Lou Grant: s04 e17 – Business


Despite an excellent performance from guest star Edward Winter as a new, progressive business CEO, this was another case of one step up, one step down.

If I were to tell you that this story was about relations between American busoiness and the Press, would you be expecting great drama and edge-of-the-seat watching? Maybe in America, where one President went so far as to define that ‘the business of America is business’, but through British eyes the story failed to convince as a worthwhile one, and ended up coming over as a whole lot of fuss about very little.

We began in media res with the aftermath of a devastating fire affecting plant belonging to long-established Los Angeles company, Cal-electronics. The company’s recently shed veteran officer Lester Sorenson (Phillip Abbott) almost as soon as he’d been appointed President, replacing him with the much younger and go-getting Russell Davidson (Winter) but they’re being intensively secretive about everything, to the extent that they’ve triggered Joe Rossi’s permanently lurking suspicions as to what they’re hiding.

It was at this early point that the episode lost me. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason in ducking questions, failing to supply information, especially when the truth that was being buried was minor and insignificant. It was all very Watergate, the cover-up creating far more harm than the story being suppressed.

But Davidson and everyone else at Cal-electronics seemed to think that the press was against them, that automatically it gave businessand companies grief, sensationalising stories, slanting them to make the problem out to be more widespread than it really is.

There was an example on the Trib’s side, and this from Adam Wilson, the economics writer and a natural friend to business, with a story exposing the cancer risk to employees that came over as a company-wide thing with potential spread to consumers when in strict fact it was five workers in one division, a risk neutralised instantly.

Without a background of familiarity with press reporting of business in the early Eighties it was hard to viscerally accept that the company were justidfied in their extreme circle-the-wagons approach. Naturally, the company wanted to fight back, buying full-page ads in the Trib to put over their point of view, hassling the Trib over sitting on a Washington State story about a labour dispute that escalated into deaths, because it was at a paper mill owned by the Trib.

To be honest, it all seemed very superficial and the ending – Sorenson explains the humiliating circumstances of his resignation, a breakdown due to promotion to a role he couldn’t handle and the secrecy merely being Davidson’s innate decency over not wanting to expose an old man’s frailties – fell flat because the story, well-acted as it was, was flat from introduction to coda.

I shall, out of decency, refrain from mentioning the thin-to-the-point-of-skeletal ‘B-story’, included assumedly because the actor needed a job.

One step up, one step dow. There have been rather more of the latter this season than any other.

Lou Grant: s04 e16 – Campesinos


One of many sides

Once again I’m in the position of being an unintentional contrarian in my opinions about a television episode. According to imdb‘s ratings, this episode is the lowest rated in season 4, one of only two to be given a rating under 7. Yet whilst the story was often confused, and was predictable in one major aspect, I thought it better than that, especially as, for once, the series’ reluctance to provide distinct outcomes was fitting: this was a story that would never end.

The story was about labour relations, in a time when, even in America, workers had a lot more going for them than they do now. Immigrant workers, Mexican, are employed in picking celery in California’s Central Valley. It’s wht it always is: back-breaking work, ten hours in the field under a blazing sun, or in pouring rain, for minimum wage, and that’s just for the ones who get to work: the rest starve.

There’s been a strike for six months, and the growers are getting illegals in to do the job for even less. The owners don’t care about the workers, they see them as free of responsibility. The owners hold the land, they work it and manage it, they are invested in it. They don’t have the freedom to move on and do something else whenever they feel like it. Besides, the owners don’t want to be told how to run their business, forced to hire workers they don’t consider sufficiently skilled or fast enough.

It’s an arguable case, but it contains a wilful blindness as to the real lives of the workers, their need for a living wage, their need for security. Oddly enough, the show allows the owners to make their viewpoint explicit but doesn’t give the same to the Union. I suppose it’s because their case is bindingly obvious: you take one look at the conditions under which they work and immediately support their need to be treated decently and fairly.

But what’s this all got to do with the Trib? It starts with Union organiser Tommy Hernandez (James Victor), former football star and school contemporary with Joe Rossi, roping him in to the story with the hook of former worker’s activist, the Reverend Hugh Holstrom (Jeff Corey) coming out of retirement after 18 years to rejoin the fight.

Though Lou is more interested in the Tommy Hernandez story than the strike, Hernandez uses Rossi’s presence (and that of a dozen other reporters also on the same ‘exclusive’), to advance his cause. The Reverend breaks the picket to try to address the illegals, bring them round to the cause (they cannot: without work they will starve) and is arrested. A rumour he’s had a heart attack in the Sheriff’s station causes a mini-riot in which Rossi is caught up and gets him jailed.

