Lou Grant: s03 e22 – Influence

I mentioned only last week that the aproach of the end of a Lou Grant season has me feeling some form of burn-out, especially if I’m watching a didactic episode: shall we take a break befre continuing. And equally regularly, as if it senses my doubts forty years ahead, the series bounces back with a good, strong, personal episode that refreshes the palate and leaves me set on continuing this rewatch uninterrupted.

‘Influence’ was another of those split stories, the two halves essentially unconnected but both a commentary upon the title in differing degrees, and given enough equal measure as to not be an A-and-B story set-up.

The episode featured the series’ most regular guest in a Guest Star role for the first and only time. Allen Williams has been playing the role of Adam Wilson, straight-laced Finance Editor for ages, and appearing in the opeing credits since the start of season 2, but one half of the story is about him.

Adam, clean-cut, Mr suit-and-tie, is an alcoholic. It’s a surprise, at odds with his persona, but isn’t that so often the case? It’s getting to the point where his marriage is breaking down over it, he’s goofing off, he’s letting down his colleagues, messing up his job, and he’s getting other people to cover for him. The story starts when he starts to bring Lou into his personal circle of deceit, helping him avoid consequences that would tip over his carefully constructed system of ling to himself.

Lou plays along for a while. Rossi, who has been through all this with his own Dad, insists on Lou coming round for dinner with his old man, to learn that covering for Adam is the worst he can do. He has to go into tough love, to force Adam to recognise the worst in himself and manouevre him towards rehab.

It’s a neat little story, made all the more effective by happening to a character we know and, generally, like, instead of some invented on the spot guest with whom we have no familiarity, and the effect is doubled by the small degree to which Adam is affected by his condition: he’s a high-functioning drunk, smooth and capable, but still self-deluding.

The only drawback is that this is 1980. How much, if any, of this will feature in future episodes?

The other half of the story was a much higher-level and, in its own way, story of influence, and also corruption. Mrs Pynchon is tremendously flattered to be invited to join ‘The Circle’, a self-appointed group of influential and very rich businessmen engaged on sweeping projects that not only make money but which improve LA’s infrastructure and the wellbeing of its people. Their current project is a second LA airport, to relieve pressure on LAX and create jobs etc.

The Trib’s already covering that project, in the form of new environmental writer Nick Bowyer (James Whitmore Jr). Bowyer, a forerunner of the UK’s George Monbiot, is against the project for its envirmental impact on unspoiled country. He’s pinting out obvious flaws:  the 60 mile distance from LA, the lack of roads, the imposibility of creating satisfactory transport, the surrounding high mountains…

The Circle doesn’t  like the Trib’s coverage. They want Mrs Pynchon in the tent with them, peeing out, and she, who isalready unhappy with Bowyer’s relentless negativism, is only too happy to support her paper rethinking its approach. It’s the same old story of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions: she’s a perfect fit for the Circle, being Patrician as all get out. So much good can be done once she’s inside the tent. She wants Bowyer fired, she wants an ‘objective’ look at all the good this scheme can and will do.

So Billie gets landed with the task of being objectively for this. But Billie is objective: she uncovers the scandal waiting to explode. Yes, the Circle has donated, free, thousands of acres of land to this project, but it’s retained hundreds of thousands of acres that will be invaluable if the airport goes ahead, whilst the free thousands are worthless withut an airport being built in the first place…

And Margaret Pynchon, however Patrician she may be, is to honest and too much the newspaperwoman, wedded to the facts, to go on.

A tale of two influences, one ultimately used to the painful benefit of another, and one withdrawn, for the equivocal benefit of many. After all, LA still needs another airport, and who’s to say that this might not have been what was needed?

So that leaves two more chances before season 3 ends to influence my thinking on a break. Where will we be, three weeks from today? Still in LA, or…

Lou Grant: s03 e14 – Brushfire

The first Lou Grant episode of the Nineteen Eighties (broadcast on 7 January) was an unusual amalgam of elements, lacking the show’s usual ‘agenda’-based storytelling. It started at night, in the heat, the dry Southern California summer, the Santa Anna winds drying things out and a fire reported in a canyon that expands rapidly and almost uncontrollably until seven fires are burning, home are being evacuated and burned down, people are losing everything, 2,000 acres alight. In view of the current Australian fires, this became an oddly topical story.

Into this scenario, of panic and desperation, the show introduced several elements, the major aspects of which was the coverage of the ever-developing fires. Rossi and Animal on the scene, Billie doing re-writes at the paper despite her father Paul Newman being in Town to see her (cue for a few jokes there), Lou and Donovan managing calls and a substantial role for Mrs Pynchon for once, caught in the middle of things at her niece’s riding school, rescuing a forgotten horse and pitching in as a volunteer with that uncmplaining sense of duty that’s much derided but nonetheless heartfelt.

