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: s02 e19 – Home

The watchword for this blog is ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’, which means that an episode-by-episode blog of a tv series has to go on, even if I’m not really enjoying it as much as I would like. Only extreme cases (remember Fortitude? I wish I didn’t) justify dropping it.

I used to love Lou Grant. It was a staple of the week’s viewing forty years ago, and my memories  of it are all fond. I still like the cast and their interplay, their intensity and integrity sitting alongside their plain human sensibilities. And the show’s virtues and passions aligned with mine, and I’ve not changed that much in the decades that have passed.

Perhaps its because of my age, ironically, that episodes like this one leave me cold ad, worst of all, bored. This is another of the crusading episodes, the exposure of a disturbing situation, alerting its audience to the injustices in society, whilst contriving a happy ending: two of them, in fact.

The theme was the aged in Society, care of the elderly. I’m not disparaging that, it’s clearly an important topic, in fact it’s Worthy within the show’s parameters. Unfortunately, this is another case where the approach is overly didactic. You could have replaced every member of the cast with someone else and the episode would have been the same, and that’s a problem.

The episode started melodramatically as a man wheels an elderly lady in a wheelchair, who’s obviously confused and frightened, into an office. He, John Bertram, owns a Home, she’s one of his patients, the Government hasn’t paid for her for six months and she’s now their problem.

That’s the cue for the Trib’s investigation of Homes in general and Bertram’s in particular. Billie goes undercover as an aide to see how horrific and uncaring the standard of care is. Bertram’s clearly only in it for the money, and out to maximise profits by minimising standards, though the show undermines itself by establishing twice that Bertram could get his money for Mrs Ford if he filled in certain forms: it was a major, logical inconsistency that was yet more lazy scripting, wanting the shock effect of the stark opening that should never have been happening.

At the same time, Lou’s morning jog in the park sees him palling up with Fred Horton (Jack Gilford), an active retiree, humourous, lively, optimistic, whose continually looking for a job in the face of  society that’s pushed him out. Fred’s a product of an age when the good guys worked and the ones that didn’t were bums: pychologically, he cannot shift his thoughts away from thinking he’s become a bum.

The problem with this episode, like others, is that the story can’t develop organically from the people: they are cyphers in the face of a series of moments that drop seamlessly into place, not with the remorseless inevitability of human existence but with the remorseless inevitability of a cheap script, hitting its numbers. Of course Mrs Ford dies from the shock of being used. Of course the Doctor doesn’t give a damn about Mrs Keaton’s serious pain at night.

And, of course, Lou finds a job for Fred as a surrogate grandad supervising kids in a playground, and of course Billie finds away for Mrs Keaton’s hassled daughter to give her mother a better standard of life, between Daycare in the day and Home care in the evenings. And equally of course, Bertram gets hit with multiple charges from the D.A.

All’s well that ends well.

I still like the series, but my enthusiasm is being severely drained by episodes like this. There are five episodes left in season 2 and I’m currently contemplating taking a break, if I can find something suitable to do on Thursday mornings. Just for a change of pace. We’ll see.

Lou Grant: s02 e12 – Denial

Given the one-word titles this series goes in for, the first thing I do with each new episode is to look for where the theme’s going to come from. As it happened, the episode presented us with two contrasting examples, with completely different meanings.

The main, or A story, was slow in developing its implications. Lou’s middle daughter Ellen (Ann Sweeney) is in town with his grandson Nick and staying with him. Ellen’s the quiet one, never gave him any problems, none of them did. There’s a quiet, almost reserved relationship between them, though that’s mostly Ellen, who’s very reserved, casually dropping on Lou that she and her husband Burt are separating. Why that is is reserved for the big revelation.

But before that lines up, the episode is actually going bigger on Rossi’s angle, the B story. He’s smelling a story about a new construction site, a new Courthouse, being built by the highest bidder, who’s also the fastest bidder, thanks to some new, miracle secret ingredient that makes cement dry faster without being weaker.