This forces Lou to take the overall story more seriously, sending a team to Ortega: Animal, Billie, Spanish-speaking Rubin Castillo (Emilio Delgado) and Donovan, whose beat this was fifteen years earlier. We’ve not seen much of Billie recently because Linda Kelsey had broken her left wrist, arm in slings and slimline plaster cast and she’s officially acknowledged to be on the Reserved Injured List herein. Continuity-wise, it’s a throwback to Billie’s injury during episode 13, ‘Strike’.

As the show develops, the strike is given a more personal edge by an unconvincing detail. One of the owners, Paul Geyer (William Lucking, Gandy Dancer in Tales of the Gold Monkey), is a former friend of Tommy and a team-mate who worked well with them. Geyer tries to negotiate separately with Tommy, but Tommy won’t budge, leading Geyer to conclude there’s a personal element to this, that Tommy is focussed on beating Geyer, not on his members interests. They’d be better off without you, he tells Tommy.

Straightway, you knew what was to follow. The frustrated pickets, whipped up by Tommy, break their lines and enter the fields. Tommy racesafter them, as much as you can in a celery field, urging them to go back. The guard with a rifle fires three shots, everybody turns round and retreats but one man has been hit: it’s Tommy and he’s dead. The show makes a hash of this scene, with the violence off camera, but it was all so predictable.

As was the outcome. without Tommy, the strike was settled, the Union compromised, the purveyor of Unintended Manslaughter got the traditional slap on the wrist and everything went back to normal, until the next time. The illegals were collected in a truck and went somewhere else.

It was a deliberately downbeat ending, recognising that here was a scenario that would repeat and repeat uintil the heat-death of the Universe. It was an episode ito which you could read any political position your own prejudices endorsed and in which, if your mind was open enough, see the opposite side and the practical reality of the world in that it was those of us who buy celery (I don’t) and want it cheap force conditions, compromises and even deaths on those at the other end of the production chain. And it did all these not to be wishy-washy neutral but to show us that this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Could it have done it better? Oh, certainly. Two seasons ago this topic would have produced a tighter, sharper, more concentrated episode to say and show all these things, but it still got its intentions straight, and it deserved a bit more respect from its audiene. There are higher rated episodes this season that aren’t half as good as this, albeit flawed story.

Lou Grant: s04 e15 – Venice


One of these people will provide the clue

It’s reached the point where I no longer expect to see intelligent, well-written and acted and moving epoisodes of Lou Grant anymore, which is precisely why I found this episode to be such a surprise.

There were two strands to it, one of them negligible and uninteresting. this was the one about someone having obtained possession of a list of salaries at the Trib and threatening to publish it unless he got paid $1,000. An uproar is expected but fails to materialise, the culprit is uninteresting and so is the story.

Of far more moment was the larger story that for once centred upon the Trib’s comic relief photographer, Dennis ‘Animal’ Price. It began on a Sunday afternoon at Venice, California, a beach resort full of sand, sea, shoreline and plenty of relaxed, feelgood, let-yourself-go. Animal is wandering around, taking photos for a Sunday feature. It all looked good, a not-quite hedonistic energy, the feel of people free to just enjoy themselves.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance. An attractive young woman has drowned, an apparent suicide, the overkill of pills and drowning. Animal takes photos, but also has his curiosity lit up. Who was this woman? What did she do? Why did someone so pretty, so good a worker, so friendly a person that everyone praised and mourned kill herself? Did she kill herself?

Animal wants to know, to understand. From the moment he discovers Lesley Ellison was a keen photograher and, despite her reservations about herself, a talented one, his eagerness becomes not just obsession but more. Animal has fallen in love with a dead girl, wishing he had met her in life and might have averted this.

The episode was a sympathetic, gentle exploration of loss, as everyone missed Lesley like crazy. The baglady to whom he always spoke, asking after her welfare, the grieving but possessive father who blamed her death on her being here among these ‘freaks’ instead of being home in Chicago where she ‘belonged’, the gang leader who respected her and was ready to deal with someone who may have killed her (Trinidad Silva in a performance that could have been a rehearsal for Jesus Martinez in Hill Street Blues) and the sister who opened the door to an answer as to why Lesley’s suicide was not such a surprise, revealing a psychological history of loss and fear of rejection that I could empathise with.

Throughout, and especially when Animal had developed the last reel of film from Lesley’s camera, I feared the episode would blow it by coming up with a killer after all, but it held straight and true. These last photos, from the afternoon she killed herself, led to the revelation that Lesley, after a lifetime of failures with men, had believed herself in love with her childhood best friend, Carol. Carol’s response had been the final rejection, the one that left only one door out.

So it was all explained, no mystery, just a portrait of an unhappy woman who had lost her mother far too young and left with a father incapable of dealing with her loss, who grew up twisted into a pattern that led directly to her death. It explained but didn’t satisfy. And the show’s most poignant feature was the skillfully underplayed sense it left you that if Animal had met her a month before, it might all have been different, withut that suggestion seeming like sentimental slop.

