Lou Grant: s05 e09 – Jazz

I guess if you don’t like Jazz you might have a problem enjoying this next episode of Lou Grant‘s final series, especially as it was paired with a weak B story. i don’t like Jazz. I don’t like weak B stories. There was a bit of a detachment to this episode for me.

That’s not to say it was bad. The spinal story was a sentimental, ‘heart-warming’ affair: whilst looking for a phone to phone in a story, Joe Rossi discovers Cliff Richardson (Ray Brown, and someone’s having a laugh with that name), former bass-player with the legendary Sonny Goodwin Quartet of the Fifties.

Rossi’s a jazz fan (so are Charlie Hume and Art Donovan). He gets the idea for a story, finding the other members, where they are now, why they split up and, as we would all expect, getting the band back together for a one-off gig.

Drummer Johnny Albert’s a recording engineer (Louie Bellson). Piannist Sonny (Joe Williams) is doing well, a singer now. Alto sax player Ron Brickell (Med Flory), the one who struugled with drugs and arrests, has been clean since 1966, manages a convenience store and isn’t interested in a reunion, or music for that matter.

This is all much of a cliche from start to finish. Lou hates the idea, apparently just so he can be a contrarian, refuses to accept the story but somehow relents offscreen. The band reunite without any real reason for ‘Brick’ to overcome his opposition, the gig’s a smash success despite the last minute, predictable, band-argue-backstage-revealing-how-much-they-hate-each-other-but-still-go-on, and everybody’s happy.

Let’s leave them in their euphoria for a minute or two. The B story features reporter Jed Crossley (Tod Sussman). Jed’s been part of a two man team with veteran Gary Banks (Richard Erdman, three previous appearances as two other characters) but Gary’s retiring and Jed’s going solo on a story about Supervisors diverting county money to their personal benefit.

Only Jed’s nervous, indecisive, unable to even start writing the story. He’s out on his own, lacking the balance Gary used to give him. Assigning Billie to help him doesn’t work, he still won’t start the story, or share. Lou won’t take him off the story, not wanting to lose him.

And Jed comes good, pulling off an outrageous con and then becoming Mr Dynamo. Just as much a cliche in its own right.

Let’s go back to the Sonny Goodwin Quartet. Like I said, I don’t like Jazz. We have no natural affinity. But I loved the music so enthusiastically played in Treme, and I try to keep my ears open. The Sonny Goodwin Quartet were the same set-up as the Dave Brubeck Quartet and I like a bit of their stuff. And the guest stars were all genuine, accomplished musicians, the music was cool and easing, with detectable melodies close to the surface. Not for too long, but I can get along with this sort of Jazz. And, given that the two stories in this episode could have been turned out by a word-processor, the music ended up being the best thing about the episode.

Stay cool, cats.

Lou Grant: s05 e08 – Friends

The fair Noelle

This episode started very fuzzily, as if it didn’t really know what it was or how to introduce its story, but once it had started to roll, it became increasingly powerful and, for its two principal characters, painful.

The two principals were Joe Rossi and Art Donovan, each at the centre of a separate syory, with no overlap, each of which in their differing manners revolved upon the subject of friendship.

We were introduced first to Rossi, early morning jogging with his old cleege friend – practically his only friend – Burton Cary (Larry Breeding). Cary’s a former lawyer turned politician, runing for election as County Supervisor. Cary’s a good guy, caring, thoughtful, progressive, on the right side of all the issues. Joe respects Cary’s principles as well as liking him: his election will be A Good Thing especially as his opponent, Ralph Shillitoe (Paul Kent) is a right wing creep on everything.

As a friend, Joe disqualifies himself from reporting on Cary’s campaign. As a friend, he’s close to the campaign, meeting and asking out Cary’s junior aide, Noelle Kilmer (Jennifer Holmes). But the fair Noelle is already seeing someone from the Sheriff’s Depertment, though she hopes she and Joe can still be friends.

We can see what’s coming in this story, even if we don’t know what form it will take.

Meantime, Art is struggling with his twin roles of Assistant City Editor and Environmental Editor, especially as Charlie Hume is pressurising him to get a piece on Acid Rain ready for Sunday. At the same time, columnist Jerry Hollister (Logan Ramsey) is hunting round for a piece for his next column. Art gives him a theme that puts the two in opposition. When Art needs a clip when he’s on deadline, Hollister has it and won’t give it up so Art goes and gets it.