Rossi knows there’s something there. He’s getting the runaround, convincing him there’s a cover up. Lou doesn’t want to know. Rossi isn’t doing his assigned story and Lou chews him out over it, killing the construction story. A disgruntled Rossi says just enough to Kevin Marshall of the LA Times to put Marshall on the right trail and get the story.

But Lou’s blocked the story because his mind is on other things. Ellen has brought Nick to LA to find a specialist who can cure him: the boy is going deaf. It cannot be reversed. Ellen refuses to believe that. She’s going to fight to make her boy normal. She’s separating from Burt because he will accept it and try to manage Nick’s condition. Ellen’s denial of the inevitable, with all the love in the world, will only harm her son. Lou’s preoccupation with this leads him to shut Rossi down: he’s in a form of denial as well.

The episode went large on exploring how deaf children are helped to communicate with the world, and eventually Ellen capitulated to reality and began to respond to Burt’s tentative efforts to rebuild their relationship. Nick, it was implied, would start to lose his fears and anger once he began to understand what was happening, and that he wasn’t a frustration or disappointment (Ellen’s fight was to enable Nick to be normal, which is admirable but is also a way of teling the boy that he asn’t normal at all).

As for Rossi, his rreportorial instinccts were justified. Scaffolding collapsed at the construction site, six men injured more missing. Charlie Hulme sees only that a Trib reporter gave a story to another paper: that’s it, he’s out. The iron rule. Only when Lou takes the blame himself, and asks as a personal favour will Charlie agree to allow Rossi another chance. Typically, Lou shifts the credit onto Charlie for saving Rossi’s ass.

As episodes go this was neat and enjoyable if a bit undramatic, but that came from the undramatic Ellen: it could have done with a little bit more juicing up. But it was a nice change of pace to get a more personal story for once.

Lou Grant: s02 e11 – Conflict

It wasn’t immediately easy to see where the conflict of the title was coming from as this latest episode of Lou Grant seemed to be going in at least four directions all at once. There was Billie’s effort to start a campaign against having the trees in her street cut down to enable road-widening, Mrs  Pynchon wanting to have an in-house staff member reporting on the paper’s faults and failings, Lou’s friendship wth the basketball team owner denying he’s moving the Stars from LA to San Jose, Lou starting an invstigation into the chief fundraiser of Mrs Pynchon’s personal charity and Marion Hulme loving her new paid job assisting a local politician. Where’s the focus in that?

Eventually, as I should have foreseen, everything coalesced around the Trib’s new ‘Watchdog’, with all the other elements of the story feeding into that in their individual way. Whoever got the Watchdog role would end up having no friends left, so Lou cynially chose the guy who had none to begin with, Joe Rossi.

This was so much a mistake. Rossi seized upon the opportunity to bombard everyone with criticisms. In essence, he was trying to remake every writer and editor on the Trib in his own image, without the least understanding  of what he was doing.

Worse still, Mrs Pynchon was invested enough to promise him a column opposite Editorial, with a free hand, to publish all his criticisms in front of the readers. This was the episode’s only major goof, bending character logic to the arc of the story. Where Rossi, a genuinely good reporter, would track down everything that needed to be known to produce a balanced story, Rossi the watchdog abandoned any effort at enquiry to produce surface-based, impressionistic stories without the context in which they existed, without even asking those attackedfor their side of the story. The Managing Editor whose wife is paid to work for a politician (Charlie). The Editor who’s sitting on a story for a friend (Lou). The reporter who’s using her paper to exercise political clout (Billie). The finance editor with an extensive stock portfolio (Adam Wilson, recurring character, who has one share only in each company to assist his reporting by getting access as a shareholder that a reporter won’t have).

It all looks rife with conflict, but Rossi’s cartoon fire-stoking overlooks every single real-life aspect of it, and brings the paper’s fury down on his head (there is a pool on when he’ll get punched out, who’ll do it and how serious the injury will be: good odds to be had on Billie but Lou’s already taken).

