Lou Grant: s03 e22 – Influence


I mentioned only last week that the aproach of the end of a Lou Grant season has me feeling some form of burn-out, especially if I’m watching a didactic episode: shall we take a break befre continuing. And equally regularly, as if it senses my doubts forty years ahead, the series bounces back with a good, strong, personal episode that refreshes the palate and leaves me set on continuing this rewatch uninterrupted.

‘Influence’ was another of those split stories, the two halves essentially unconnected but both a commentary upon the title in differing degrees, and given enough equal measure as to not be an A-and-B story set-up.

The episode featured the series’ most regular guest in a Guest Star role for the first and only time. Allen Williams has been playing the role of Adam Wilson, straight-laced Finance Editor for ages, and appearing in the opeing credits since the start of season 2, but one half of the story is about him.

Adam, clean-cut, Mr suit-and-tie, is an alcoholic. It’s a surprise, at odds with his persona, but isn’t that so often the case? It’s getting to the point where his marriage is breaking down over it, he’s goofing off, he’s letting down his colleagues, messing up his job, and he’s getting other people to cover for him. The story starts when he starts to bring Lou into his personal circle of deceit, helping him avoid consequences that would tip over his carefully constructed system of ling to himself.

Lou plays along for a while. Rossi, who has been through all this with his own Dad, insists on Lou coming round for dinner with his old man, to learn that covering for Adam is the worst he can do. He has to go into tough love, to force Adam to recognise the worst in himself and manouevre him towards rehab.

It’s a neat little story, made all the more effective by happening to a character we know and, generally, like, instead of some invented on the spot guest with whom we have no familiarity, and the effect is doubled by the small degree to which Adam is affected by his condition: he’s a high-functioning drunk, smooth and capable, but still self-deluding.

The only drawback is that this is 1980. How much, if any, of this will feature in future episodes?

The other half of the story was a much higher-level and, in its own way, story of influence, and also corruption. Mrs Pynchon is tremendously flattered to be invited to join ‘The Circle’, a self-appointed group of influential and very rich businessmen engaged on sweeping projects that not only make money but which improve LA’s infrastructure and the wellbeing of its people. Their current project is a second LA airport, to relieve pressure on LAX and create jobs etc.

The Trib’s already covering that project, in the form of new environmental writer Nick Bowyer (James Whitmore Jr). Bowyer, a forerunner of the UK’s George Monbiot, is against the project for its envirmental impact on unspoiled country. He’s pinting out obvious flaws:  the 60 mile distance from LA, the lack of roads, the imposibility of creating satisfactory transport, the surrounding high mountains…

The Circle doesn’t  like the Trib’s coverage. They want Mrs Pynchon in the tent with them, peeing out, and she, who isalready unhappy with Bowyer’s relentless negativism, is only too happy to support her paper rethinking its approach. It’s the same old story of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions: she’s a perfect fit for the Circle, being Patrician as all get out. So much good can be done once she’s inside the tent. She wants Bowyer fired, she wants an ‘objective’ look at all the good this scheme can and will do.

So Billie gets landed with the task of being objectively for this. But Billie is objective: she uncovers the scandal waiting to explode. Yes, the Circle has donated, free, thousands of acres of land to this project, but it’s retained hundreds of thousands of acres that will be invaluable if the airport goes ahead, whilst the free thousands are worthless withut an airport being built in the first place…

And Margaret Pynchon, however Patrician she may be, is to honest and too much the newspaperwoman, wedded to the facts, to go on.

A tale of two influences, one ultimately used to the painful benefit of another, and one withdrawn, for the equivocal benefit of many. After all, LA still needs another airport, and who’s to say that this might not have been what was needed?

So that leaves two more chances before season 3 ends to influence my thinking on a break. Where will we be, three weeks from today? Still in LA, or…

Lou Grant: s03 e20 – Blackout


Looked at as a demonstration of professional tv writing, this episode of Lou Grant was a textbook example worth studying. The episode takes place on the evening of a City-wide power blackout in LA that, amongst the chaos, violence, looting and the thousand and one problems of completing vital work of every kind, the Trib has its own unbroken record of never missing a day in 64 years printing to preserve.

