Let’s face it, you’re on an uphill struggle trying to sell an episode with the title of ‘Goop’, and the more so with a light-hearted – here being a word that means trying to be funny but not being – open about a bubble of earth appearing overnight in the backyard of a property in a smell-ridden town called Sackett. As a twist, we had word processor lettering crossing the screen representing the story writing itself.
Nevertheless, there was a serious story to be had from this unfortunate scenario.As well as the bubble, and the all-pervading stink (reminding me of the day my family and I visited Halifax, when there was some sort of massive sewer problem), there was a tarry, black goop seeping through someone’s basement wall. When analysed, it was shown to contain the highly toxic substance, C84, a petrochemical by-product responsible for brain-tumours, birth defects and cancer.
The nearest possible source of this was Diller Chamicals, in Alta Mira, but tht was more than 100 miles away. And according to their Press Officer, to Rossi, they had a neutralising plant on site, and complied diligently with industry Regulations.
But then there’s the truck found abandoned on the highway, full of drums of pure C84, one of which was leaking (hence the abandonment). And the ones pouring the goop directly into streams a hundred miles from Alta Mira. No, the show didn’t allow doubt as to Diller’s guilt to creep into the mind.
Where it made its mistake was in conflating this straightforward story with another issue, that of misrepresentation. To get the story, Billie applies for and gets a job at Diller, in the office. She does it under her real name, and with the LA Tribune as her previous employer, but nevertheless there is much earnest argument about the ethics of getting a story – any story – by deception.
As a side issue, it was not of itself a bad move. Lou’s all in favour. Charlie Hume has concerns about the issue in principal, and Mrs Pyynchon is dead set against it and wants Billie recalling, but is persuaded otherwise by Charlie’s insistence that these matters have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and this story is too important to be ignored.
Billie, naturally, gets the story. Rossie confronts the Press Officer, who blusters weakly that the public want the luxuries that the petrochemical industries bring, that the Press is trying to harrass the industry out of existence, but doesn’t deny the charge, a fact duly noted in the word processor screen type.
But Billie is conscience-stricken throughout. Everyoine at Diller’s so nice to her. They like her, and she likes them. It makes her feel rotten, fooling them like this. and the episode loses its head and shoves the issue of toxic waste threatening people, land, livestock and birds into the corner to symbolise this in the form of work programme student Teri Wilk (Dominique Dunne), a sweet-faced, quasi-confident young woman, who likes Billie immensely, confides in her her interest in a truck-driving hunk and, you couldn’t have guessed this, has a downer on reporters.
Teri’s devastated by Billie’s betrayal. Her uncle might lose his job, her would be boyfriend drove the truck that Rossi and Animal follow and report on, and she is deeply wounded by being used, by Billie pretending to like her to get her story. she can’t accept that Billie did like her, does like her, and somewhat obtusely hopes to stay friends.
And that’s precisely where the episode veered off course, by making Billie’s relationship with Teri the focus, instead of the more important toxic waste story. It was a failure of moral imagination on the show’s part.
Overall, the issue of misrepresentation was one of those matters that pointed up the gulf between 1980 and 2020. There was, as I said, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over Billie going overcover, gentile protestations that the ‘deception’ had to be made explicit in the story, proclamations that doing so automatically made the reporter the focus of the story, not the fact. Yeah, I know, the irony, right?
Forty years later, nobody would blink. I certainly didn’t. To me it’s obvious: when the story is as important as this, going undercover to get it as not merely acceptable but practically mandatory, and to have it discussed as virtually a greater moral wrong than fly-tipping poison was eye-rolling.
One other point. I’ve only mentioned Dominique Dunne among this week’s guest stars because she was central to the story and the other guests were interchangeable. There was something familiar about the name, but it was not what I expected to see when I googled her. Ms Dunne appeared as a significant guest star in an episode of Hill Street Blues, broadcast two years to the month after this appearance in Lou Grant. It was her final appearance and it was posthumous: two weeks earlier she had been killed by an abusive boyfriend. The bruises in Hill Street were not make-up.
Sometimes the real stories are worse than the fictions.