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.