Next thing is, Hollister arrives with an arm in a sling, claiming Art hit him, shoved him, sprained his wrist and gave him a bad time, causing his blood pressure to shoot through the roof. He’s going to sue Art Donovan – and the Trib.

It’s a try-on, a nuisance suit. Mrs Pynchon won’t wear it for a moment, sue and be damned. But in the meantime, Art is to be removed – temporarily, of course – as Environmental Editor. A gesture, a sop, a bone. And a kick in the teeth for Art who has put so much into building up the Trib’s environmental coverage.

Art’s version of the story was that he grabbed Hollister by the collar, saw the clip he needed and let Hollister go. But no-one else was there, though Mrs Pynchon, passing by, heard raised voices and threats. Which one is telling the truth? No-one knows. No-one will know. But Art is punished. And what’s more he learns the object lesson that no-one, not one of his friends, believes his story. Everybody thinks he could have done it.

Friendship, eh?

But back at Joe’s story, Cary’s campaign hits a big stroke of luck as Shillitoe, an ex-Disc Jockey, is arrested for poseession of cocaine. And then the chargesare dropped on the tecnnicality of an illegal Search by the Sheriff’s Department.

Who hate Shillitoe because he wants to cut their budget. Who’ve recently seized a shipment of cocaine cut with baby laxative. To the exact formula as the 7 oz. found at Shillitoe’s home. Which is 7 oz. light. Which was found there by the officer going out with the fair Noelle. An officer under investigation. And he hasn’t got the brains and she’s too junior. And she’ll do anything to see Cary elected.

So Joe confronts Cary on their morning job, and he admits to knowing about it. It’s Politics. You’ve got to play hardball in the real world. After all, it won’t come out if Joe acts as a friend instead of a reporter. Cary’s his closest friend.

It’s an awful decision to have to take but Joe takes it, weighing up the good that Cary can and will do against the good he has to be if he’s to be granted the powers of a County Supervisor. He gives the story to Tyler to write up. And invites Art to jog with him the next morning…

Lou Grant: s05 e07 – Drifters

From the title, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this episode. What I got was unexpected but also astonishingly good. This was down to a willingness to forget practically all the structure of the series and its characters – Mrs Pynchon doesn’t appear, Billie only appears fifteen minutes in, Rossi has two very short cameos – in favour of letting an extraordinary guest star dominate the episode and run you through every emotion under the sun, including one very tough-minded and shocking incident just before the end.

That guest was W.K. Stratton, as Scott Hume, Charlie’s nephew. He was unknown to me but when I checked his record in imdb, it turns out he’s been in lots of series I’ve watched, including Hill Street Blues, Tales of the Gold Monkey and Quantum Leap. Stratton is tall and sort of shapeless with, in this episode, a nondescript pudding bowl haircut. Scott Hume is what we would once have called ‘a troubled young man’: Stratton told us that just by standing there in the City Room.

Scott’s thirty. He suffers from depression and anxiety. He’s seeing psychiatrists, intermittently, on mood-elevating medication that he rejects taking. From the first moment he appears, without any extravagance in action or words, he projects an absence, a separation from the world.

Scott has no job. He has no abilities. He is unable to focus on anything for long. He has unrealistic expectations, like being a writer, like the never-seen Chrissy loving him when she’s married with two children. Scott can’t cope with it, with anything.

Charlie knows of Scott’s background, up to and including the ‘nervous breakdown’ of two years previously. For much of the episode he internally blames his older brother Steve (James Callahan) for Scott’s state, even as he concedes his own issues with son Tommy, whose choice of a different life in season 1 is only alluded to. Charlie himself will learn, from the psychiatrist, Dr Sorensen (Tom Akins) that he cannot blame himself for Tommy any more than he can credit himself – not that he does – for Joannie being terrific, and that a parent’s self-blame can be a burden to the child as well.

This is to prepare us for the finale. But before we come to that astonishing moment, I’ll reference the completely opposite B story that, despite being comic and lightweight and altogether out of proportion, was strangely complementary. It kept the paper bubbling in the background as Billie is assigned the story of Ziggy the bear who escaped from a zoo and stayed on the loose for days until the Trib’s hired tracker brought him in. Yes, no comparison, but it allowed several very funny lines along the way, and acted as a counterpoint to the completely non-humourous story of Scott. Lou, of course, straddles both stories, encouraging Billie whilst getting steadily more peeved with Charlie for putting the running of the paper second to his nephew and his bother.

