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 e11 – Andrew Part 2 – Trial


Donovan

The second part of this story thoroughly justified the decision to not try to squeeze everything into a single episode. The space gave writer Seth Freeman and the cast room to approach every aspect of the matter with thought, concern and a calm gravity that suited the subject and which allowed every angle to be seen impartially. Best of all, there was no unrealistic happy ending. There never could have been a ‘happy’ ending, and the show accepted that and worked with the inevitability.

The actual episode overlapped the first part by  opening with Andrew (Bruce Davison) in an unnatural silence in his mother’s apartment, looking at things, touching some, before phoning the Police to report a body upstairs. It then uiused the final minute’s footage from last week to reset us in the story with commendable brevity.

The first question was introduced immediately: would the Trib be covering the story? Lou was against it, the paper doesn’t cover every murder in LA, Charlie fior it, it’s a news story and everyone will cover it because of the young woman murdered. Mrs Pynchon set the course: the paper can’t be seen to be ‘protecting’ Andrew by ignoring the story because his cousin is the Assistant City Editor.

And as the story unfolds, the moral questions build up. If Andrew is insane, enough to be incapable of controlling his actions, it is wrong to punish him with prison. On the other hand Terri Mills’ parents, interviewed quietly and sympathetically by Rossi, of all people, poured scorn on allowing the murderer of their beloved daughter by allowing him to claim insanity. They wanted Justice, and to them Justice meant punishment. Why should Andrew be free to walk the streets when Terri  cannot? They didn’t shout, they didn’t rant, they were just two parents deprived of their daughter, who couldn’t protect her and now could only see Justice as Retribution, and it wasn’t [possible to think that, if you were in their position you would want otherwise.

The backlash from Andrew’s actions overspilled where, in real life, it would. The other tenants couldn’t take it out on Andrew so they took it out on his mother Edna, cold-shouldering her, wjhispering that it was her fault, she’d introduced Terri to Andrew. This latter played into Edna’s fears herself, enlarging a guilt she had already inflicted on herself.

Art Donovan was placed in an awkward position that led to anger and outbursts. Andrew’s escape from a hospital appointment (bathetically, he had only hidden in a supply closet) changed the nature of his story, leaving the Trib no newsworthy option but to cover the case. Art’s anger lay in the effect publicity would have on the attempts by Andrew’s lawyer, Dave Mendelsohn (Charles Aidman) to plea-bargain the charge down to Voluntary Manslaughter, and he was correct: the charge stayed at Second Degree Murder.

We saw the trial, with the cast on hand to act as a Greek Chorus to explain the various manouevres, not to educate the ignorant audience but to further tease out the conflicts and demonstrate the complexity of what the Law is expected to do. There were two parts to this, the trial of the facts, of Guilt or Innocence, and then the trial of responsibility: was Andrew accountable for his actions when he killed Terri, or not? One fact, kept back from us until the trial, was the way Terri was killed, by manual strangulation, by the application of constant physical pressure, over a two minute period.

The moment that fact came out, it was over. We saw the verdict of Guilty, we watched Mendelsohn try to set up an insanity defence with testimony from Andrew’s psychiatrist only for the Prosecutor to cut it down with calm ruthlessness, and we saw him judged sane for the purposes of the Law: Andrew was sentenced to fifteen years. Yes, of course, he was deeply disturbed, and you knew that even if he got out on parole after ten years, prison would not do aanything for this broken man save to grind the pieces even smaller, but you could not help feeling that the Justice Terri’s parents had demanded had been served, and that it was right.

It might not be my favourite episode (I don’t have a favourite episode) but this calm, uncomplicaed and honest story may well be the best Lou Grant episode of them all.

Lou Grant: s03 e10 – Andrew Part 1 – Premonition


Ellen Regan and Jack Bannon

At almost the halfway point of its existence, Lou Grant produced its first and only two-part story, and what a difference it made. By giving the story, which was tough and complex, room to develop, the show gave it the chance of the tough and complex treatment it demanded and which, in the first half at least, it got.

