Lou Grant: s03 e08 – Witness

Richard Jaeckel

What really caught my eye about this episode was not the main story itself, and certainly not the insufficiently comic B story, but rather the presence of one guest star, Richard Jaeckel as Detective Dan Staley, playing what was originally a serious role but which, forty years later, has become a grotesque cartoon.

I’ll come back to that shortly, but here is the context. Billie and Donovan have gone to a bar for a drink. Billie has noticed controversial trial lawyer Elliott Robinson and tries to question him. Robinson bluntly refuses. In the darkness of the underground parking garage, two men beat him viciously. Billie and Donovan discver him. He’s taken to the hospital in critical condition, where eventually he dies. The Trib starts an investigation. Robinson has multiple enemies amongst those he has sued/is suing. The name of popular and successful gameshow host Art McQueen is mentioned. One of the thugs contacts Bilie, naming McQueen as the one who hired two of them, only to welsh on the final payment, but his unsupported allegation can’t be printed without a name or corroboration. But when he turns up dead, that’s a story. When Billie puts the story to the folksy, real-people McQueen, he warns her over printing a story that could effect someone’s life. The brakes promptly fail on her car, though it’s when Rossi is driving it. To obtain Police protection, Billie agrees to testify to the Grand Jury considering indicting Art McQueen. Ok, we’re now here.

Though she should have a woman Police Officer guarding her, Billie ends up with the Detective handling the Robinson assault/murder case, Detective Staley. Though I’m bound to say that Jaeckel’s performance was weak an awkward, as if he was unhappy with the script he was given and couldn’t bring conviction to the role, his was a character study that’s changed in dimension over the years.

In 1977, Feminism had only been an effective force for less than a decade. Linda Kelsey plays Billie as an independent, forthright young woman, intelligent, informed, effective. This was still controversial back then, and I recall one contemporary criticism of the character that claimed she was “a hideous lie”.

Dan Staley was portrayed as a male chauvinist (we’ll leave off the ‘pig’ aspect, despite the term getting two shots at him). He’s patronising towards Billie (the ‘little lady’), and full of condescending assumptions about her, especially when Billie goes to the Morgue to identify the body of the man she met. He makes assumptions about why she went to the bar, why she approached Robinson, even that she approached the lawyer when she was already a guy, some of which can be alibied by the need of a Detective to initially doubt everybody’s story, but which lean on the invisible sex angle. He’s patriotic, believes in Nuclear Weapons, he’s authoritarian, he continually makes assumptions about Billie over her political opinions, in fact she starts to come over as a catalogue of feminist/liberal virtues designed to contrast with him. They have nothing in common, except that they both enjoy Masterpiece Theatre.

The point is that in 1979 this was a nearly natural portrayal of a state of mind. The programme plays fair by Staley. He isn’t angry, or defensive, he doesn’t overplay the role, he just is that way, like so many people were. In 2019, he’s a caricature, a cartoon compilation of cliches akin to an OTT role in a French and Saunders sketch. His every utterance is groan-inducing, an ‘is this guy for real?’ display.

We’ve moved on a lot from 1979. The world is very far from perfect and there’s a gathering strength among the chauvinist who want to dial things back towards the days when such sentiments were not merely ‘normal’ among their crowd but to everyone. But the fact that Staley is now a grotesque, instead of a common viewpoint, speaks well for our mental advance over forty years. On the day of a General Election in Britain, there’s something encouraging about that.

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