Lou Grant: s03 e03 – Slammer


Jury Duty

Most of this week’s episode was set in and around a prison, which gave me pause for reasons I’ll explain momentarily. The set-up is that Rossi has been teaching a Journalism class and inveigles Lou into being a guest speaker: the class is in a Maximum Security Prison and the students have been convicted of a variety of crimes, up to and including murder.

The problem is that, being a Maximum Primetime Series, the programme couldn’t go anything near the reality of a prison, nor the truth of the things that can be done by and to the prisoners. It’s big move to establish the regime’s harshness was a boxing match, being watched on TVs by the inmates, who are really into it, excited, shouting, blowing off steam – until a cruel and saditic guard who was trying to read switched all the sets off before the end.

I m no expert on prisons and will never pretend to be. The episode took care to avoid anyone enjoying such a status, especially not the genuinely decent  and would-be liberal Governor. But early in my legal career, when my field included criminal work, I had occasion to visit Manchester’s infamous Strangeways Prison to interview a client. This meant going inside E Wing, the remand Wing. This was the part of the prison that held prisoners waiting Trial, in short, those who were not convicted and who were therefore innocent in the eyes of the Law. From the moment the doors slammed shut behind me, my skin crawled, and I tried to defuse my feelings with a ‘clever’ joke, telling the guard who was leading us to the interview room that I wouldn’t feel comfortable until I got out, or else I looked down there and saw Ronnie Barker cheating at dominoes. Defensive or what?

So the episode could not give us even a fraction of that atmosphere, nor did it make any attempt to, which undermined everything it was trying to achieve.

The prisoners were taking a Journalism class but had no paper to print their stories in. When Lou took it to the Governor, he got a paper but then had to restrain the convicts over their urge to print the truth about what goes on. Lou was drawing the disincion between the truth as what can be proven and the truth as what they knew was the truth, and which one could be printed, though the convicts went behind his back, tried to print their story alleging one of their fellow students had been murdered by a gang inside, caused a near-riot, a lockdown and withdrawal of their project.

Of curse, Lou then goes into bat for them, blurring the reality with some Defence Attorney style sophistry that persuaded the Governor to allow them another go, giving the episode the required happy ending annd liberal conciousnesses their sop.

How you react to an episode like this depend on your pre-judgements about criminals. It was made plain that this prison was not about rehabilitation but about punishment. The inmates’ ‘leader’, JD (Kene Holiday), was presented as passionate, articulate and frustrated at the lack of outlets for the truth, conscious of the State’s right to punish, but chafing at the small cruelties meant to make prisoners feel humiliated or dehumanised.

But the episode, in a neat reversal of the usual Rossie/Billie roles, covered its bases by having Billie interview JD’s victim, pointing out that the criminal can serve his time and go free, but the victim cannot.

There was a sub-plot, a B-story about Mrs Pynchon undertaking Jury Duty, leaving Charlie Hume in charge at the paper, that folded into the A-story at the very last, Lou’s final departure from the Prison crossing the arrival of the dude convicted by the proprietoress’s Jury. But overall, despite its good intentions, and despite its cautious determination not to make the prisoners into absolute heroes, the episode failed from the start because it could not be nasty, grimy or sufficiently frightening enough to anyone with even the most peripheral experience.

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