For a while there, I thought this was going to be a well-constructed episode that bucked the show’s trend towards oblivion, but I turned out to be wrong.
The show’s first act was a model of careful, precise, professional building towards a catalystic moment. Billie’s in early: she has an angle on a soon-to-break story about a spy. But another story breaks, a prison riot in Modesto. the story goes to the experienced Ben Pomeroy. Billie explodes at Lou: she wants to go for bigger, wider stories, expand her range. Lou decides to pair her with Pomeroy. The problem is getting there. the only possible timely flight is a private flight already commissioned by nationally known feature reporter Helen Patterson. Lou talks her into letting his two reporters tag along.
As a sidebar, an allergy-afflicted Rossi gets assigned to a story about a rare, recently discovered species of moth, with The Animal, who has failed to get photographs on his last two assignments.
Art the airport, a third reporter, Bob O’Brien arrives, hoping to get on the plane with Billie et al, but it’s only a four seater so he misses out. Then, back at the office, the spy story breaks, and Billie has to be called back O’Brien makes the plane after all. Billie’s furious about being yanked off this story. Then Charlie breaks the news: the plane crashed in the mountains. There were no survivors.
Billie almost collapses. We’ve never seen her so shaken before, but then we’ve never seen her brush so closely with death and its inevitable concomitant: why me? Why did I survive and they all died? Why was I chosen to live?
There’s a story there, one that, if told with rigour and determination, would make a magnificent episode. I don’t know if it would be possible to do something like that in a weekly, prime-time series where the world more or less resets every seven days, but Lou Grant didn’t do it. Yes, it threw in some brief flashbacks, interrelations between Billie and each of the three reporters in the plane, superimposed on Linda Kelsey’s emotive face, but that’s not where the story goes.
Instead, Billie works her guilt out by researching the lives of Pomeroy and O’Brien, whilst Lou researches Helen Patterson, and then she writes a joint obituary. The episode disintegrated from then on. Meanwhile, the moth story grew in prominence, even as the allergy-afflicted Rossi dropped out (was Robert Walden genuinely ill during filming? It was an odd circumstance though ultimately necessary to the relation between the B story and the A story.
So we get a lot of wandering around and talking about the three dead reporters. We never really learn about them however. Pomeroy seemed to hang around young reporters all the time, being the mentor. Patterson had nop life but reporting, and neglected her son. O’Brien had a drinking problem and a confidence problem, and was rebuilding his life along strict disciplined lines. The eventually obituary, of which we only heard the end, turned this into a tribute to journalists professionally determined to get the story, no matter the personal risk, with not enough to suggest that they might be less than ideal human beings.
For me, though, this part of the story only came to life in one numinous moment, one real display of humanity. Lou meets Helen Patterson’s son at her home in LA. He’s open about her near-complete absence from his life, the difficulties in relating to her on the three to four times a year they’d have dinner and the fact that when she called to cancel because she was on the Modesto story, he felt relief more than anything. Then he shows Lou a room he has only just discovered for himself, that she never let him into when she was alive. There is a wall in this room that has nothing but photos overing every inch of space. Photographs of her son.
Meanwhile, the moth story starts to take up more and more of the running time. Yes, there’s the ecological aspect,covered in traditional didactic style, but its turning into a game. Dr Wilpert wants to show Animal the breeding ground, but they’re dogged by Colonel Taylor, a butterfly collector intent on getting and killing the rare species for personal gain. Ultimately, Animal chooses not to get the shots (an option only available with Rossi not there to drive things) because he chose not to let an endangered species be wiped out.
Lou’s furious with him. It’s a direct breach of the journalistic ethics that have just been extolled and it’s the episode’s only nod to the possibility that there may be things more important than those, so for no consistent reason Lou decides not to suspend him for a week without pay. End of story.
No further comment.