Lou Grant: s04 e16 – Campesinos


One of many sides

Once again I’m in the position of being an unintentional contrarian in my opinions about a television episode. According to imdb‘s ratings, this episode is the lowest rated in season 4, one of only two to be given a rating under 7. Yet whilst the story was often confused, and was predictable in one major aspect, I thought it better than that, especially as, for once, the series’ reluctance to provide distinct outcomes was fitting: this was a story that would never end.

The story was about labour relations, in a time when, even in America, workers had a lot more going for them than they do now. Immigrant workers, Mexican, are employed in picking celery in California’s Central Valley. It’s wht it always is: back-breaking work, ten hours in the field under a blazing sun, or in pouring rain, for minimum wage, and that’s just for the ones who get to work: the rest starve.

There’s been a strike for six months, and the growers are getting illegals in to do the job for even less. The owners don’t care about the workers, they see them as free of responsibility. The owners hold the land, they work it and manage it, they are invested in it. They don’t have the freedom to move on and do something else whenever they feel like it. Besides, the owners don’t want to be told how to run their business, forced to hire workers they don’t consider sufficiently skilled or fast enough.

It’s an arguable case, but it contains a wilful blindness as to the real lives of the workers, their need for a living wage, their need for security. Oddly enough, the show allows the owners to make their viewpoint explicit but doesn’t give the same to the Union. I suppose it’s because their case is bindingly obvious: you take one look at the conditions under which they work and immediately support their need to be treated decently and fairly.

But what’s this all got to do with the Trib? It starts with Union organiser Tommy Hernandez (James Victor), former football star and school contemporary with Joe Rossi, roping him in to the story with the hook of former worker’s activist, the Reverend Hugh Holstrom (Jeff Corey) coming out of retirement after 18 years to rejoin the fight.

Though Lou is more interested in the Tommy Hernandez story than the strike, Hernandez uses Rossi’s presence (and that of a dozen other reporters also on the same ‘exclusive’), to advance his cause. The Reverend breaks the picket to try to address the illegals, bring them round to the cause (they cannot: without work they will starve) and is arrested. A rumour he’s had a heart attack in the Sheriff’s station causes a mini-riot in which Rossi is caught up and gets him jailed.

This forces Lou to take the overall story more seriously, sending a team to Ortega: Animal, Billie, Spanish-speaking Rubin Castillo (Emilio Delgado) and Donovan, whose beat this was fifteen years earlier. We’ve not seen much of Billie recently because Linda Kelsey had broken her left wrist, arm in slings and slimline plaster cast and she’s officially acknowledged to be on the Reserved Injured List herein. Continuity-wise, it’s a throwback to Billie’s injury during episode 13, ‘Strike’.

As the show develops, the strike is given a more personal edge by an unconvincing detail. One of the owners, Paul Geyer (William Lucking, Gandy Dancer in Tales of the Gold Monkey), is a former friend of Tommy and a team-mate who worked well with them. Geyer tries to negotiate separately with Tommy, but Tommy won’t budge, leading Geyer to conclude there’s a personal element to this, that Tommy is focussed on beating Geyer, not on his members interests. They’d be better off without you, he tells Tommy.

Straightway, you knew what was to follow. The frustrated pickets, whipped up by Tommy, break their lines and enter the fields. Tommy racesafter them, as much as you can in a celery field, urging them to go back. The guard with a rifle fires three shots, everybody turns round and retreats but one man has been hit: it’s Tommy and he’s dead. The show makes a hash of this scene, with the violence off camera, but it was all so predictable.

As was the outcome. without Tommy, the strike was settled, the Union compromised, the purveyor of Unintended Manslaughter got the traditional slap on the wrist and everything went back to normal, until the next time. The illegals were collected in a truck and went somewhere else.

It was a deliberately downbeat ending, recognising that here was a scenario that would repeat and repeat uintil the heat-death of the Universe. It was an episode ito which you could read any political position your own prejudices endorsed and in which, if your mind was open enough, see the opposite side and the practical reality of the world in that it was those of us who buy celery (I don’t) and want it cheap force conditions, compromises and even deaths on those at the other end of the production chain. And it did all these not to be wishy-washy neutral but to show us that this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Could it have done it better? Oh, certainly. Two seasons ago this topic would have produced a tighter, sharper, more concentrated episode to say and show all these things, but it still got its intentions straight, and it deserved a bit more respect from its audiene. There are higher rated episodes this season that aren’t half as good as this, albeit flawed story.

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