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.