The Andrew of the title was Andrew Raines, Art Donovan’s cousin, played to great effect by Bruce Davison. Andrew used to be a great kid, a great friend, but at the age of 32 he’s a sullen loner, driven by reaction against people’s expetations of him. He’s been in and out of state hospitals with no apparent success, and his mother Edna (Barbara Barrie), is worried about him. She’s afraid he’ll do something violent.

The case attracts Billie’s attention and she starts to write an abstract version of it. It’s meant to be balanced, an objective review of where the line has to be drawn between the rights of people who have not done anything but may, and the rights of the community to be protected against that maybeness.

Disappointingly enough, the show leans perceptibly towards the scare angle. The professionals, like the psychiatrist who blithely speaks of much success and some problems, and the Police refusing to commit resources to the arrest of someone who hasn’t done anything yet, are made to look weak, with only a token acknowledgement of the dangers of imprisonment by accusation only that, quite frankly, ought have been made much stronger.

Instead, the episode chose to pad its time out with Rossi tied into ghost-writing a prominent film citic’s memoirs in the form of a cheezy soft porn novel (not that I know what a cheezy soft porn novel is like, of course), only to have the critic (Nita Talbot hamming it up outrageously in full-on Joan Collins mode) at how tame it is. Sigh, silly.

But the decision not to go hell for leather to wrap things up in one allowed Andrew more time to demonstrate both the pathos of his situation and the creepiness of his manner. Everyone just felt awkward about him, except for one woman, Terry Mills, his mother’s neighbour and friend, a bright, solid, natural and lively performance by Ellen Regan.

Though what was to follow was obvious, for once I didn’t see it as such. We saw Andrew talking with his psychiatrist, complaining about women and their lack of morals, and how he wanted to respect them but couldn’t, and it was obviously their fault. We saw his drastic change of demeanour when, after pleasant reminiscing with Art about teenage holidays, he goes cold and distant the moment Art mentions picking up three girls, we saw his paranoic anger at his mother for mentioning that an old female class-mate had aked after him. This is a man with a serious hang-up about sex.

Then we see him talking with Terri as she finishes a project. She’s the only woman who isn’t disturbed by him. She’s fresh, bright, pretty, self-confident, almost asexual in her acceptance off him. And then she gets Andrew to fob off a persistent unwanted suitor.

The next, and last thing for this first part was the Police arresting Andrew. For murdering her. Violence, yes, an attack, yes, hospitalisation, these were the things I anticipated. But because it had room, the show had the chance and the courage not to fudge. and it has room for much more next week.

Here’s hoping they don’t fumble it.

Lou Grant: s03 e09 – Kidnap


We’re nearly halfway through this Lou Grant rewatch, so perhaps an element of fatigue is creeping in, but I ended up far less impressed by this week’s episode than I anticipated at the outset.

Whilst I’m generally in tune with the show’s liberal ethos, I welcomed an episode that seemed to have nothing more to it than a good, potentially thrilling story. a charter plane carrying the State Championship winning members of a High School Basketball team is missing, overdue, possibly crashed. Billie and Animal are sent to cover the story.

Of course, the episode title gives it away. The plane’s been hijacked, hidden on a disused airforce base, somewhere in the great nowhere, and a ransom of half a million dollars is demanded (to which 2019’s response was “cheap”.)

The set-up is there and there’s lots that can be done with it. But the boys are from Todesca, a desert town of 4,000 inhabitants, a nothing place out in nowhere, and their sheriff may be the traditional little town type in looks, but he’s neither stupid nor pig-headed, which makes for a pleasant change but cuts down on your dramatic posibilities.

And then the episode bogs itself down with cutesy humour, a rivalry between Billie and Rossi over who covers what parts of the story, the ‘naval’ dress their down-at-home hostess buys Billie, and a background story, introduced neatly from the A story, about the Trib being bought out by the McFarlane chain.

