a free hand, to publish all his criticisms in front of the readers. This was the episode’s only major goof, bending character logic to the arc of the story. Where Rossi, a genuinely good reporter, would track down everything that needed to be known to produce a balanced story, Rossi the watchdog abandoned any effort at enquiry to produce surface-based, impressionistic stories without the context in which they existed, without even asking those attackedfor their side of the story. The Managing Editor whose wife is paid to work for a politician (Charlie). The Editor who’s sitting on a story for a friend (Lou). The reporter who’s using her paper to exercise political clout (Billie). The finance editor with an extensive stock portfolio (Adam Wilson, recurring character, who has one share only in each company to assist his reporting by getting access as a shareholder that a reporter won’t have).
It all looks rife with conflict, but Rossi’s cartoon fire-stoking overlooks every single real-life aspect of it, and brings the paper’s fury down on his head (there is a pool on when he’ll get punched out, who’ll do it and how serious the injury will be: good odds to be had on Billie but Lou’s already taken).
On the other side of the coin, the issue is approached with a little more seriousness in two areas. Lou has to confess that Rossi was right in his instance: his friend did lie to him and play him and Lou fell for it: the Stars are going to San Jose. And whilst Mrs Pynchon is absolutely furious at Lou for going after the charity her father started, for crippling its efforts and depriving its recipients of aid, she has to acknowledge that the story was true and appropriate, and that by going behind her back, Lou has avoided putting her in conflict.
In a way, the most powerful moment of the story, in a low-key but painful closer, related to Charlie and Marion. Marion’s been a wife and mother all her life, a typical woman of her era, adjusting herself to her husband and her children. She started volunteering, and her job is no more than a formal recognition of her role, and the thrill and self-respect of a wage-cheque each week, however small it is. Her joy in what she’s doing, her sense of a self that’s owned by her only, is palpable. When she’s told she has to quit, she refuses.
Charlie is put in an invidious position. Mrs Pynchon makes it clear the situation cannot continue: if Marion will not leave her job, then Charlie will have to leave his. The closer features an angry Charlie, internalising things in bitter, ironic, self-condemnatory terms, and Marion explaing the importance to her of what she does after decades of self-abnegation… but agreeing to quit, because she loves Charlie (and he her), but she’s going to get another job.
It was impressively written, and even better performed by Mason Adams and Peggy McCay, indicating their personal commitment to each other. Yes, it still ended up with the little woman giving way and going back to the home, in the short term at least, which was only to beexpected in 1978, though that doesn’t relieve it from criticism. And personal is not the same as important, as Terry Pratchett once put in the voice of Captain Carrot.
The personal element was also used to blur the episode’s other main flaw, which was that it didn’t have an ending to the watchdog tale. Rossi goes back into reporting, and for the detached man who has no conflict whatsoever there is the exquisite revenge of being given multiple membership of everything you could get membership for, short of the Ku Klux Klan (the Shaun Cassidy Fan Club ran that close though). But the Watchdog idea was now dead. It had been used to illustrate a point, and could now lapse without actually being killed. Only the critical, week-by-week blogger would be so ungentlemany as to notice.