As led into the ending. Scott, panicked, deluded in his belief Chrissy would set it all right, unable to cope with stress, with pressure, with living, ends up on Chrissy’s porch in the middle of the night, shivering in a t-shirt, outwardly courteous in not wanting to disturb her at that hour, but nonetheless afraid of and unable to handle another failure.

Charlie and Steve arrive, and the latter goes to sit with his ruination of a son, and in aquiet, level voice he tells Scott that they have both been looking for a magic wand, one thing to fix it all, Scott with his imagined Chrissy, Steve some miracle cure for his son that will put everything right. It will not happen. and Steve tells Scott that there will always be a room for him at home, no conditions, but unless Scott is doing thebest he can to help himself, there will be nothing between father and son and they will be strangers. Steve has decided that he can do no more and that in order to save himself he must abandon Scott. Charlie will drive him to the airport now.

It’s hard, it could even be stigmatised as ‘tough love’, but it is honest and without the sentimentality that I would usually expect from Lou Grant. The oly note of hope the episode allows, and Stratton’s portrayal has killed even this but we need a glimmer of sunlight, is that Scott asks if he could be taken to Dr Sorenson on the way.

A most extraordinary episode, inexplicably rated below the average on imdb. Forty years later, I’m still arguing with the crowd. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lou Grant: s05 e06 – Double-Cross

For a show that can usually be summed up as a socially-aware drama, this latest episode was far from the usual fare. It was a detective story, not a murder mystery, but a convoluted affair full of contradictory stances and plot twists, and the heaping of layer upon layer until everything reached an emotionally satisfactory conclusion.

The episode began obliquely, with an extended entree of old photos of old California leading into Mrs Pynchon and the Historical Society and its in-house historian, Dr Michael Shepherd (Nigel Bullard). Millionaire Alex Matheson (Linwood McCarthy), a Board member, has just demolished a family-owned building against the Society’s opposition. Rather than kick him off the board, Mrs Pynchon persuades him to have opened the Time Capsule buried in the building’s cornerstone and donate its contents to the City. Lou assigns Billie to cover it.

At first bored, then enthused, Billie is the investigator, with Shepherd as her main source of background. It’s done unobtruively, but Shepherd is always there to provide new information when Billie hits a brick wall, which she does frequently: from the moment the Time Capsule, the Matheson family immediately have a concern that comes over as shady. What secret are they concealing?

The concern is the Pasteur Cross, a supposedly beautiful, indeed dazzling, gold cross encrusted with diamonds, belonging to the Pasteur family and donated by the Mathesons. Which comes out looking grey and green and unimpressive. Is it a fake? The bogus expert hired by Matheson says not, in a scientically intricate explanation that’s as much fictional as any of The Flash’s stunts cooked by by John broome and Julius Schwartz. But why?

We follow the steps as they fall into place. Shepherd helpfully illuminates California’s history, its succession of rulers and peoples. There was a feud between the two halves of the Matheson family a hundred years ago that, despite the public picture, is as real today as it ever was. The object is the Pasteur Cross, which is not only a fantastically valuable object but which is believed to have healing powers, which Matheson’s aged and ancient father needs.

The rich Matheson’s have the Cross. The unrich Mathesons want it and are searching for an opportunity to steal it. Both sides present their case for their ownership. The irony is that there is a true owner, and not a Matheson.

But first the levels multiply. Old Mr Matheson has a live in nurse, Mrs Barbara Dupree (Lynne Thigpen). Why, when the Doctor is called in, does she spirit the Cross into his medical bag, which is snatched from his car by a ski-masked kid presumably out for drugs?

The Cross is marked with the letter P for Pasteur. It’s the family brand, a stylised P with a tail to it, not the plain capital P of the fake. In fact it looks like the top of a shepherd’s crook. “I am so dumb!” Billie shouts. Shepherd’s crook. The Pasteurs were sheep farmers. What does Pasteur mean in English? Yes, right, it means Shepherd. Dr Michael Shepherd. Because the Pasteur Cross never belonged to the Mathesons in the first place. It was stolen and now it’s been taken back. With the help of Michael’s married sister, Barbara.