On the other side of the coin, the issue is approached with a little more seriousness in two areas. Lou has to confess that Rossi was right in his instance: his friend did lie to him and play him and Lou fell for it: the Stars are going to San Jose. And whilst Mrs Pynchon is absolutely furious at Lou for going after the charity her father started, for crippling its efforts and depriving its recipients of aid, she has to acknowledge that the story was true and appropriate, and that by going behind her back, Lou has avoided putting her in conflict.

In a way, the most powerful moment of the story, in a low-key but painful closer, related to Charlie and Marion. Marion’s been a wife and mother all her life, a typical woman of her era, adjusting herself to her husband and her children. She started volunteering, and her job is no more than a formal recognition of her role, and the thrill and self-respect of a wage-cheque each week, however small it is. Her joy in what she’s doing, her sense of a self that’s owned by her only, is palpable. When she’s told she has to quit, she refuses.

Charlie is put in an invidious position. Mrs Pynchon makes it clear the situation cannot continue: if Marion will not leave her job, then Charlie will have to leave his. The closer features an angry Charlie, internalising things in bitter, ironic, self-condemnatory terms, and Marion explaing the importance to her of what she does after decades of self-abnegation… but agreeing to quit, because she loves Charlie (and he her), but she’s going to get another job.

It was impressively written, and even better performed by Mason Adams and Peggy McCay, indicating their personal commitment to each other. Yes, it still ended up with the little woman giving way and going back to the home, in the short term at least, which was only to beexpected in 1978, though that doesn’t relieve it from criticism. And personal is not the same as important, as Terry Pratchett once put in the voice of Captain Carrot.

The personal element was also used to blur the episode’s other main flaw, which was that it didn’t have an ending to the watchdog tale. Rossi goes back into reporting, and for the detached man who has no conflict whatsoever there is the exquisite revenge of being given multiple membership of everything you could get membership for, short of the Ku Klux Klan (the Shaun Cassidy Fan Club ran that close though). But the Watchdog idea was now dead. It had been used to illustrate a point, and could now lapse without actually being killed. Only the critical, week-by-week blogger would be so ungentlemany as to notice.

Lou Grant: s02 e08 – Slaughter

At first glance, this episode title is worrying. What kind of story are we sitting down to watch? A bloodbath, in Lou Grant? I think we know that’s not going to happen, not on this show, and whilst the title’s not misleading, the slaughter is the threat and it’s all about the prevention of it. And the subject of this potential slaughter is cattle.

For the first time since he’s joined the Trib, Lou’s going on vacation, upstate to Randolph County, staying with his and Charlie’s old and fearsome editor, Chip Murphy, the guy who trained them both (and who nearly drove both of them out of the profession). Straightway we know what to expect, and guest star Stephen Elliott gives us everything in the crusty (but laid-back) old curmudgeon line.

I was anticipating the old cliche where Lou arrives to find his buddy dead of a seeming accident and takes up his final story that’s upsetting powerful interests, but there are no powerful interests here, only personal ones, a small-town, cattle-ranching county hit by a mysterious epidemic that’s not only killing cows but seems to be crossing over into humans too, with symptoms such as memory loss and, among women, hair-loss.

Lou’s initially kept out of things by Chip, who’s been sitting on the story for weeks, but once he’s started his big city reporter blundering around, reporting back to the Trib, things start to teeter in the balance. No-one wants to admit there’s a problem. The County Commissioners have given the cattle a clean bill of health. Once a story breaks about a mystery disease, everyone will panic, slaughter all their cattle, ship it out, and it’ll get into the food-chain across the nation, not just California.

In the end, the resources of the Trib identify the issue as being contamination of the cattle-feed by anti-freeze. Chip gets a quarantine ordered on the county’s cattle. A lot of people, a lot of farmers will get hurt. It’s a question of the greater good and the lesser evil, and there’s no disputing that the right choice is made, but Chip lives amongst these people and knows them. It’s his hurt as well.