Sometimes it really is about the right person.

Lou Grant: s04 e14 – Survival


Sometimes, the worst thing you can do with an old favourite television series is to watch it again. Whilst much of the first three seasons of Lou Grant were enjoyable at worst, not to mention being a historio/sociological treasure in terms of what was in our heads forty years ago, the fourth season has seen an uncommon collapse in quality. Not even good stories are making it.

‘Survival’ is a prime example of something that combined two strong elements in a more integrated fashion than usual yet managed through a failure of basic story-telling structure to come up with a tortuous mess.

Part of this was down to trying to cram in more elements than the running time could comfortably hold, plus an undistinguished guest cast, the most prominent of which was comic relief that so dominated that part of the episode as to diminish its seriousness whilst remaining utterly detachable.

The other guest was the notable actor, Ed Harris, who’s already appeared twice in the series as other characters, here playing Ralph Cooper, a survivalist with two children he’s already trained to be paranoid beyond belief, like him and nearly as determined to shoot to kill, but turning in a steely performance with few human aspects.

Let me try to suumarise the story to show what I mean. We begin at Donovan’s house, out in the hills in Tapanga, where Rossi is enjoying a euphoric jacuzzi with two fit birds on the eve of Donovan’s two week vacation in Hawaii. Rossi’s so mellowed out (mellow! ye gods, that’s going back) he takes a wrong turn onto Ralph Cooper’s land where he’s threatened with being shot both by Cooper but also his twelve-year old son.

Rossi starts getting interested in survivalism. He attends a lecture by an apocalytic economist, predicting recession, depression, shortages, looting etc., predicated on a possible fall of the Finnish marker. Cooper is also present. Later he gives his paranoid explanation, based on every man for himself and trusting no-one but himself. The man is plain and straightforward and not fanatical in himself, but he’s a flaming looney. We don’t need subsequent history to tell us of that.

A more responsible but still selfish viewpoint with relevance to the stock-piling panic that lit up the opening of the coronavirus panic is presented by a previously unseen but undoubtedly sober and staid black member of the Trib’s staff.

Whilst this is building, enter Wild Bill. This is our comic relief, played by Keene Curtis. Bill’s the weather expert at the Trib, a man with his own eccentric approach to the weather and what it will do, completely contrasting with the National Weather Bureau, not to mention an inexhaustible fund of stories about his war histor(ies), the dangerous stuff he’s done and several mutually exclusive active childhoods. In short, he’s a bullshitter, and he keeps popping up like a rash throughout the episode.

But, as you already know, he’s right about the storm(s). Accompanied by many spectacular shots of stock footage (either that or the show functioned incredibly through a fortuitous series of LA storms that would make Seathwaite-in-Borrowdale look like the middle of the Sahara desert), the show builds itself frantically on so many disaster stories. Billie’s hardly in it this week, subbing for Donovan as assistant City Editor and having her own micro-story in the form of a clash with the night editor, Linda, over printing a disaster relief phone number that’s clearly a contriveance to give Linda Kelsey something to do.

In the middle of this, Donovan phones in from Waikiki to rub in to his colleagues that whilst they’re being pissed upon mightily, he’s in the sun, in shorts and in the midst of bikini-ed babes. There’s a cheap tone to this that will be repaid in even cheaper fashion at the end.

This at least has a story-telling function. Donovan asks Lou to go up to his house and spread two rolls of plastic sheeting on the hill behind it to stop a mud-slide (I confess to not knowing how that would work but then I don’t live in California). Rossi drives him.

It’s pouring down and, the moment they arrive, everything fails: gas, electric, telephone, car, simultaneously. Lou and Rossi are trapped and no-one knows where they are. No-one misses them at the paper, where Billie and Animal go out on another contrived scene in which the failure of a copy boy to go to the right rendezvous is shoe-horned in.

Lou and Rossi get drunk. Rossi wants to bond. He talks self-defensively about his egotistical persona which he says he developed deliberately, but which has left him lonely and, in times of drunkenness, wanting to be liked.

Meanwhile, at Cooper’s place, his daughter is worried about a mud-slide. No worries, says every man for himself Dad, I’ll just go over to Mr Donovan’s place and steal the plastic sheeting off his porch and use it myself. He doesn’t actually use the word stealing, but ‘borrowing’: he’ll give them back though by then they might be a touch second-hand.

He also warns the kiids not to let anyone in, no matter what they say to trick them, your basic gun-in-the-first-act, albeit arriving very late.

Cooper turns up in the rain and nicks the first roll. When Lou and Rossi protest the theft, he pulls a gun on them and has them put the second sheet in as well. Armed robbery, lovely ideal. Then, as he drives away, he overturns his truck in what looked to be a very deliberate fashion, busting his leg. Of course Lou and Rossi try to help him. There’s a radio at Cooper’s cabin and Rossi says he’ll head there to summon help.