There’s still an ending. A new Time Capsule is being prepared, full of wonderfully witty things conttributed by the people. And a donation by Dr Michael Shepherd, after explaining the history of the Cross and the Matheson family’s olden days thievery, and paying tribute to his parents and sister, a donation of the Pasteur Cross.

No-one understands what Michael is doing, least of all Billie. He’s put the Cross back into the Matheson’s hands, in their building. Only to Margaret Pynchon does he complete the explanation, diverting her to a nearby Catholic Church. There is a gold cross around the neck of the statue of the Madonna and Child. This is the real Pasteur Cross: another fake is in the Time Capsule. Shepherd can’t keep it, that would be illegal. Instead, from his family, he has genuinely donated it to the City, to a place of public inspection.

And the closing image is of a little girl, maybe five or so, kneeling at the altar, looking at the Madonna, making the sign of the Cross and ending it by blowing a kiss, in sheer joy. I’m not religious, but moments like that make me wish…

One final point. I’ve commented very often over the last almost-two years I’ve been watching Lou Grant about storylines being merely McGuffins to showcase the personal conflicts of the cast. It’s a rare and welcome contrast to see the cast as merely McGuffins for the story…

Lou Grant: s05 e05 – Risk

Read on

It’s tempting to be cautious, given that we’re not yet quite a quarter of the way through the final season, but on the strength of four strong episodes out of five, I’m going to say that Lou Grant is back to form after a dismal Fourth season.

That’s not to say that everything about the latest episode was brilliant. There were three strands, all related to the notion in the episode title, though the third of these hardly qualified as a story, and was evidently something to keep Billie Newman from twiddling her hands throughout the episode.

The episode began with Mike Schrader (Kario Salem), a Trib photographer who isn’t Animal, balking at an assignment because it involved flying in a helicopter. This didn’t go down so well with Lou, and Art Donovan tries to advise him about how you can’t do that, can’t pick and choose assigments on whether you perceive risk of some kind.

Mike is not amenable to advice (he ain’t going nowhere) and challenges him on hypocrisy. Art, who has led a risk-averse life following a childhood under his reckless Navy father, is trying to get out from behind his desk more, and is doing a feature on California’s Mountain Search and Rescue volunteers, but has decided that his story doesn’t need him to rapelle out of a helicopter to be complete.

Art doesn’t see the contradiction then, but it gets beneath his smooth surface and, on the second assignment, he rapelles – and breaks his ankle. Unfortunately, that means he blows a major story for the Trib because he was the man near the scene and now can’t get to the scene. This does not go down well with Lou, who won’t let up when they discuss the need to test themselves.

We’ll sideslip to Billie’s meagre contribution this week, confined to the newsroom, covering for Donovan and the object of the eager, naive and bumbling attentions of junior reporter Lance Reineke (Lance Guest). Lance is training himself to become the first reporter in space, on the NASA shuttle. He bows out because of an inner ear condition. That’s the ‘C’ story, of interest only because of the puzzling moment when she tries to put him off by telling him she’s ‘seeing someone’ and not that she’s married…

But these are the back-up show. The lead story and rightly so involves Joe Rossi, but most of all it involves a return appearance from Sharon McNeill (Lynne Moody), she who was at the centre of the season 4 episode, ‘Rape’. Rossi is put on the track of a possible child pornography story by a school teacher. The source is the custodian, who wired a house for extra electric to accommodate  lights and cameras. He’s black, he demands a black reporter be involved, hence Sharon. He gets Confidentiality.

He will only take Sharon to the house. To get the story from a mother who’s an ex-porn star herself and talks bland and blase about the whole, chilling thing, Sharon promises her Confidentiality. The story is brilliant, it creates a massive stir, and a large part of that stir is the urgent desire to rescue a 9 year old girl from that life. Who wouldn’t want that to happen?

But Sharon promised Confidentiality. The Trib sides with her, though Lou, Charlie, even Mrs Pynchon question Sharon’s judgement in offering that at all. The Police lean on her, but Sharon will not concede. Some heavy stuff is laid on her, kept only from being self-righteous by the seriousness of the issue. Sharon cannot find the support she needs, not even from Rossi, who is backing her to the hilt but still not offering a total, blanket approbation.