There’s also a silly B-story, presumably added to fill out run-time, about Donovan as Acting-City Editor, falling for a crank and sending Billie and Animal 200 miles to a summit meeting that turns out to be a UFO (or ETI) nut’s fantasy of contact with aliens instead (ETI is Extra Terrestrial Intelligence: we learn something new every day). Billie’s not best pleased and Donovan’s ultra-apologetic, though he disarms her by pointing out that if the landing had been real, she’d have been thanking him for putting her in the right spot…

Overall, the the change of pace was a nice variation, the episode itself wasn’t really that involving. We seem to be going through a lull at present in season 2. I hope things will pick up soon, though from the mini-synopsis of next week…

Lou Grant: s02 e06 – Dying

Geraldine Fitzgerald

I thought I had this episode sussed, thought I knew what it was about, and that it was a characteristic, issue-oriented episode of Lou Grant, but after some gently wool-pulling, it became just a story, one with an emotional undertone that caught me where some things are still raw.

The beginning set itself up very neatly. An elderly woman in a nursing argued furiously with the nurses over their refusal to give a painkilling shot to a man we never saw, a man in extreme pain whose shot wasn’t due for another two hours. Knowing the series as we do, this telegraphs an episode focussing on nursing homes and the way the elderly are treated. That the complaining woman was a Mrs Donovan, as in Peggy, mother of Art Donovan, was a clever hook to get the paper attracted.

That wasn’t the case at all. Geraldine Fitzgerald guested as Peggy Donovan, and hers was the performance that strung the story together and she was quite wonderful, but the story gave Jack Bannon, as Art, a rare opportunity to play a central role, insread of the usually wise-cracking supporting character he plays.

Because Peggy is ill, seriously ill, with leukaemia, but Art is blocking. He can’t see her sickness or her pain, only that, in his eyes only, that she is getting better every day: stronger, brighter, nearer going home. Art’s fighting off her death, in a way that at least one character in the story finds admirable and the only stance that can be taken. But he’s also fighting off reality, and refusing to talk or listen to anyone who in any way expresss doubts. He can’t handle the reality and is thrusting it from himself as far and as hard as he can, and he’s being a total shitbag to everyone around him whilst he’s doing it (there’s a wonderful scene where Art starts arguing with Rossi over a piece he’s filed, which rapidly escalates to a public shouting match: Lou, Billie and Charlie retreat to Lou’s office, shut the door behind them and discuss their concerns for Art, whilst the row goes on outside, Bannon and Robert Walden going hell-for-leather outside but still audible).

What made the episode was that the obvious concerns the likes of Billie and Lou have for her finally gives Peggy the strength to put her foot down, to say enough, and to allow her to go home to literally die in acceptance and peace. It gives Art the chance to adjust to what he so desperately wants not to happen, and it gives him and his mother the chance to talk over a final month. When he returns to work, it is to explain that his mother passed away on Tuesday, and he is calm and collected.

Though the story wasn’t entirely free pf polemic was only to be expected, but its essence was Peggy’s journey to a death that was on her terms and Art’s understanding of the importance of that, to himself as much as her. It was a story that struck me personally for almost thirty years ago I went through final months with my own mother, and there werethings that, because of the situation, did not get said nor could be said, and it has taken me almost all that night to accept the gap that left, that in a fiction designed to wrap up in 45 minutes can be closed without effort.

I didn’t remember a thing of this episode from before, nor would I have had reason to do so, having a living mother. Some fictions can only affect you deeply if you have the knowledge and understanding to stand inside them, and what I lacked then I have now, and it moved me deeply. I shall not forget this episode twice.

Lou Grant: s01 e13 – Christmas

No need for any context to this week’s episode, which spent its time on a multi-strand tale with each of its elements combining together to give us a picture of Xmas in LA that was both sentimental and knowing (as opposed to cynical) at the same time.

The episode began in a heat haze over the freeway, three solid lines of traffic in each direction, and a motorcycle cop pulling up alongside what looked like a stranded broken-down car, but which, on further inspection, turned out to belong to a family of five – mother Emily (Verna Bloom) and four kids – living in a tent.

Cue one seemingly obvious dose of heavy sentiment, especially at Xmas, as the story goes to Billie, and into the hearts of Trib readers, yea even unto to the tune of $9,000 of donations by readers, and that was just the first day’s mail.