The episode carefully foreshadowed events by showing the paper operating normally on a slow news day. Lightning flashes blare through the windows, there’s a slight earthquake and a pool on its strength, Charlie’s hired away Marcy Lambert, a consumer affairs writer, from the Long Beach Sun, much t the disgust of its editor, his old friend Reggie Washburn. All very low-key and normal.

Rossi’s got a tip that Supervisor Kirby did not attend a Conference in Denver but inastead diverted himself to Aspen with a female aide, on taxpayers’ money. It’s an Election Year and Rossi’s after the Supervisor. Billie, with Animal, is interviewing this guy who’s founded an early version of a Neighbourhood Watch group, with some barely concealed vigilante tendencies. And Art Donovan and Marcy have taken one look at each other and are simultaneously plotting a course towards the first available bedroom.

There’s no real direction to any of this and none of the stories are as yet substantial enough to backbone an issue, but they are all of them McGuffins, to depict a state of normalcy before the power goes out abruptly.

So the Trib goes into disaster-mode. There’s the black-out itself to consider on a macro-level, and everyone’s out running stories down: Police responses, emergency medical centres, grabbing flashlights and candles, looting. It would be easy to let the set-up stories vanish. They’ve done their job, they are the norm, now vanished.

But the episode isn’t going to do that. Kirby’s a major figure throughout, playing a blinder about responding to the crisis, moving heaven and earth to ameliorate its effects with great efficiency, and all while being needled by Rossi abut how this will play up his re-Election prospects. Sure it will, but at the same time it is tremendous stuff to respond to the crisis.

Marcy does chip in but her main role here is to be the fulcrum over the Trib’s printing issue. It’s traditional in times like these for papers to suspend their rivalries and lend out presses, but the only paper outide the blackout who can do this is, naturally, the Long Beach Sun.

But Reggie, after clearing his throat all over Charlie, invites them down. The problem is, are they needed? There’s a promise that power will be restored at 11.45 which would enable the Trib’s press to handle things, whilst the Sun‘s press can’t handle a start-time after 12. midnight. Wherever there’s a narrow decision window there’s going to be a decision to make.

Rossi ends up meeting Billie’s proud vigilante who we realised was itching to shoot the gun he’s not supposed to be carrying. He’s got a gunshot wound in the calf, from a ‘shoot-out’ with a would-be burglar: a wound in the back of the calf at a downwards trajectory with powder-burns on the pants leg, and how did you get that, Mr hot-shot?

Everything in the set-up is mixed seamlessly into the unrelated  main story. and that narrow window? The Trib’s been keeping a line open to the Sun, as their switchboard is jammed, until an extra puts the phone down at the very wrong moment. No-one can get through to authorise running the press at the Sun. Marcy fulfills her role by getting through on a non-Switchboard private line to Reggie’s office. But Donovan has had to make the crucial call for himself: they’re already rolling.

The publishing record is preserved but Rossi’s story about Kirby is lost completely due to space reasons. Karma balances out Charlie’s hiring of Marcy when Reggie hires away Walker from the Trib. And the lights come on and everyone starts to adjust to being normal.

A very well constructed episode. Not as emotionally visceral or affecting as a Person of Interest, but a good, high quality demonstration of the art of single-episode series writing forty years ago. They had it in those days too.

Lou Grant: s03 e19 – Lou


Regina and Lou

From the episode’s title, and the opening sequence, where Lou wakes up at 5.51am, reads his Trib and immediately phones the night desk about mangling a story, to the accompaniment of a slow, bluesy, solo saxaphone soundtrack, I thought I had this episode figured: a slice of life performance, a-day-in-(Lou’s)-life, with minimal formal plot.

Of course I wasn’t fully correct. That aspect certainly wasn’t kept to the background, but it was married to a larger concern, being Lou’s struggles with overwork and burnout, and the effect upon both the City Editor personally, and the newsroom in consequence.

It was a particularly concentrated performance by Asner, who is never less than excellent any week but here produced a determinedly aggressive display as a man who has sunk so deeply into his role, who has allowed the job to become the whole of his life, and who is juggling too many balls with a determination to be on top of everything.