In the end, details from Sharon’s story enable the teachers to identify little Connie. The Police raid, but the house is empty, everyone moved on, out of reach, out of rescue. A hard ending.

Though Sharon now receives more open support, she’s still in distress. Rossi offers dinner, a simple dinner. It might have been many things but Lynne Moody didn’t appear again, which was a shame because she would have been a good addition to the cast. And the two episodes she starred in were strong, thoughtful and powerful.



Lou Grant: s05 e02 – Execution


The strong start to the final season continued in a diametrically opposite manner with a well-written, well-acted and above all well-thought-out dramatic story that played fair and decent with some strong material.

‘Execution’ began with a flashback to September 1978, making it contemporaneous with ‘Pills’, the opening episode of season 2. Tom Pepper, a Trib reporter, and an unnamed photographer have stopped off at a corner store to buy cerea when a hold-up occurs, two youngsters, one male, one female. When he, naive and uncertain, says her name, she, Kitty Lester (Terri Nunn, she of the band Berlin), orders the four people in the store into the back room, where they are all shot. The killers are quickly caught and they are sentenced to Death. It will be the first execution in California for fourteen years.

We move to the present. three years later. Jimmy Lee died in prison, knifed to death. Kitty’s latest appeal against execution has been denied by California’s Superior Court. All that’s left is the Supreme Court. The story is that Kitty, against the advice of her attorney Jeff Benedict (George Wyner, soon to be a regular on Hill Street Blues) wishes to waive her right of Appeal, and an execution date be set within sixty days.

And that after seeing Joe Rossi at a Press Conference, she wants to talk to him.

Nunn is a genuinely beautiful blonde, small and slight. As Kitty, she acts demurely, thugh not without a certain cynical sense of humour. She makes her position plain: she accepts her guilt and regards her death as the proper penalty, and she does not seek forgiveness. It’s honest, it’s straightforward, but is it true?

That’s the question that underlies everythng that happens. Rossi, despite his initial scepticism, starts to see her as a person, and becomes emotionally involved. Others orbiting Kitty are less convinced: her past behavious militates against her being this sweet, understanding, rounded person. Rossi argues she’s changed, and Nunn has us wondering throughout whether this is true.

To present the opposite pole, we have Lou. Lou pulls Tom Pepper’s file, reads his cuttings, muses sadly about the fact he was just hitting his stride, showing his potential. A good writer lost, maybe a damned-good writer – and as we learn late on, a reporter brought to the Trib by Lou himself – britally murdered, leaving a wife and a son.

Lou’s as much emotionally involved as Rossi. Though the reporter accuses him of wanting revenge, Lou’s mindset tells him that justice will be done if Kitty Lester, who took Tom Pepper’s life, should have her own terminated.

If you’re going to ask me my position on this question then I’ll say that I have never supported the death penalty. Something deep and visceral inside me instinctively opposes it. To put it at its most basic, I don’t trust myself with the power of life or death over anyone so I’m sure as hell not going to trust you with it. This principle has been tested very sorely by multiple things over the past twenty years, things that make you automatically want to see the perpetrator put to death, for why should we suffer such people to walk among us after what they have done. Tested, and stretched, but not yet broken.

The Kitty Lester case becomes a circus, the most disgusting aspect of which is the London Publisher of cheap, tacky cash-in books about deaths and murders, Peter Whitter (played by that distinguished actor, Christopher Cazenove). It’s an early example of what would become a flood of portrayals of Brits as baddies, because Whitter, handsome and smooth and well-spoken, is a slimeball. Not overtly, at least not until he’s signed up everyone connected to the case to exclusive deals and offers an exclusive to the Trib that Mrs Pynchon takes a righteous delight in refusing.

Of course, this means Roissi is cut out, and he getting obsessive about the fair Kitty. And a story ‘leaks’ to a San Francisco paper about the secret love-trysts between the beautiful, blue-eyed convict and the ‘whip-thin’, supersmart journalist.

Once the final plea for a stay, raised by an Anti-Death-Penalty pressure group, is denied and a date for execution is set, Kitty decides to give her final interview to Joe. He understands by now by just how much he has been manipulated, and he has words for her about what has motivated her, an analysis of how she pushes people to do things they hate doing – like asking Joe to be a Witness to her execution – and how she was herself compelled to do things just to prove she wasn’t afraid of doing them, like the murder.