Meanwhile back at the paper, and you’ll just have to imagine how many times Wild Bill has popped up by now because I’m not going back and counting, Lou’s been missing, incommunicado, for ages. Linda, the interfering bitch, mentions seeing him going off with Rossi,who has been missing for the same length of time though no-one has noticed. And Donovan rings up for another gloat, and to deliver the plot-point of identifying where Lou’s been.

So help, in the form of a TV news-gathering helicopter, is sent on its way. Meanwhile, Rossi arrives at Cooper to be confronted by Cooper Junior and his loaded rifle. Rossi’s not interested in childish games and we’re wondering exactly how badly he’s going to be shot (according to his training in the early part of the episode, the kid will fire five shots and if he fails to hit anything vital, Joe’ll bleed out anyway).

However, I’m not taking into account fourteen-year old daughter who, being female, is not addicted to violence. She’s concerned about Daddy (bad move, kid, didn’t he tell you not to care about anyone else but yourself?) and distracts Junior long enough for Rossi to dash in,force the rifle up so that it’s shot goes nowhere, then to violently hurl it into the very wet forest. Resistance collapses instantly.

So, all’s well that ends well. Ralph Cooper gets an object lesson in trust and co-operation that we know damned well he will consider for about a quarter of a second before rejecting utterly, and to the show’s credit it doesn’t even try to suggest for that same quarter of a second that he – or Junior – will learn a damned thing.

Finally, the rains start to ease, and, as payback, Lou phones Donovan in Hawaii to tell him, with barely suppressed delight, that he hopes his Assistant City Editor has been keeping his insurance up because his house at 1,001 is now down somewhere nearer 950… It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but it’s dirty and nasty and out of proportion to the extent of Donovan’s gloating. A nasty taste is left in the mouth.

And, having delivered itself of this turgid combination of points, clogged up by Wild Bill, enter Adam Wilson, the economics wizz, to report that the Finnish marker has fallen, leading to concerns about the Dutch guilder, and the inevitable knock-on effect on the American economy, shortages etc., all in a monologue that fades to black and the credits, in a sneaky-clever way of bringing the story round to the beginning and suggesting the survivalists might have a point after all…

In its way, that’s a definitive point about an episode that had no clear idea in its mind of what it wanted to say and not only fell between all stools in doing so, dodged the most serious moment and gave far too much time in an already crowded script to a self-important blowhard who kept everyone else from having room to breathe. Not good.

Lou Grant: s04 e13 – Strike


I don’t think there’s been an episode of Lou Grant that made me feel the gulf in years between then and now more than this week. The Trib is facing running at a loss within a year and Mrs Pynchon is looking at ways to turning the situation around. The way is automation, of the presses, but at the cost of 200 jobs. The Union won’t agree one. The result is a strike. Lou Grant, as a lifelong Union man, is torn because, as Management, he has to be on the other side of the divide.

It was a very odd experience to watch this. It was so completely reflective of its era, and it was a sign of how far I’ve absorbed the present era management-dictated situation that I so easily accepted the management position. It was easy to see, from the perspective of 2020, that the Union were on the wrong side of history, that they were fighting against improvement, against efficiency, against better ways of doing things. They wanted to keep things in the past.

Yet they were also fighting for people, men and women with families dependent upon their wage. The paper was bending over backwards to accommodate those who would be affected, but there was a strong element of people not wanting to change. The old line about jobs guaranteed for life was used.

Of course, based on the Bitish experience of Print Unions, which were notorious for featherbedding, I couldn’t help but query how mny of those 200 people had real jobs: that was something the episode didn’t go near. There was Management’s line, represented by hotshot business advisor Bart Franklin (a young and not altogether recognisable Ray Wise), and there was the Union line and neither was subjected to any external, and potentially objective line.

The resolution came after at least three weeks of a near all-out strike when Mrs Pynchon forced Franklin off the negotiations; after all, as Lou had already seen, his goal was to crush the Union and hers to save the paper for as many as was possible. The compromise was a sixteen-strong composers room, which was quite a way down from twenty-five, suggesting what I said about featherbedding.

Of course, the episode also involved itself in the animosity between the two sides during the strike but as every scintilla of that will have never happened by next week, I don’t see any reason why I should go into it.

It was truly looking back into times that are gone and maybe need to be resurrected, to protect workers from the incessant desire of management to have absolute, and therefore capricious control over the people they employ. I have never felt the programme to be so far away than today.

Lou Grant: s04 e12 – Search


Guest star

With the exception of a no-better-then-middling B story about Lou discovering an excellent, out-of-the-way Italian restaurant that is almost destroyed by publicity, this was a gentle, indeed sweet episode, bucking the trend of most of this season.

