Sometimes, the worst thing you can do with an old favourite television series is to watch it again. Whilst much of the first three seasons of Lou Grant were enjoyable at worst, not to mention being a historio/sociological treasure in terms of what was in our heads forty years ago, the fourth season has seen an uncommon collapse in quality. Not even good stories are making it.
‘Survival’ is a prime example of something that combined two strong elements in a more integrated fashion than usual yet managed through a failure of basic story-telling structure to come up with a tortuous mess.
Part of this was down to trying to cram in more elements than the running time could comfortably hold, plus an undistinguished guest cast, the most prominent of which was comic relief that so dominated that part of the episode as to diminish its seriousness whilst remaining utterly detachable.
The other guest was the notable actor, Ed Harris, who’s already appeared twice in the series as other characters, here playing Ralph Cooper, a survivalist with two children he’s already trained to be paranoid beyond belief, like him and nearly as determined to shoot to kill, but turning in a steely performance with few human aspects.
Let me try to suumarise the story to show what I mean. We begin at Donovan’s house, out in the hills in Tapanga, where Rossi is enjoying a euphoric jacuzzi with two fit birds on the eve of Donovan’s two week vacation in Hawaii. Rossi’s so mellowed out (mellow! ye gods, that’s going back) he takes a wrong turn onto Ralph Cooper’s land where he’s threatened with being shot both by Cooper but also his twelve-year old son.
Rossi starts getting interested in survivalism. He attends a lecture by an apocalytic economist, predicting recession, depression, shortages, looting etc., predicated on a possible fall of the Finnish marker. Cooper is also present. Later he gives his paranoid explanation, based on every man for himself and trusting no-one but himself. The man is plain and straightforward and not fanatical in himself, but he’s a flaming looney. We don’t need subsequent history to tell us of that.
A more responsible but still selfish viewpoint with relevance to the stock-piling panic that lit up the opening of the coronavirus panic is presented by a previously unseen but undoubtedly sober and staid black member of the Trib’s staff.
Whilst this is building, enter Wild Bill. This is our comic relief, played by Keene Curtis. Bill’s the weather expert at the Trib, a man with his own eccentric approach to the weather and what it will do, completely contrasting with the National Weather Bureau, not to mention an inexhaustible fund of stories about his war histor(ies), the dangerous stuff he’s done and several mutually exclusive active childhoods. In short, he’s a bullshitter, and he keeps popping up like a rash throughout the episode.
But, as you already know, he’s right about the storm(s). Accompanied by many spectacular shots of stock footage (either that or the show functioned incredibly through a fortuitous series of LA storms that would make Seathwaite-in-Borrowdale look like the middle of the Sahara desert), the show builds itself frantically on so many disaster stories. Billie’s hardly in it this week, subbing for Donovan as assistant City Editor and having her own micro-story in the form of a clash with the night editor, Linda, over printing a disaster relief phone number that’s clearly a contriveance to give Linda Kelsey something to do.
In the middle of this, Donovan phones in from Waikiki to rub in to his colleagues that whilst they’re being pissed upon mightily, he’s in the sun, in shorts and in the midst of bikini-ed babes. There’s a cheap tone to this that will be repaid in even cheaper fashion at the end.
This at least has a story-telling function. Donovan asks Lou to go up to his house and spread two rolls of plastic sheeting on the hill behind it to stop a mud-slide (I confess to not knowing how that would work but then I don’t live in California). Rossi drives him.
It’s pouring down and, the moment they arrive, everything fails: gas, electric, telephone, car, simultaneously. Lou and Rossi are trapped and no-one knows where they are. No-one misses them at the paper, where Billie and Animal go out on another contrived scene in which the failure of a copy boy to go to the right rendezvous is shoe-horned in.
Lou and Rossi get drunk. Rossi wants to bond. He talks self-defensively about his egotistical persona which he says he developed deliberately, but which has left him lonely and, in times of drunkenness, wanting to be liked.
Meanwhile, at Cooper’s place, his daughter is worried about a mud-slide. No worries, says every man for himself Dad, I’ll just go over to Mr Donovan’s place and steal the plastic sheeting off his porch and use it myself. He doesn’t actually use the word stealing, but ‘borrowing’: he’ll give them back though by then they might be a touch second-hand.
He also warns the kiids not to let anyone in, no matter what they say to trick them, your basic gun-in-the-first-act, albeit arriving very late.
Cooper turns up in the rain and nicks the first roll. When Lou and Rossi protest the theft, he pulls a gun on them and has them put the second sheet in as well. Armed robbery, lovely ideal. Then, as he drives away, he overturns his truck in what looked to be a very deliberate fashion, busting his leg. Of course Lou and Rossi try to help him. There’s a radio at Cooper’s cabin and Rossi says he’ll head there to summon help.
Meanwhile back at the paper, and you’ll just have to imagine how many times Wild Bill has popped up by now because I’m not going back and counting, Lou’s been missing, incommunicado, for ages. Linda, the interfering bitch, mentions seeing him going off with Rossi,who has been missing for the same length of time though no-one has noticed. And Donovan rings up for another gloat, and to deliver the plot-point of identifying where Lou’s been.
So help, in the form of a TV news-gathering helicopter, is sent on its way. Meanwhile, Rossi arrives at Cooper to be confronted by Cooper Junior and his loaded rifle. Rossi’s not interested in childish games and we’re wondering exactly how badly he’s going to be shot (according to his training in the early part of the episode, the kid will fire five shots and if he fails to hit anything vital, Joe’ll bleed out anyway).
However, I’m not taking into account fourteen-year old daughter who, being female, is not addicted to violence. She’s concerned about Daddy (bad move, kid, didn’t he tell you not to care about anyone else but yourself?) and distracts Junior long enough for Rossi to dash in,force the rifle up so that it’s shot goes nowhere, then to violently hurl it into the very wet forest. Resistance collapses instantly.
So, all’s well that ends well. Ralph Cooper gets an object lesson in trust and co-operation that we know damned well he will consider for about a quarter of a second before rejecting utterly, and to the show’s credit it doesn’t even try to suggest for that same quarter of a second that he – or Junior – will learn a damned thing.
Finally, the rains start to ease, and, as payback, Lou phones Donovan in Hawaii to tell him, with barely suppressed delight, that he hopes his Assistant City Editor has been keeping his insurance up because his house at 1,001 is now down somewhere nearer 950… It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but it’s dirty and nasty and out of proportion to the extent of Donovan’s gloating. A nasty taste is left in the mouth.
And, having delivered itself of this turgid combination of points, clogged up by Wild Bill, enter Adam Wilson, the economics wizz, to report that the Finnish marker has fallen, leading to concerns about the Dutch guilder, and the inevitable knock-on effect on the American economy, shortages etc., all in a monologue that fades to black and the credits, in a sneaky-clever way of bringing the story round to the beginning and suggesting the survivalists might have a point after all…
In its way, that’s a definitive point about an episode that had no clear idea in its mind of what it wanted to say and not only fell between all stools in doing so, dodged the most serious moment and gave far too much time in an already crowded script to a self-important blowhard who kept everyone else from having room to breathe. Not good.