The episode ended in downbeat fashion. We are at San Quentin to see things being set-up, and then we cut to Rossi on a phone, dictating the facts of Kitty Lester’s execution to a copy girl, in flat, professional, factual tones before hanging up. It may well have been Roert Walden’s finest performance.

So, was Kitty Lester sincere? Or was she trying to manipulate her way to ome advantage that failed? She went to the Gas Chamber, just as she wished, when there were chances she ciould have taken to stop the process. But these were chances she would have had to take. She became a huge story for wanting to die. Was that to stimulate a late rescue, a commutation of her sentence, through the activities of others that she could then ‘resent’, an attempt that failed. Terri Nunn didn’t let you decide and neither did the writers. A good story.

All i can say for certain is that Nunn should never have gone back to Berlin. And i don’t mean that just because I can’t stand ‘Take my breath away’.

Lou Grant: s05 e01 – Wedding

When you make up your mind…

As one series enters its fifth and final season, so does another. The circumstances are very different: Lou Grant was renewed for a full season of 24 episodes with the same prospect as always of renewal the following summer as it had always had: as long as it remained sufficiently commercial. When cancellation came, it would be argued by some that that was the only reason the show didn’t get a season 6. It would be argued by others, including Edward Asner, that this was far from the cause.

But we’ll look at that in a bit more detail at the other end of the season. For today, we’ll celebrate a strong opening episode that concerned itself with personal stories to which the underlying newspaper business was once again suitable McGuffins, and the show benefitted from that.

Remember Ted McCovey (Cliff Potts)? He was Billie’s boyfriend, Baseball catcher turned scout in season 4. We haven’t seem him since because he’s always on the road, but he and Billie have been having a whale of a time when their schedules coincided. Ted’s back in town now and wants to see Billie, he has something to say to her. Unfortunately, her new story, about the Smog Board and how it is conducting the business of protecting Los Angeles from its perma-smog, gets in the way and she can only stay about five minutes. Ted would rather wait for a more propitious moment but Billie insists he says what he has to say. Which is, Will You Marry Me?

Billie’s in shock. Of course she’s in shock, we wouldn’t have a story without it. Much of the episode is taken up with her working out how much sense marriage works. She’s been married before, and not just to her job, she hadn’t really bargained on marriage at his point in her life (that’s the job coming in again) she’s immediately uncomfortable around Ted and especially his baseball pals who are crude and rough and very masculine in their frame of mind.

Of course we know she’s going to end up acepting him, it’s right there in the episode title, not to mention inherent in the show’s ethos. In the meantime, the show has an underplayed B story that really deserved a little more air-time, along a parallel line.

This is Lou’s youngest daughter, Janie (Barbara Dirickson), in town on business, setting up a meal with her Dad but real nervous and awkward with it, as is Lou. It comes out at dinner, Janie determined to be honest with her Dad. It comes down to the job – as Janie knows, she being an editor and writer herself, albeit on a trade paper – and how it constantly pulled Lou away from family events. And Janie is more estranged from her father thaan her other sisters because she was affected most, as Lou’s professional life got more intense.

Lou’s both accepting of his failure and defensive about it. It’s a conditon of the job, nothing more, nothing less, and whether it ought to be is not going to be discussed, especially when it’s playing into Billie’s fears about a permanent set up with Ted, and doubly especially when you know it’s going to bugger things up for an ending.

So it goes. The Smog Board story, which is actually a substantial issue in its own right, treated seriously and given multiple angles is finished two hours ahead of deadline on the day before Billie and Ted’s wedding, only for the computer system to crash and dump everything. Billie has to rewrite until 3.00am, Lou has to reorganise the paper and let Janie down by cancelling his flight to Chicago where all three daughters are meeting up.

But there are happy endings. Billie and Ted marry. Mrs Pynchon makes a late appearance, acknowledging her stroke by limping, slowly, on a cane. And when Rossi drivesLou home, there are three gorgeous young women waiting on his step for him, Janie and her sisters, switching to LA for a soppy, sentimental ending.

I liked it. It was as light as a well-cooked Victoria Sponge Cake, but life is entitled to variety and light is sometimes good. The final season starts. We’ll be here until February with it.

Lou Grant: s04 e20 – Stroke

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.