Also in the middle of this was Charlie Hume and his wife Marion. Their marriage is in difficulties, they’ve been growing apart since the kids moved out, Marion wants a job, to feel independent, Charlie’s crusty enough to resent that: they’re selling the house, they’re separating, they will end up getting a divorce.

But the house they’re selling is in a canyon, and the fire spreads. Charlie panics, grabs a bundle of stuff to take with them and flee. This includes one specific dress of Marion’s. They’re supposed to evacuate but Charlie’s gone nuts, refuses to give up the house, dowses the roof continually with water. Marion won’t leave without him.

It’s a sharp contrast to a guy named Bergman that Animal meets, who’s lost his home, though thankfully not his partner. Bergman’s sanguine about the house: it’s only a house after all. But like Animal he’s a photographer, and he has lost a lifetime’s negatives, irreplacable photos, irrecioverable memories. Yet he bounces back, borrowing a camera from Animal, gifted several rolls of film. Bergman can start again with just the clothes on his back.

Charlie can’t or won’t. Adam Wilson loses his house to the fires but Charlie fights to keep his and succeeds. He and Marion are full of adrenalin at the outcome, too many good things happened in that house, Charlie says, to not fight for it. The metaphor is obvious but not plastered in your face, and Marion is more impressed by the dress Charlie chose to save, because he always thought she looked great in it.

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche, the stress that pushes a failing couple back into each other’s arms, the adrenalin solution. Forty years later, a series like Lou Grant would make that into an ongoing strand, explored over several weeks, to see if there’s a lasting effect. Forty years ago, a happy endng was taken for granted, and for once why not?

The episode was at its weakest in hinting at a firebug as the cause of the disaster, but redeemed itself with a neat twist. Animal has been quick on the scene to several fires recently and the Fire Department suspect him. They’ve been following him for the last sixty days. Animal knows – he may look and act goofy but young Mr Price is no fool – and has taken several shots of his shadow. Except that his Fire Department shadow is played by Tony Perez, who I remember for a substantial recurring role in Hill Street Blues, and this is a completely different guy: Animal has been snapping the firebug.

A good, professional, well-made episode that highlighted the paper’s working in a time of developing news, and which used its other themes wisely and not too obtrusively. This is why i like Lou Grant. Edward Asner’s a large part of it too.


Lou Grant: s03 e05 – Frame-Up


Though there was a certain degree of satisfaction in the conclusion to this story, overall this was a very nondescript affair that dispensed with having a point to it for over half its length. The story was a Billie Newman solo to all intents and purposes, or almost a two-hander with Stephen McHattie as Curtis Folger, the public face of a deal to bring a substantial company, Anacott, from Detroit to LA, along with 2,500 jobs, an injection into the economy of $5,000,000 in salaries and a tax windfall of £1,000,000.

Yes, all very dry stuff, made drier by the decision to not actually tell us what Anacott do.

Billie’s at the Press Conference, pushing the Environmental angle, and Anacott’s ability to satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirements. Something doesn’t feel right to her and when she discovers Anacott have veen cited 117 times for breaches in Detroit, she writes the story that has Anacott pulling out and moving to Mexico instead, not to mention Billie’s name becoming mud.

It’s still very dry. Folger points out, reasonably enough, that it’s far easier to build a standards-fit plant from scratch than to adapt an old plant to changing standards, and Billie’s determination to follow her hunch that something’s not kosher, especially when the EPA and the City give Anacott substantial concessions make her look slightly vindictive. Where we’d normally applaud her integrity, this time it’s all very much what’s the point?

Well, the point is when Folger’s sacked secretary, Nell Wheeler (Wendy Phillips) smuggles out a memo that sets out the whole manipulative scheme in all its slimey detail – only for Folger to denounce it as a forgery, and prove it. Cue a $5.3million lawsuit against the Trib.

Cue also a prolonged and strange interlude in which everyone at the Trib starts to treat Billie funny. She’s quizzed on all the angles that might have led her to fake this fake memos, everyone’s all eggshell solicitous around her, the lawyers are talking about settling. It’s driving Billie crazy that no-one, not even Lou, will support her, will actually consider that this is a frame-up. By a man who used to work for a major Agency in Detroit that specialise in dirty tricks in political matters of a kind that, in 1979, would still be very fresh in the American people’s minds from the panoply of Watergate.

Oh, and it’s also the Agency to which Nell Wheeler is tracked down for her new job after she disappears without trace…

Yes, it was a frame-up, and Folger’s hands were in the cookie jar up to the elbow. Behind the scenes, the Trib worked to expose the story, to vindicate themselves and Billie.The satisfactory bit was Folger in Lou’s office, trying to bluff, bullshit and bribe his way out of being pinned to the wall for this, and Lou’s quiet, almost monosyllabic refusal to take any bait.

Less satisfying was the episode failing to give Billie any agency in this. Apart from four paragraphs to be batted out before deadline, it was all done for the helpless little woman by the male staff, covertly, and without any actual apology for how shittily they’d treated her. Still, it’ll all be forgotten by next week, won’t it?

