In imdb‘s episode ratings, this latest Lou Grant gets a below-par 7.8. I can understand that on an objective basis, especially given one substantial plothole in one half of the story, but my own history left me unable to be objective about the subject of the other.
Whilst the amount of time devoted to each, vastly different strand would justify me designating them as A and B stories, both did deal with very different questions of heritage and both turned on matters of significance. The ‘A story’, if I have to designate it thus, began with a determined but nervous woman walking onto a golf course, confronting one of four Doctors finishing a round, identifying herself as a baby he once delivered – and slapping him across the face before collapsing, sobbing that he had given her cancer.
In contrast, the ‘B story’ started in comic manner, with an elderly, well-dressed, rich and foreign-looking couple invading the Trib to try to withdraw someone else’s already-published wedding announcement, as preparation to prevent the wedding. Billie gets the girl, Rossi gets the other girl.
Billie’s girl is Jessica Downey (Sands Hall). Twenty-odd years ago, the Doctor prescribed her mother a new drug named DES which was supposed to prevent miscarriages. In fact, it had no such effect. But in about one in one thousand four hundred cases, it led to canccer in the baby, about twenty years later. Not merely cancer, but it also deformed the uterus, meaning that a woman so affected could conceive but not carry a baby to term. Before the episode was over, Jessica had had all her ovaries removed and at least part of her vaginal wall, losing her desire to become a mother, and bitter about how long her loving boyfriend would stay with her when she couldn’t give him babies, nor ‘normal’ sex.
In a way, this clinical and detailed exposition was shocking, especially for a forty year old episode (original broadcast 28 January 1980), not just for its explicitness about the sexual aspects – the word orgasm was used, out loud – but also for the use of the C-word. . There was still a massive inhibition on saying the word Cancer so far back, a horror-movie fear that to say it was to bring it down on you.
That it was about cancer left me unable to look at it without my own background blurring any attempt at judgement, and the episode opted to bring the subject into the family with Billie herself. She’s the right age: did her mother take DES when she had her?
The short answer, after a whirlwind of emotions including some very understandable re-writing of the past to pretend it was exactly the same as the present, was yes. no suggestion of actual cancer, just a twice-yearly check-up that will doubtless never be referred to again: a Sword of Damocles hanging high indeed, but still hanging.
Rossi’s story involved Sarah Hartounian (Carol Bagdasarian), who was marrying Jamahl Azar (Gregory Rozakis). The couple trying to prevent the wedding or at least word of it getting out were her Uncle and Aunt Leon and Levinia (Buck Kartalian and Magda Harout). The reason? Sarah was Armenian and Jamahl Turkish.
Sarah and Jamahl were nothing more than two people in love, but to Leon and Levinia they were symbols, and a disgrace. For centuries, the Turks have tried to wipe out the Armenians, including two genocidal massacres, in 1915 and 1916, the outline of which was told in blunt and horrific detail, to which was added the approbation of Hitler (true historical fact) in comparison to the Jews.
To the older Hartounians, Sarah was not and could not be Sarah alone. She was and must be a symbol of her people, and be a representative of her ethnicity, which made her both more and less than she was. Lou tried to point out that only by such things as the pair marrying can ancient hatreds, however well justified, begin to be repaired, but Leon’s personal experiences, alongside his late brother, Sarah’s father, were so intense that he would never break out of that. And so intense that who had the right to try to bend him?
Leon and Lavinia believed Sarah was only marrying Jamahl to hurt them, when the truth was that they were marrying for the only good reason for marrying: love and compatibility. But, in the episode’s biggest plot hole, Leon intended to alter his brother’s will to disinherit Sarah. The show never explained how he could do that: his own will, yes, as was first mooted but his brother’s already operational one?
Either way, this inheritance ended up in court where the judge, after hearing compelling arguments both ways, voided the change of will. The elder Hartounians marched out, refusing to speak to their niece, which made you wonder just exactly who had won.
And Billie reconciled with her mother, who herself was torn up over the fear she had hurt her child but who had not been able to express it before.
Lots of cliches in there, put in service of an episode with solid roots that would probably have been better served as a one-off, not a weekly series produced under headlong time constraints. But I felt it in that part of me that only knows cancer for what it did to my family, which cannot think but only feel.