Lou Grant: s04 e19 – Depression

As we roll towards the end of season 4, we’re finishing on a couple of really strong stories. Both halves of the penutimate episode were glued together by our title character but were otherwise separate, but both were personal and affecting stories, well-written, full of nuance and subtle. So what if one of them was left unfinished in the show’s signature manner, this was genuinely  story whose nature would have been betrayed by a wrap-up-in-45-minutes ending.

The primary story, which provided the episode with its title, focussed upon irregular guest star Peter Hobbs, playing veteran reporter, George Driscoll, the Trib’s man on the Police beat (fourth and final appearance). It starts with Driscoll getting into a shouting match with Rossi over the timing of new information that requires Rossi to re-write his piece. Driscoll’s angry and abrasive. It looks like he’s building up to fall off the wagon again. Sure enough, next we hear of him, he’s in the hospital. But he’s behind a Do Not Disturb sign when Lou calls. No, he’s not drying out again. George Driscoll had attempted to commit suicide.

For all the man’s flaws, Lou has vast sympathy for him, as a veteran, as a fellow old reporter, as someone whose thoughts and writing he understands. Puzzled, upset, Lou starts to investigate why Driscoll might have done this.

I don’t want to recite the details. They’re carefully thought-through, they add up to the life of a bright, talented, ambitious man who didn’t get to where he ought to go, who never progressed beyond a certain point, through small flaws, psychological issues imposed by an ‘old school’ father who crippled his son by his refusal to care about him. Reverses hit harder, the future he was fit for didn’t come about. The family life that was damaged, the wife who, it is all but stated, is carrying on an affair, the bright, clever, purposeful daughter estranged. The stuff of ordinary lives that eventually becomes unbearable when you feel that you are living behind glass walls that bar you from others, this I know.

It was a story that had no ending, no promise of a bright future. The closest it came to that was a reconciliation with the daughter, Amanda, in a scene that demonstrated just how bloody good Hobbs was, lay on his side in a hospital bed, shielding himself with shame and embarrassment, to be such in front of a daughter you want never to see you like this. Hobbs said nothing, until the end, when he gave in, but in body and face he was amazing.

So it ended the only way it could, in a beginning. Could amanda’s rediscovered love for her father help rebuild him? Could a final separation from mother Elizabeth be part of the answer, an answer? Not for us to know. But we wished the poor bugger well.

Inevitably, that story overshadowed its parallel, though that too was well-presented and given near equal time. Mrs Pybchon, growing envious of friends who have time to travel abroad, decides to create a new post, that of Executive Editor, someone to create the Trib’s future, help it grow, extend itself and set its own direction. naturally, she turns to her right-hand-man, Charlie Hume… to find a candidate.

This looks like being a guy called Hank Dougherty (James Sloyan), young, bright, forward looking, impressive. But what of Charlie himself? Good old easy-going Charlie, he who smooths out all paths. Charlie is bitterly hurt at not even being thought of, and whilst he puts his energies into securing Mrs Pynchon’s wishes, encouraging and approving of Dougherty, underneath he’s the proverbial smouldering volcano.

Lou sees this. Well, everyone sees this, or at least feels the effects of Charlie’s growing temper, but only Lou knows where it’s coming from, no matter how much Charie denies anything’s wrong.

This one at least could have a more-or-less ending. Lou sits in on the final meeting with Dougherty, studies his designs. All is well, everyone approves, it looks like a done deal, but Lou provokes Charie into an outburst, abut how resentful he is at being passed over, about Dougherty’s ideas being good but the same as one’s he’s proposed before, about change has to be managed gradually, not dumped in the readers’ laps all in one go, about how he’s been doing the job for years without the title and if Mrs Pynchon doesn’t make him Executive Editor, she’ll need a new Managing Editor.

It’s splendidly splenetic, not to mention cathartic, and confusing for poor Mrs Pynchon, who probably won’t get her holidays abroad after all. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

Good stuff for once and what promises to be a strong season finale to follow. Coming up in seven…

Lou Grant: s04 e18 – Violence


Sometimes, balance is inappropriate. Sometimes it’s wishy-washy. The impulse to be fair, to let all sides of an argument be aired to enable the viewer to make up its own mind, to demonstrate complexity, is always laudable. But it’s still wishy-washy. Failing to show a clear moral standpoint, or failing to show it with sufficient force is a cop-out.

