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.