Search was about junior Trib photographer Lisa Carruthers (Alley Mills), who was introduced working alongside Joe Rossi on a story of a mother-daughter Jewish family, separated in the concentration camps and rediscovering each other after thirty-seven years. Brief, avoiding histrionics, and genuinely moving, two extras in a role not directly related to the story hitting the mark with precision.

This served to lead us to Lisaherself, an adopted girl aged 25 who confesses that, though she loves the parents who brought her up and in particular the mother with whom she lives, she has always wanted to know about her natural mother.

So Rossi, treating this as a journalistic investigation, gets on the case for her, roping in Billie and Donovan, though against the approval of Lou, who plainly thinks no good will come of it.

The episode, without being slow or dull, seemed to run for far longer than its 43 minutes, taking each step, its successes and reversals, slowly and thoroughly. It was never dry, because at the heart of it was the anxious yet hopeful Lisa, fearful and yearning over what she might find.

Such as the fact that she was born in November 1955 (her fictional birthdate exactly ten days after my real one, and what’s so bad about being a Scorpio anyway?) yet her father named on her birth certificate was killed in Korea three years previously.

And there was Roissi, playing an unusual role for him, full of the usual tenacity and drive but tempered by the fact that he was doing this for somebody, a real person, who was a sweet, natural young woman who he liked.

Nevertheless, the show couldn’t resist the expected arc. Lisa – or Alexandra Hart as she was originally named – discovered her mother in the South. Fearful of the shock it might cause someone apparently in ill-health, she wrote first to her newly-discovered older half-sister, Bess Gresham, who welcomed her with open arms, with delight and all the love you could wish for.

But mother Augusta was cold and rejecting. Lisa was a mistake, a child born to a widow. She had only ever wanted to bury that mistake, to exclude it from her life and never be reminded of it again, and she rejected Lisa a second time.

Though disappointed, and fated never to know anything about her natural father, Lisa took things well. She has Bess, whose welcome was heartfelt, and, in the episode’s only relapse into twee, she reasoned that she had found her real mother, Margaret Carruthers.

This was Alley Mills# only appearance. She’d not long since come off a starring role in the unsuccessful but short-lived legal sitcom, The Associates (which I’d almost forgotten and which I’d enjoyed back then) and she would have been ideal for a recurring role, in relation to Rossi. But the show missed the mark on that possibility. Nevertheless, her story was a bright spot in this weak season, and I am grateful to her.

Lou Grant: s04 e11 – Generations


It’s probably time now to admit that season 4 of Lou Grant is not going very well. Whether it’s that the show is merely having a weak season, or whether it’s the case that it has entered terminal decline can only be seen once I’ve completed the re-watch: I’m past the point where the show had disappeared from UK screens.

‘Generations’ was clearly a case of weak writing on a subject that never took shape. This was all about the plight of the elderly in modern society, spread out over three strands. The lead was Charlie Hume’s father, Rupert (Charles Lane), who comes to live with Charlie and Marian after he’s caught shoplifting wallets.

The old man’s not a kleptomaniac, nor is he suffering from something Alzheimeresque, he’s just sharp as a talk (if garrulous and cantakerous) with nothing to do. In the end, he’s sent in to run a potentially successful small business that’s over-committed and facing bankruptcy, and needs a successful trouble-shooter to make it cost-efficient.

The tertiary strand, involving Billie, was Fred Jenkins (Whitman Mayo)  bus driver and also The Florence Jenkins Foundation. Rather than spend his money on his house or himself, Fred makes awards to people who do good things, $100 at a time. He’s unrealistic, but a figure of genuine good, delighting in encouraging good works in memory of his late wife. He even sends an award to Mrs Pynchon for her tree-planting project, which she feels she can’t accept but does so in the face of Jenkins’ obvious and genuine pleasure.

But the other lead is the tragic one, with horrific consequences. This was where there were no comic aspects, and it should have been where the efforts were concentrated, to maximum effect. Lou’s opposite neighbour, the elderly Harvey Shelton (Arthur Space), is being hassled by neighbourhood kids. It’s teasing, pranks, the sort of stuff it’s easy to see as non-malicious, but the problem is that even as we discover it, it’s already reached a level of genuine harrassment. The kids ride their bikes round and round his front garden space, destroy his roses, shout and swoop. It’s already nasty, for all the show tries to pretend it’s mostly high-spiritedness on the kids’ part. And Harvey is vulnerable, a guy in his seventies with a sick wife, who wants nothing more than peace and quiet.

And nobody does anything abut it. It’s reached the level of persecution but the show wants to have its cake and eat it too by having everyone act as if it’s completely innocuous. You can see the story arc from San Francisco.