This got reflected in the variety of stories Lou was involved in: the decision to ignore protests about a train carrying nuclear waste through a residential area, taking Rossi off his current story to cover what became a non-event, sending Billie to a) research the facts of an item of Jack Town’s column that is incorrect and b) sending her on a ‘cute’ story about a whistling grandmother, dealing with Regina Kelly (Elta Blake), a pretty, young reporter in Metro who wants to follow in Billie’s footsteps, ejecting a reporter for a plagiarised story in cruel manner, agreeing the cropping of one of Animal’s photos that completely reverses it’s meaning, and risking 35,000 readers by challenging Town’s work.

That’s a particularly dense mixture of stories for one episode, though the episode is almost entirely studio bound (the only non-Trib sets being Lou’s bedroom and McKenna’s bar, stock sets: in Deep Space Nine this would have been called a bottle story). The point though is not the stories but the bull-at-a-gate, I’m-in-charge attitude Lou takes to each one. He’s our filter, and Asner’s intensity, coupled with the judiciously limited level of voice-raising even at his angriest, put over the stress of both the demands of the job and the higher demands Lou placed on himself.

Of course, the perennial problem with stories of this nature is how to end them. I’m put in mind of the last episode of Homicide: Life on the Street‘s fifth season, the increasing intensity of Frank Pembleton’s approach the overwhelming stress that burst out in a stroke.

But that was a deliberately focussed decision in a serialised series, and this is a decades old prime time episodic series, so no permanent damage can be done. Cannily, the episode uses the concerns of the rest of the cast to lower the tension. Billie tells Lou that putting Sam Huntington’s personal effects outside the newsroom and when he replies that’s what he is, she simply and quietly tells him, no, he’s not. It’s a gentle but effective lap in the face, bringing Lou up short and starting him questioning his behaviour (not out loud but in his deliberate effort to change his approach. Sam is still sacked for his plagiarism, but it is done respectfully.

And Charlie, harking back to the near breakdown of his marriage to Marion earlier this year/season, foregoes his usually easy-going approach and instructs Lou to return with vacation plans tomorrow.

The easing-out process brings Regina back briefly. She’s a long way frm any possible readiness for the newsroom but she likes Lou and wants to start a relationship with him. She’s not bothered about the difference in their ages (she’s 24) but he is. The symbol of this is Lou’s memories of Bannister and Landy – doubled up on by Billie and Rossi sharing that knowledge – but Regina has never heard of them. He hasn’t got the energy to be a mentor on top of being a ‘boyfriend’.

The closing scene completes the mellow-out. Billie insists Lou leave wokj to join her in a rack of lamb and Lou, who has just had a fight with Rossi over asking him to re-write a piece he’s taken two days over making really good only for Lou to demand an unnecessary rewrite from a radically different perspective, tells rossi the story can wait and ropes him in to join them. Do they remember Bannister and Landy? (And if you don’t, you’re too young for me too).

It all made for a change-of-pace story that negotiated the issue of it not changing the series’ dynamics in as good a fashion as was possible. one of the best episodes of season three, without a doubt

Lou Grant: s03 e18 – Censored


Lasagne with American cheese

It began with a burning and it ended with a burning. At first it was just books, but by the end it included album covers, magazines and even television sets. It was creepy, because bok-burnings are always creepy, because they’re about trying to stop ideas existing and especially about keeping the young from finding out anything that doesn’t replicate their perents’ beliefs, that might change them out of being mindless, ignorant copies of their parents. How is it good parenting, true parenting, true love for a boy or a girl you have created to want them to be less than they can possibly be?

There were two censorship stories in this episide of Lou Grant but one was lightweuight and comic, aptly so because it involved Charlie Hume refusing to run a satirical cartoon strip that accused a California Senator of being in Arab politics, the fuss it caused, the Senator’s refusal, to take legal action and the cartoonist suing the Trib for breach of contract for failing to publish. That”s still censorship, but it’s the very thin end of the wedge.

The thick end is Altamira, where the book-burning(s) are takiing place. Rossi went out there to investigate, armed with an introduction to Mitchell Webster (Richard Dysart, later of LA Law), editor of the local newspaper and an old buddy of Lou. Webster had changed though. It was obvious from the outset, his overplayed avuncularity, his Altamira-is-a-nice-town-full-of-nice-people schtick.

