Lou Grant‘s fourth season is proving to be a difficult one, this latest episode being the third in a row to have problems. There was a decent, entertaining and personal story in there, but it got lost amid a confusion of purpose and the shackles of a secondary story whose principal note was paranoia (justified paranoia, it seemed) that was entirely uncomplimentary.
The main story started off suggesting the series’ usual approach to societal stories, though its apparent peg was hardly earth-shattering. The tenants of a well-maintained, stylish apartment building are protesting its conversion into a condominium that no-one could afford: dry as dust and far too technical a story, especially for British eyes and ears.
But this is our McGuffin, quickly set-up and pretty much to be abandoned since it’s prpose is to ring together Billie Newman, reporter, and Ted McCovey (Cliff Potts, excellent and friendly), third string baseball catcher.
The way it worked was that Billie’s investigating the company that’s forcning through the condo conversion, being stonewalled, discovering its major investors to be baseball players, three massive stars and Ted, the only one she can approach. And Ted is likeable from the off, an intelligent man with a finely-tuned sense of his real status as a ball-player, someone who’s been in love with the sport all his life, aware he’s got maybe a season left.
Billie, despite all her ignorance of and indifference to, the sport (it’s so slow…) falls for the obviously honest and open-hearted Ted, who’s gotten into the rapidly-receding condo story because his pals cut him in and he trusted them implicitly, because they were his pals. Ted was someone who placed a high value upon friendship and trust: when he retires, an old schoolpal will cut him in as a partner in his appliance store, no contract, just a word of trust.
You couldn’t help but like Ted. Billie certainly did. She tried to back out of the story but did so so half-heartedly, Lou wouldn’t let her. And the expected happened: the story drove a wedge between them, the relationship dead before it was born.
Except that Ted then rang Billie to correct a mistake in her story. As of two minutes ago, he’s no longer a Major League Baseball player, he’s been let go. Ted’s in obvious shock and though Billie immediately goes to see him, she just compounds things, trying to get him to consider another job in baseball. Yes, she’s aware of his love for the game, but Ted’s in shock, he’s set on a clean break, and her well-meaning efforts are only making it worse. One great line that could apply to any sport: ‘for fourteen years they’ve treated me like a child and now they tell me I’m an old man’. Strike two.
There was a nice little touch added. Billie once had a brief affair with Art Donovan, who’s looking at her again with that look in his eyes. Billie tells her troubles to Art, who points out she has plenty of friends out there: he’s the last one she should be unloading herself to.
Then, in a lovely little moment, Ted turns up in the City Room. He wants Billie’s opinion, her approval, which will come pre-loaded, making this a moment of connection, the last hurdle to cross before they become the couple they’re going to be. He’s been offered a job as a scout. The pay’s lousy, the driving’s murderous, he’ll have no time for himself, the chance of coaching might not come for years. And she says it sounds terrific and they kiss.
This is the story that could have made this into a good episode, if it hadn’t been bogged down in the McGuffin that gave the story a blurred feel for so much of its length and was left so conspicuously hanging.
I’ve excluded mention of the B story because it was so conspicuously unsuited to pair with Billie’s romance, but this was Rossi’s story, along with Adam Wilson and a guest appearance from Robert Hirshfield as the Trib’s IT manager, just a year before becoming a regular in Hill Street Blues. Rossi’s paranoid about the paper’s VTU’s (i.e., their word processors/computers). Unreliability, the medical risk, all the things people were concerned about forty years ago, before we let the personal computer in all its myriad forms into our lives and hearts.
It’s paranoia writ large, of a kind that would have been more effective then, but it’s allied to a security issue. Adam loses all his notes on a major story because he’d stored them all in the computer and they vanished. It turns out that a company working for the Trib in respect of their IT is also the holding company for the one about which Adam was writing. Having breached the Trib’s security to get Adam’s access code, they hacked the system and deleted the notes.
So, there you go. It is hard to recapture the atmosphere of 1980, especially when I’ve had a PC or a laptop of my own for nearly thirty years by now, which diffused the strength of the story, if it really had any to begin with. But primarly it was an intrusion into the episode, a contrast too deep to ever cohere, which contributed largely to the eoisode’s inadequacies.
Looking ahead, next week’s episode has a very serious theme, as the title alone will establish. I will be hyper-critical of that if they blow it for a fourth week in succession.