It starts with the accident: Harvey puts on a spray to water the garden just as some of the kids cycle by, and soaks them. They, of course, see it as deliberate and decide to retaliate, at night, just as Harvey’s learned his sick wife has slipped into a coma. They ride round the house, shouting and screaming, knock things over, break a window, stick a loud transistor through the hole, yell at him. It’s too much for Harvey to bear, he’s overwhelmed and who wouldn’t be at that age, but he has a gun, for protection, and he fires it blindly through the window, to scare them off. But he hits one of the kids, a good kid as represented throughout the episode, and kills him.

And it means very little. It has no impact at all, in part because the show, in demonstrating the escalated behaviour of the kids that drives Harvey to this frightened extreme, has already gone past the point where intervention should and would have taken place, and where the kids’ stupid and vicious behaviour, moivated only by Harvey being a ‘grouch’, robbed at least one viewer of sympathy for the 14 year old life cut short. I don’t like deliberately inflicted terror, especially when practiced against someone elderly: I’m getting to be that way myself.

Incidentally, the role of Mike, the kid who gets killed, was a first television credit for Matthew Broderick, the future Ferris Bueller.

It’s a minor point though I’ll mention it anyway. The appearance of Rupert Hume contradicts the show’s continuity, Charlie having mentioned, two seasons back, that his father was dead at the age of 86: Rupert is 76 and very much alive.

 

Lou Grant: s04 e10 – Boomerang


After last week’s serious and concentrated effort, there was another fallback on Lou Grant, a neatly constructed but somehow blurred effort on a crusading subject that needed to spice itself up with an intertwined theme that stood out just a little bit too much as irrigation of a dry subject.

The episode’s title came over as misleading, given the subject matter, and it was explained only at the end. A more appropriate title would have been ‘dumping’, but whereas we in Britain regard this as a fairly innocuous word, I was surprised to learn, several years ago, that in America it was a direct and immediate connotation with shit.

Our topic for today was the concerning one of American companies producing such things as pesticides, medicines and birth control devices that fail to meet requisite standards, being banned in the USA but then being exported to Third World countries where the danger to people is of far less concern than the recovery of the profit.

Our lead-in was melodramatic, a middle-aged man being rushed into hospital in a Central American country with a close-up on a respirator. The man is the Trib’s veteran foreign affairs correspondent, Hedley Freeman and he dies of a heart attack because the respirator failed. It is a defective product made by an LA company, banned in America.

It was an important story on a socio-liberal scale, and even more so in an age that was only rapidly learning to be cynical, and it rapidly put out tendrils to demonstrate that such behaviour was pretty common, though not universal. There were interviews that showed the companies glossing over their actions by claiming they were serving the greater good, such as combatting overpopulation, some of it coming over as zealous, some of it as self-serving. The American Government was drawn into the cycle, ordering goods it wouldn’t allow to be used on its own people, to ‘assist’ other countries.

But this was a documentary subject that couldn’t afford a human element to exemplify the importance of the topic without either narrowing the focus or minimising the effect, so it was overlaid with an in-house human element in the form of Sydney Kovac, guest star Michael Constantine.

Kovac is a guest columnist, a veteran reporter, a successful book writer and a contemporary of Lou, who isn’t quite as pleased to see him as you might think, which is a sovereign clue that wearen’t meant to treat him as a goody. Kovac likes the dumping story. He practically takes it over, driving it forward, usurping Lou’s prerogative as City Editor and directing a hyper-enthused Rossi and Billie, together with other reporters, in hot pursuit.

Lou doesn’t like it. Some of it is personal: he, not Kovac is the editor, but a lot of it is not having all the tenable facts, and he winds up being sent to Coventry over his insistence his reporters do all their assignments, not just this fun one. Kovac keeps wanting to go with it, now, but Lou demands a proper job.

And a very proper job is done and ready to print. Except that Kovac isn’t just guest columning at the Trib, and he steals the story and gets it into print, with non-credit for Rossi and Billie, before the Trib can. That’s our human drama, confected to make the medicine go down, and it’s just not worthy of it. Kovac turns out to be a slimeball, all ends up, just as he was signalled to be.

As for ‘Boomerang’, it falls to Mrs Pynchon to coin it, unable to drink coffee whose beans, grown overseas, may carry the residue of the deadly pesticides banned in the USA. America dumps its poison on Third World countries and, just like the boomerang, it comes back to the hand, in the form of imports. A cycle, a self-destructive cycle.

With this episode, I’m exactly half way through season 4. It’s clearly a weak season as the past several episodes have shown. I’m way beyond any point I watched to first time round, and the big question is, slump or decline? Either way, I’ve come this far so I’ll continue to the end, which means another 34 weeks, but I suspect that the show has probably passed its peak. I’ll have a conclusion on this in another eight month’s time.

Lou Grant: s04 e09 – Rape


Lynne Moody

With a subject like that, this week’s Lou Grant HAD to be good, and not just good enough. After watching the episode, with a hypercritical mind after the last three failures, I was perhaps too detached but on balance the show managed to end on the right side of the line.