Everything gets further and further away fromm the kidnapping. I don’t know if it was a budgetary thing, or whether it was the series trying to encompass the notion within their self-set parameters, but everything pertaining to the real drama, the investigatio, the arrest and the rescue took place a very long way offscreen, whilst an overstrong contingent from the Trib futzed around on camera on worthless and nowhere near funny enough trivialities.

As I said so many time when watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this is an object lesson in the changes to series-writing betwen then and now. The show should never have tackled this subject when it couldn’t bring tension, concern and, above all, a presence to the subject. It made a decent start, with the poignancy of an early scene, using mainly pictures not words, of a town set-up to welcome its conquering heroes, its kids, its boyfriends, left with banners and flags that looked hollow in the suspicion of loss, and then it forgot entirely that these were a generation of youth in a 4,000 person town in favour of cheap silliness. A bad job.

Lou Grant: s03 e08 – Witness


Richard Jaeckel

What really caught my eye about this episode was not the main story itself, and certainly not the insufficiently comic B story, but rather the presence of one guest star, Richard Jaeckel as Detective Dan Staley, playing what was originally a serious role but which, forty years later, has become a grotesque cartoon.

I’ll come back to that shortly, but here is the context. Billie and Donovan have gone to a bar for a drink. Billie has noticed controversial trial lawyer Elliott Robinson and tries to question him. Robinson bluntly refuses. In the darkness of the underground parking garage, two men beat him viciously. Billie and Donovan discver him. He’s taken to the hospital in critical condition, where eventually he dies. The Trib starts an investigation. Robinson has multiple enemies amongst those he has sued/is suing. The name of popular and successful gameshow host Art McQueen is mentioned. One of the thugs contacts Bilie, naming McQueen as the one who hired two of them, only to welsh on the final payment, but his unsupported allegation can’t be printed without a name or corroboration. But when he turns up dead, that’s a story. When Billie puts the story to the folksy, real-people McQueen, he warns her over printing a story that could effect someone’s life. The brakes promptly fail on her car, though it’s when Rossi is driving it. To obtain Police protection, Billie agrees to testify to the Grand Jury considering indicting Art McQueen. Ok, we’re now here.

Though she should have a woman Police Officer guarding her, Billie ends up with the Detective handling the Robinson assault/murder case, Detective Staley. Though I’m bound to say that Jaeckel’s performance was weak an awkward, as if he was unhappy with the script he was given and couldn’t bring conviction to the role, his was a character study that’s changed in dimension over the years.

In 1977, Feminism had only been an effective force for less than a decade. Linda Kelsey plays Billie as an independent, forthright young woman, intelligent, informed, effective. This was still controversial back then, and I recall one contemporary criticism of the character that claimed she was “a hideous lie”.

Dan Staley was portrayed as a male chauvinist (we’ll leave off the ‘pig’ aspect, despite the term getting two shots at him). He’s patronising towards Billie (the ‘little lady’), and full of condescending assumptions about her, especially when Billie goes to the Morgue to identify the body of the man she met. He makes assumptions about why she went to the bar, why she approached Robinson, even that she approached the lawyer when she was already a guy, some of which can be alibied by the need of a Detective to initially doubt everybody’s story, but which lean on the invisible sex angle. He’s patriotic, believes in Nuclear Weapons, he’s authoritarian, he continually makes assumptions about Billie over her political opinions, in fact she starts to come over as a catalogue of feminist/liberal virtues designed to contrast with him. They have nothing in common, except that they both enjoy Masterpiece Theatre.

The point is that in 1979 this was a nearly natural portrayal of a state of mind. The programme plays fair by Staley. He isn’t angry, or defensive, he doesn’t overplay the role, he just is that way, like so many people were. In 2019, he’s a caricature, a cartoon compilation of cliches akin to an OTT role in a French and Saunders sketch. His every utterance is groan-inducing, an ‘is this guy for real?’ display.