And whilst this has nothing to do with the story’s merits or demerits, I have to point out that, to considerable shock, Linda Kelsey actually wore a midi-dress without knee-length boots for one scene, in which she crossed her legs and exposed a kneecap. It was a shocking display of flesh and for for which I was wholly unprepared. But it’ll all be forgotten by next week, won’t it?

Lou Grant: s02 e14 – Vet

Despite the fact that, with 2019 eyes, the subject of this week’s Lou Grant has been chewed over innumerable times, this story of two Vietnam vets – three, in a beautifully understated way – remained a powerful one forty years later. I wonder how many people found it so effective in 1978, and how many people just wanted to shut their eyes to it.

1978 was only five years after the end of the Vietnam War, a war that America lost, a war that divided the country, and the episode set out to illuminate the experience of the Vietnam vet in the shape of two people. One was Animal, Dennis, whose behaviour had suddenly becom erratic: taking unnecessary risks to get photos of a hostage situation and refusing to enter a zoo cage to photograph birds in a rainforest setting.

The other was Sutton (Lionel Smith), a black guy with an outwardly cheerful demeanour but no job and no prospect of a job, a Vietnam vet with an Undesirable Discharge. You looked at Sutton, you saw the obvious chip that was equally balanced with his outward bounciness, and you saw someone damaged probably beyond repair: he didn’t see any way out of his situation and whilst his fatalism meant that he was undermining himself, nevertheless it was very clear that he was a casualty of an unwanted War who would never be allowed to break out of his condtion.

Lou wanted to help, Lou sympathised, tried seriously to break out of his own experience. Lou, you see, was ‘Class of 46’, a vet of the Second World War, whose own war experiences were just a little over thirty years before at that time. And those experiences could not be compared, as the episode set out to make plain. Lou fought a ‘good’ war, a necessary war, and came home to praise, acclaim and a country that wanted its returning heroes to thrive and prosper. Sutton fought a nasty war and was spurned: by older folk who saw the colour of his skin, his long hair, his compatriots’ beards and thought them freaks, by his  own generation who called him babyburner and woman-killer, and spat in his face.

You liked Sutton, you wanted him to heal, but forty-five minutes of prime time TV 1978 was never going to come anywhere near doing that, and the show had the courage not to pretend otherwise. Sutton fails the job opportunity Lou organises: Lou buys a second chance but Sutton has already moved on. He will always move on because there is nowhere to go.

The other story held in it the possibility, no, certainty of a resolution, because this was in house and it had to end well. This was Animal, a vet himself, a special photographic unit. The photographers worked in pairs. Animal worked with Sam, an older man with a bad back. They were approaching a firefight and Dennis sent Sam back to the jeep for more film. He stepped on a landmine. Sam was still alive, begging to be shot. Animal couldn’t do it. A kid in the unit did, ended Sam’s agony, and threw up. If this was a story that could be told like that on a prime time TV show, think what people saw that couldn’t be put before that audience?

But Animal’s being ppursued by Edith, Sam’s widow. Somehow, wherever he goes, she gets hold of his number (for once, the glossing over of how that was possible was fittting, not lazy), and she rings him, tells him she misses Sam, she thinks about him all the time, and she wants him to remember Sam. As if he could forget.

Everyone around Animal is moved, but everyone is helpless. He’s going to move on again, but Lou, challenging him in as gentle a manner as he could, leads Animal to finally confront his demon, to talk to Edith, to share their pain in a way that might help both of them.

These were the personal stories. They were surrounded by other stuff, some of it didactic. Rossi interviews staffers at Veterans Administration about the difference between the Second World War vets and the Vietnam vets (one gives his private opinion that the latter are crybabies), Billie a younger generation of helpers, more attuned to the Vietnam vets and their experience (one of them played by Joe Spano, later to star in Hill Street Blues), the conversations intercut. Charlie’s doubtful the public are interested iin Vietnam, five years on.

And here was that third story. I’ve not yet had cause to mention Adam Wilson, played by Allen Williams. Adam’s a recuring character, a Financial reporter, editor of the Finance section, conspicuously younger than all the other editors in the budget meeting, well-dressed, immaculately groomed, serious. Adam listens to the other editors debate the story, bringing their experience of WW2 into their discourse. Quietly, he admits to being a vet. Reporter? someone asks. Vet. Surely, another says, his being there belies everything in Lou’s series. Adam admits that he’s here. And says that maye one day he’ll tell them how close he came to being one of those guys. He says he feels like he knows all of hem. Then, without saying anything else, he gets up and walks out of the room, pausing only to tell Lou it’s a good series. And thanks.

It is a scene that, without another word, tells more than anything else in the episode and I can’t believe it comes from research alone. Writer Leon Tokatyan brought that from real life somewhere.