The central character was new reporter Sharon McNeil, played to perfection by Lynne Moody. Sharon’s a confident, intelligent, attractive black woman, working a story alongside Joe Rossi, not merely holding her own but balancing him out nicely, and liking him too. The story, investigating an alleged slush fund run by a fast food burger company, is a vehicle: it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s handled seriously and runs through the episode, and is intelligently used to frame the main story.

Rossi drops Sharon off at her apartment, to get her laundry in and then go on to the paper. She doesn’t get there: she’s attacked in her apartment by a creepy guy armed with a big knife, slapped around the face, her wrists tied together behind her. The intruder is played by Jonathan Banks, a familiar face (he’s already had two previous Lou Grant appearances and I’d see him again in Hill Street Blues). Banks is a specialist in playing villains and creepy bastards, and here he’s on edge from the start, slightly creepy, slightly disfunctional, someone not quite on the same plane as everyone else. He’s there to rob, perhaps he’s an addict, that’s not mentioned but it’s inferable from his slight spaceiness.

Sharon’s terrified but she stays calm, at least on the surface, tries to talk to him, act sensible, persuade him to leave without hurting her. Gradually, there being insufficient things worth robbing, the intruder slides towards rape. Sharon says it first, a subtle point later pixcked up upon by the Police, one of them acting as if that’s a mitigating factor in the intruder’s favour: you see, she put the idea in his head…

This goes on for over half the episode, intercut with things going as normal at the paper. The intruder has Sharon once, then again, with instructions to her to act like she’s enjoying it this time, a sick-making point that further emphasised that rape is not about sex but about power: I’m going to fuck you and not only can you do nothing to stop me but even as you’re hating every second of it, you will pretend to me that you’re loving it…

And when he’s gone, Sharon immediately locks every door, eveey window, and turns on the shower. Then she comes into work and everybody’s chewing her out for being late and not communicating. It takes Rossi, Rossi the self-centred sod, the ego-on-legs, the guy who’s interested in the story and nothing else, but who likes and respects Sharon, to be gentle enough to have her unburden herself to him.

And immediately he is the most immense support of all, gentle, kind, instinctively understanding the boundary between closeness and distance. The writing is sufficiently intelligent to open up about him being in part driven by guilt: he was with her only minutes earlier, he didn’t go inside with her, he knew she was coming in, he didn’t chase up her absence. All of it borrowed guilt, the instinctive impulse, paternalistic and chauvinistic in its way, that if only I’d done something, I could have prevented this.

Yet from Rossi it doesn’t come over as either of these things. It’s the concern of a friend who, yes, was close enough to have diverted it if he’d just done one thing marginally different. But the show had already foreshadowed this: Sharon had said a man was calling for her very shortly and the intruder had just said he would kill him.

The aftermath was handled neatly. Sharon didn’t want to be defined by having been raped, was carrying on as normal, putting it behind her, whilst evidently on the edge of cracking up. Everyone’s sympathy, their walking on eggshells around her, was making it worse.

This was further emphasised by the tertiary story, in which Art Donovan is seeing female tennis player Carol (Linda Carlson). Carol’s being a bit less eager abut going off for a cabin weekend with our in-house lothario, and this turns out to be because she too has been raped. There’s a scene with Mrs Pynchon expressing anger at this epidemic of rapes and the Trib’s inadequate coverage of the problem where she’s shaking in anger and once again we infer a personal element.

Carol though was raped two years ago and still isn’t over it. And once Art knows, he starts treating her differently. She accuses him of seeing her as tainted, but he explains that he’s having to second-guess himself over touching her or holding her because he doesn’t know if he’s helping and comforting or forcing himself on her in a way that disgusts her. Even so, he still falls into the trap of seeming to blame her for ‘asking for it’, which in context – and bearing in mind the diminished sensitivity to rape even now, let alone forty years ago – demonstrated very economically that even the good guys can be fucking thick.

Sharon’s going to snap, it’s just a question of when, and it comes when some middle-aged, smug, mildly creepy executive takes her arm unasked, and she screams at him.

It’s not catharsis, but it is the beginning of the healing. In a powerful scene that could, in lesser hands, have nose-dived into being didactic, Sharon explains what this has done to her, laying bare the fears of every woman, brought up to believe that their sexuality is a delight and a gift, to be shared with those for whom she cares, but now seeing that it, and them, and everything they are or want to be is at the mercy of a man, any man, who decides he will take it and will force it from her. It’s powerful in itself and more so as delivered by Moody, and I find it hard to believe that this was written by a male writer, not a woman.

There is no real end to this story because the programme has too much respect for the subject to suggest it can be wrapped up in 46 minutes. Sharon takes leave of absence to return to her mother in Kansas City and we get a surrogate ending from Carol, suggesting Art take her away for a cabin weekend: another stage in her journey back from what happened to her, and one we hope will be successful.