But a very popular, very enthusiastic, very thought-provoking teacher Marilyn Keefer (Laurie Heineman) had been fired for refusing to drop books that are part of the National Curriculum, books with ‘radical’ ideas, asnd wound up working in a cowboy bar in a bare mid-riff fringed top and probably the shortest skirt in the entire run (so short we weren’t allowed more than tjhe briefest glimpse of the approximate position of its hem). She filled in Rossi on the Paul Revere Society, a self-appointed groupn of concerned citizens, out to drive ‘progressive’ ideas out alongside the ‘filth’.

There was also Irene Teal (Karen Ingenthron), the Librarian who brought her daughter here after her divorce, to live in a quiet, peaceful, nice town, who has to deal with famous and classic books being removed from the shelves, who has to accept borrowers editing The Catcher in the Rye by cutting out lines they don’t like with scissors, turning pages into doilies, who goes to dinner with Rossi in a place that makes lasagne with American cheese because she’s afraid for her job if she’s seen talking to him.

There’s the owner of the motel where Rossi’s staying, who takes out the televisipn to burn it, and bans it at home, because a popular character in a popular sitcom mentions being on the Pill.

Webster, an aptly chosen name is the spider in the centre, lying stories, slanted stories, praising the Paul Revere Society before they’d even formed, running their PO Box, creating, not reporting the news. And why? His son Jim, a Vietnam vet, died in 1969. not from the war, but from getting mixed up with drugs when he got back to LA (the episode was rigidly silent on the possibility that Jim Webster got hooked on drugs in Vietnam as a response to such a shitty war because if it hadn’t been you would never have seen this episode). Webster was out to stop the corruption spreading.

He was a fightened and confused man. They were all frightened and confused men and women, well-meaning and, in a way that would get the episode on the air, they were immocent. They wanted the best for their children and their neighbours.

And what made this episode horrible to bear was they we are their future. this episode was broadcast in January 1980. Before the year was out, Ronald Reagan would be elected President on a rising tide of fear, selfishness and conservatism (for what else is conservatism but the denand that you should do only what I allow?) This was a warning of what has become Trump and Johnson, with no end in sight, only we missed all the signs. We thought they had good intentions. We thought that they were just misguided.

But they burnt books out of fear of what was in them. The people who do that cannot ever be trusted to leave you alone. And too many still can’t see that.

Lou Grant: s03 e15 – Indians


After a long series of episodes that have focussed on human beings as being in situations, this week’s Lou Grant reverted to its didactic roots by presenting a situation about which to show well-meaning liberal concern in which the humans involved were only tokens through which the subject was displayed. It didn’t work. It was well-meaning, and earnest and failed to make any connections.

As the episode title makes plain, the subject was the American Indians and their place in American life and culture in 1980. The Indians occupied a different culture, imperatives that were at odds with the overwhelming Anglo culture. Four tales were told to illustrate different aspects of this.

Raymond White (David Yanez) was a twelve-year old boy, a Papago Indian from Arizona who’d run away from a North California boarding school to find his Uncle, Howard Sweetman (Ned Romero), who was having difficulty getting a job because his cultural heritage, including attitudes to time and honour just didn’t mesh with basic Anglo business creeds. Howard got fired for leaving his job to help Billie Newman change a flat tire. He wasn’t doing a good job of sorting out his nephew’s schooling once animal had reunited them, but was better served by appplying to a business run by a Sioux Indian, who understood him.

Billie went on to Indian School, teaching children within their own understanding. Theresa Davies (Julie Carmen) was smart, beautiful, westernised, happy to help Billie and Lou understand, but her husband Gordon (Ray Tracey) was much more wedded to the Indian tradition of masculinised company. This was strong, warming, cooperative, but he was out every night, with no time  for Theresa.

Eventually, she ‘divorced’ him by placing all his clothing outside the ‘hogan’, or rather their apartment, just to try to get his attention. he reacted angrily to that but the episode ended at a Powwow, a cultural signifier that Gordon didn’t normally attend but did so, as an indication that he wanted to try to bridge  their differences.

The fourth story was openly lecturing, aa ddelegation of Indian activists attending on Lou and Charlie to get over some little known facts to the audience without any pretence of doing otherwise than editorialise to our faces. Not good drama.

All worthy social arguments and no convincing storytelling. A throwback episode and a disappointing one. Must do better next week.

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.