The last episode of Lou Grant‘s fourth season was not merely by far and away its best, but one of the strongest ever in the programme’s 114 episode run. ‘Stroke’ focussed upon Nancy Marchand as Margaret Pynchon, the patrician proprietor of the Los Angeles Tribune, as well as guest-starring her real-life husband, Paul Sparer as Doctor Walter Goren.
The central story was simple. Mrs Pynchon waslooking to expand by purchasing ‘Lively Arts’ magazine, a San Francisco based company that she had exciting plans for. She’s stressed about it, it’s a lot of money, a lot of running around, a lot of travelling. She’s lively and active in the opening sequence, full of enthusiasm, a little disorganised. There’s a non-telegraphed telling moment when, out of sight of Charlie and Lou, she cannot find her pills and instead pours a small slug into her orange juice.
Back from San Francisco, she is found unconscious in her office. She has had a stroke, a serious one.
Sparer plays the Doctor who guides her through this. Charlie and Lou and everyoe else shuffle around to accommodate her absence, everyone down to Rossi moving up one place, Rossi to temporary Assistant City Editor.
Billie’s accommodated by being assigned to a story about campus girls posing naked for an upmarket skin magazine and the consequences this has on both personal and First Amendment levels, but that really is trivial in comparison.
Because this is Nancy Marchand’s show. She’s always played her part to perfection but truthfully she’s not been asked to do much. Mrs Pynchon is Queen of the Hill, a fair-minded, principled woman who usually sees the right side of things. If anything, she’s been too much of a paragon, too good to be true. Marchand was great but the role, though enjoyable, was limited.
But in this episode she was astounding, playing her way through hopelessness, frustration, helplessness, self-loathing and in the end the determination to regain everything of herself that she could, returning to the paper in the final scene to the evident delight of everybody: on a stick, in a leg-brace, still struggling with her words, but upright and intent on being all her old self, to the point that eyers became suspiciously moist.
The campus story could have been a decent B story to another episode, something less compelling, something that alowed it a little more play. But there was too much to the min story, including the ever present threat of Mrs Pynchon’s nephew Fred Hill (Alan Fudge, who had two other appearances in the show, as different characters, neither of them Fred on his previous appearance). Fred and his brother aren’t happy with the minimal income the Trib delivers and he really doesn’t like the idea of buying this magazine. Given the chance, he’ll close the newspaper and sell. It takes the almost strong-arming of Mrs Pynchon’s lawyer, who has Power of Attorney, to get the sale through and beat Fred back.
I’ve long wanted to see this story. Back in the early Eighties, i’m convinced that ITV did not take up either of the last two seasons of Lou Grant. I was well aware of the controversy over the show’s cancellation, and once saw a brief clip of the emptied out newsroom which I’d assumed came from this episode. It didn’t. The scene doesn’t seem to fit the synopsis for the final episode so I just have to wait and see where it comes in. Let’s hope season 5 representsan upturn.