I think, after thinking about the episode at length, that I should revise my opinion and say that this WAS good. The writing covered an immense amount of ground without ever once seeming impersonal or didactic, and it was plotted with great economy. Everything that needed to be said was said naturally, without anyone hammering you over the head or being preachy, and the performances were pitched perfectly, especially that of Lynne Moody. It may only be once, but she will appear again, in season 5, and I look forward to it.

Lou Grant: s04 e08 – Catch


He’ll be back

Lou Grant‘s fourth season is proving to be a difficult one, this latest episode being the third in a row to have problems. There was a decent, entertaining and personal story in there, but it got lost amid a confusion of purpose and the shackles of a secondary story whose principal note was paranoia (justified paranoia, it seemed) that was entirely uncomplimentary.

The main story started off suggesting the series’ usual approach to societal stories, though its apparent peg was hardly earth-shattering. The tenants of a well-maintained, stylish apartment building are protesting its conversion into a condominium that no-one could afford: dry as dust and far too technical a story, especially for British eyes and ears.

But this is our McGuffin, quickly set-up and pretty much to be abandoned since it’s prpose is to ring together Billie Newman, reporter, and Ted McCovey (Cliff Potts, excellent and friendly), third string baseball catcher.

The way it worked was that Billie’s investigating the company that’s forcning through the condo conversion, being stonewalled, discovering its major investors to be baseball players, three massive stars and Ted, the only one she can approach. And Ted is likeable from the off, an intelligent man with a finely-tuned sense of his real status as a ball-player, someone who’s been in love with the sport all his life, aware he’s got maybe a season left.

Billie, despite all her ignorance of and indifference to, the sport (it’s so slow…) falls for the obviously honest and open-hearted Ted, who’s gotten into the rapidly-receding condo story because his pals cut him in and he trusted them implicitly, because they were his pals. Ted was someone who placed a high value upon friendship and trust: when he retires, an old schoolpal will cut him in as a partner in his appliance store, no contract, just a word of trust.

You couldn’t help but like Ted. Billie certainly did. She tried to back out of the story but did so so half-heartedly, Lou wouldn’t let her. And the expected happened: the story drove a wedge between them, the relationship dead before it was born.

Except that Ted then rang Billie to correct a mistake in her story. As of two minutes ago, he’s no longer a Major League Baseball player, he’s been let go. Ted’s in obvious shock and though Billie immediately goes to see him, she just compounds things, trying to get him to consider another job in baseball. Yes, she’s aware of his love for the game, but Ted’s in shock, he’s set on a clean break, and her well-meaning efforts are only making it worse. One great line that could apply to any sport: ‘for fourteen years they’ve treated me like a child and now they tell me I’m an old man’. Strike two.

There was a nice little touch added. Billie once had a brief affair with Art Donovan, who’s looking at her again with that look in his eyes. Billie tells her troubles to Art, who points out she has plenty of friends out there: he’s the last one she should be unloading herself to.

Then, in a lovely little moment, Ted turns up in the City Room. He wants Billie’s opinion, her approval, which will come pre-loaded, making this a moment of connection, the last hurdle to cross before they become the couple they’re going to be. He’s been offered a job as a scout. The pay’s lousy, the driving’s murderous, he’ll have no time for himself, the chance of coaching might not come for years. And she says it sounds terrific and they kiss.

This is the story that could have made this into a good episode, if it hadn’t been bogged down in the McGuffin that gave the story a blurred feel for so much of its length and was left so conspicuously hanging.

I’ve excluded mention of the B story because it was so conspicuously unsuited to pair with Billie’s romance, but this was Rossi’s story, along with Adam Wilson and a guest appearance from Robert Hirshfield as the Trib’s IT manager, just a year before becoming a regular in Hill Street Blues. Rossi’s paranoid about the paper’s VTU’s (i.e., their word processors/computers). Unreliability, the medical risk, all the things people were concerned about forty years ago, before we let the personal computer in all its myriad forms into our lives and hearts.

It’s paranoia writ large, of a kind that would have been more effective then, but it’s allied to a security issue. Adam loses all his notes on a major story because he’d stored them all in the computer and they vanished. It turns out that a company working for the Trib in respect of their IT is also the holding company for the one about which Adam was writing. Having breached the Trib’s security to get Adam’s access code, they hacked the system and deleted the notes.

So, there you go. It is hard to recapture the atmosphere of 1980, especially when I’ve had a PC or a laptop of my own for nearly thirty years by now, which diffused the strength of the story, if it really had any to begin with. But primarly it was an intrusion into the episode, a contrast too deep to ever cohere, which contributed largely to the eoisode’s inadequacies.

Looking ahead, next week’s episode has a very serious theme, as the title alone will establish. I will be hyper-critical of that if they blow it for a fourth week in succession.