There’s a parallel story involving Joe Rossi. He’s dropped himself in it by heavily damaging a politician on the make by quoting detailed, accurate and deeply cynical quotes from an interview. Rossi’s proud of himself, of his total recall and his little tape machine. Unfortunately, Rossi’s total recall has not extended to the words ‘off the record’ spoken directly before this damaging declaration. It’s an egregious breach of journalistic ethics (no comments, please) which gets him in dead schtuck. Lou’s going to very carefully choose his next assignment, which is to interview Assistant Commissioner of Transport Malcolm Findlay (Tim O’Connor)  on the 25th Anniversaryof holding his post.

Trust Rossi to tactlessly explain that he’s only speaking to Findlay because his boss is punihing, but trust Rossi also to stumble upon a genuine story. Findlay is suspiciously, indeed paranoically reluctant to have his wife Kate interviewed for the piece, going so far as to rip Animal’s film out of his camera. Findlay splits his time between LA and Sacramento, and guess what, when Rossi follows him to the latter, he finds the Commissioner being greeted by his wife, Alma.

So we have a nice little bigamy story here, not to mention the chance for the arrogant Rossi to rub Lou’s face in it when he comes back with a juicy story from a punishment assignment.  Findlay’s unresisting, takes the blame, is concerned most of all with the damage this will do – damage he blames on himself, not Rossi – to two women that he genuinely loves. But a story’s a story.

Both these stories are taking place against the background of Xmas. One’s sentimental, one’s cynical, and both are sharpened by the season when they’re occuring. It’s also Lou Grant’s first Xmas in LA, in California, where it not only never rains but the heat never dies down. It doesn’t look or feel the least like Xmas, and no-one seems to be paying it any real attention.

Lou wants a real Xmas. He really wants it to be white (Lou: in Minneapolis we had White Xmases, Charlie: in Minneapolis we had White Easters) but it’s 80 degrees on a cool day, but most of all he wants a Trib Xmas Eve party, because Lou doesn’t have anyone to Xmas Day with.

Now everything starts to shift base. Emily shows rampant irresponsibility with money, buys the kids extravagant things instead of providing a stable future, and bursts into disarming tears when Lou has a go at her for it. But worse is to come. Mrs Pynchon is one of a number of ladies across America who own newspapers (the name Katherine Graham, of the Washington Post, is dropped). They form a rather exclusive club, who compare notes. Such as the story, only the previous month, in an Omaha paper, about an indigent family, a mother with four children, living in a tent, to whom that paper’s sentimental readers contributed $5,000…

It’s a wonderful inversion. And Emily’s open about it. It’s not a consciously criminal con, it’s just the way they live, they don’t know any other way. Of course, they can’t do this indefinitely, but then there are 1500 – 1600 papers in America: God bless the Press!

Lou’s soft-hearted: he won’t break the truth to Billie until after Xmas. Donovan can tell her about Santa Clause.

To the doubly invert things, Rossi’s at the Xmas Party in body but not in spirit. He’s writing Findlay’s story. You can practically see the steam pouring out of his ears. He’s hiding his copy from Billie when she brings over a drink, he’s working. Of course he is, he’s keeping up his image, she gently chides him. She pours his drink into her glass, but, still teasing him about how one day a year she gets to treat him as a human being, she wishes him Merry Xmas.

And the sentiment comes where the sentiment is unexpected, for Rossi, against his better judgement, tears up his story about Findlay and files a boring one, with an apology for not getting anything better. Lesson learned, not the lesson Lou inttended, but the City Editor thinks he’s proved his point and readmits Rossi to the fold. After all, it’s Xmas…

I really enjoyed this. The triple strands were very naturally integrated, the dialogue was beautifully neat, and funny in the way that people are funny with each other, and every element was naturalistically combined, with even the digressions that set up punchlines feeling comfortable.

Of course, this was episode 13. I don’t know if the 13 episode plus option system was in operation that far back, but then Lou Grant was episode television, with no serial aspect. It meeded no finale because any episode could be a last one, with no loose ends fluttering. Eventually, it ran for five full seasons, for which I am very grateful, both then and now.