It’s something that’s been a characteristic of Lou  Grant  from the outset. The show’s innate, small-l liberal mindset demands that it doesn’t slant stories, as much under President Carter at the beginning as under President Reagan now and until the end.

But the determination to be ‘fair’ sometimes, as in this week’s episode, undermines the story. The violence of the title was primarily about American Football, and the way the game had changed by the early Eighties to de-emphasise the skill of passes and runs in favour of pumping up the violence: the blocks, the tackles, the ‘hits’

The lead was LA’s star defensive back, Cliff ‘Crusher’ Carter (Fred Williamson), who starts the show on a B&W TV at McKenna’s Bar that was so dark you could have thought the game was being played at night without floodlights. Crusher ‘spears’ Ron Templeton, who winds up in a coma from which he eventually wakes, paralysed from the neck down for life and refuing to support his wife’s $3.5 million lawsuit because it will hurt the Club.

Rossi’s doing a story on Crusher, who he already idolises, for Sportsweek. Charlie wants the Templeton story treating as news instead of Sports, where everybody is ganging up to support Crusher in his hour of need. Lou’s on their side so he assigns Billie, who can’t understand or stand American Football, and then objects when she examines the background of violence and injury in the sport instead of treating it like the ‘freak incident’ it is. Some freak: the more finessed defensive back Mike Hauser (Fred Dryer) puts another plyer into hospital with an undisputably clean block and resigns immediatey, sick to his stomach.

We know Crusher’s the bad guy. He is open about how he intimidates opponents, hits them hard. He films a Public Service Announcement about the importance of family then, off camera, slaps the ball out of the kid’s hands (‘You hold like a girl’). He gives tips to college players on how to get away with illegal hits, focussing on breaking the star kid who’s broken Crusher’s college interceptions record. And when he wants to kill Rossi’s interview, in the wake of Hauser’s retirement, he orders Joe around, slams him against a car and steals his notebook.

Yes, the show does paint Crusher as he is, a vicious, arrogant thug not all that concealed under his surface bonhomie. But it hedges that truth around with a mixture of Football’s own denials about itself, its attempts to squash Mrs Templeton’s lawsuit, the sports writers’ overlooking details, Lou’s own refusal to confront the genuine issues in the game, and the fans’ preferemce for violence and thuggery. Crusher has boxes of fanmail applauding him from wht he did to Ronnie Templeton.

There’s a counterpoint to this in the form of a B story. Lou bumps into the Trib’s film critic, the attractive Melissa Cummings (Tyne Daly, about to star as Lacey of Cagney and…) and they start dating, despite the fact that they have no apparent opinions in common. The problem is that Melissa isn’t a character, she’s a viewpoint, she’s 100% supportive and promoting of violent films, all of which are masterpieces, reflecting not influencing audience’s underlying violence and providing catharsis.

In short, she’s the advocate of the slasher movies and video-nasties of that era, in the face of the regular cast’s more mainstream tastes, but beyond her taste in films and ability to spout lyrical, she doesn’t exist.

(Case in point re the show’s unwillingness to get too close to genuine issues, not to mention the American character: we see an excerpt from ‘Carlos and Wendy’, about a couple on honeymoon attacked by three bikers, who beat Carlos and rape Wendy before driving away on their hogs, respecting the speed limits in a subruban area, allowing Wendy to drive up behind them and ram at least two of the bikes in a cathartic release of vengeance. The drawback is that whilst this truth-telling ‘film’ shows Carlos being punched, clubbed and kicked, Wendy is dragged off behind a suitable outbuilding to be raped invisibly, offscreen. I never was an aficionado of video-nasties but I lived through that era and the sex was always upfront. The show tried to exemplify something by introducing evidence it could never ever show.)

There were some decently subtle moments in the episode, including the reporter who, when Hauser announced his retirement and why, immediately tried to brush it under the carpet by asking if this was just a ploy in salary negotiations,and Crusher’s turning on Joe, who was starting to have doubts about him, was in the face of hassle from the Press and the Club over Ronnie Templeton but come on now, did you really think we’d see him get his comeuppance? Even a defiant supporting/lionising of him would have gie the episode some heft by giving us a form of closure – any form – but we know better than to accept that after nearly four full seasons of Lou Grant.