To begin with a minor point, this episode was clearly shown out of production order as it’s the second of two for which Robert Wa;lden was missing, on strike, in a failed attempt at more pay. In his absence, Kinda Kelsey as Billie Newman takes the lead in what’s virtually a solo story for her.
It’s 1980. There’s a Presidential Election going on in which, in real life, Ronald Reagan will defeat the well-meaning but ineffectual Jimmy Carter, who will only go on to fulfil his abilities after his Presidential term is over. We’re not covering that, oh goodness me, no: too many vote-losing traps in that, vote here being a word meaning audience share-points.
Instead, the show is covering the Senatorial election, and the campaign of challenger ‘Gentleman Jim’ Carlisle (Ed Nelson), which is running at high momentum. The Trib’s veteran political reporter, whose work has gone stale, is dragged back to the office and Billie is thrown to the dogs, in the form of the Press Pack, principally nationally famous reporters like Avery Stephens (James Callahan), Sturbridge (John Hillerman) and Flo Meredith (Eileen Eckhardt).
(I didn’t know this until I checked imdb but Eckhardt is the only instance in the entire series of Lou Grant of a crossover with his original series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show: she was Mary Richards’ Aunt Flo, and obviously knw Lou, but the episode doesn’t mention Mary at all, nor does Flo feature with Lou at any time.)
Until it’s end, I foumd the episode to be flat and unengaging. Billie, as the new girl, undergoes some fairly obvious runarounds from both the veteran reporters – a college initiation-style rite but withut the paddles – and the campaign manager. At first her stuff is identical to both their’s but also, disastrously, her poredecessors. Then she files a story they don’t, with a potential campaign-damaging effect, which gets her squelched by the veterans who simply saw it differently (cue reference to the failed Presidential election campaign of Ed Muskie).
But Billie’s right and they’re wrong, giving her the chance to castigate them for their smug complacency, to the point where, shamed by her naive enthusiasm for the basics of their job that they’ve forgotten (cliche drawer alert!), they back her up on the awkward point she pursues, about Carlisle’s attitude to gun control that he’s been avoiding defining.
It’s an irony that a cheap scene like that should play into the episode’s one genuinely strong moment, as Carlisle bruhes off political mangement, visibly relaxes and, in a beautifully played moment by Nelson, explains his beliefs by reference to an evidently painful experience (it helps that I’m on his side: I’d like to hear the reaction of a gun ownership proponent, out of curiosity).
Thats the end of the story, basically. There’s a coda in which the campaign continues, clearly downhill, and the veterans pull out but Billie sticks with it until the (unseen) end. Carlisle’s going back up in the polls, his latest rally’s a big, booming affair, who knows, maybe honesty works?
A mixed bag, with not enough of the good stuff for 49 minutes, but the good stuff, when it came, was worth waiting for.