We’ve moved on a lot from 1979. The world is very far from perfect and there’s a gathering strength among the chauvinist who want to dial things back towards the days when such sentiments were not merely ‘normal’ among their crowd but to everyone. But the fact that Staley is now a grotesque, instead of a common viewpoint, speaks well for our mental advance over forty years. On the day of a General Election in Britain, there’s something encouraging about that.

Lou Grant: s03 e05 – Frame-Up


Slimeball

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: s03 e04 – Charlatan


Cast out by the Church

When your episode title is ‘Charlatan’ and you open with a church service in opulent surroundings, with a well-dressed Minister declaiming above a congregation, it’s not hard to tell where the story is going to go. Nevertheless, the show made its course more complex, and more equivocal than it need do, the result being a thought-provoking episode.

We began with three separate strands, two of which became swiftly intertwined, and a third which seemed irrelevant but which became an important counterpoint to the major story.

The Church was the United Pilgrim’s Crusade, founded and led by Dr Thomas Chamberlain. The Trib’s Religious Affairs writer, Marcus Prescott, was there to conduct a standard profile. Joe Rossi was there because he’d spotted a naked man climbing the Church Tower to display a banner reading ‘God Sees All’. What was it God saw? From the Church’s enthusiasm about their disturbed brother’s privacy, it was clearly something needing investigating, as Rossi automatically assumed. Prescott, the son of a Southern Hellfire preacher, did not see it that way.

Our third strand was a sneaky phonecall to Lou from an Arnold Zinner, soliciting Lou’s support against Prior Restraint, that is, the Law’s intervention to prevent a newspaper publishing something, the very thing the First Amendment prohibits. Of course, from the shifty way he didn’t identify any specifics, we knew what sort of publication Zinnah ran – Grabber magazine, a cross between a pre-National Enquirer cheapie and a low-rent porn monthly, but which happened to have all the names and addresses of all the undercover Narcotics agents in LA (how and why were never explored).

There was a lot of stick over supporting a disgusting rag like that, but Lou held to the principle. Because we all know that it’s the difficult to defend cases that are prosecuted first, because it only takes one case to set a precedent.

This would tie back into the min story in two ways. First, however, a succession of minor matters drew attention to the possibility – to some an evidence-unsupported certainty – that something fishy was going on, that Chamberlain was not as he painted himself, that the United Pilgrim’s Crusade was not a legitimate Church with a genuine doctrine.  Rossi’s convinced this is so. So’s Billie, when she gets brought in on this. Marcus, on the other hand, is far less convinced, considers the evidence too shaky, is blocking the story to the point where Lou takes him off it.

Is he just too (self-)indoctrinated to accept an anti-Church story? Or is he someone who demands a high level of proof because he’s aware of how susceptible people are to anything that appears to tear a minister down? Or is he just not enough of a bastard? Donovan, who sympathises with Prescott, thinks the latter, and it is his encouraging reaction that spurs Marcus back to the story.

There were multiple levels to this. Prescott interviews Agnes Carson (Ruth Silveira), a believer who’d found salvation in Dr Chamberlain, a volunteer who was giving far far too much money to the Church. Lou, Charlie and Mrs Pynchon discuss things with ‘orthodox’ Minister, Dr Bunning. who confesses his suspicions of and distaste for Chamberlain’s church but who implcably opposes stories against them: hurt one religion and you hurt all.

In the end, it’s Prescott who gets the real deal, persuading Smithfield, the naked man, already identified as a fanatic, to give up the print-outs that expose the frauds. Even then, Chamberlain and his business manager Crossley admitted the truth of the facts but not their meaning, heedless  of the figures having gone to the Attorney-General.

No, all of this was Stan’s doing, an attack upon God, by a heathen newspaper, the state, an editor who openly advocated for a pornographer out to destroy their children… Even Agnes Carson told Marcus Prescott he was mistaken, but she was the true Christian amongst them.

And fittingly, the story was left with that ending, no neat little bows of pink ribbon to sign it off, even though all of us, and not merely the cynical, understood where truth lay and that there was no God in God’s Temple. An excellent episode.