Lou Grant: s03 e07 – Gambling


Gambling only pays when you’re winning

All the Lou Grant episode titles are one-worders, though they are often somewhat oblique in their reference to the subject of the episode. ‘Gambling’ is flat and prosaic, and so, unfortunately, was the episode.

That starting point is the Turner-Landis Proposition, a California State Government proposal to legalise gambling, not merely in the form of betting on the horses, but also casinos, the proceeds of the tax to go to Education. Ok, decent topic, lot of meat in there (though as there seemed to already be a well-established betting industry, including the Trib’s ‘in-house’ bookie, for playing sports, there was a subtlety to the question that, not being an American in 1979, I’m completely missing).

What crippled the episode from the beginning was its refusal to take a stance. It should have been a straightforward Gambling is Bad to have a moral centre (Gambling is Good, or Gambling is Neither One Thing Nor Another doesn’t make for a story). Instead, it thoroughly confused the issue by splitting the episode between Mort Farber and Mac McIvor.

Mort was the story’s gem. An elderly man, played by Charles Lane, a lifelong track follower who spent every day of his life studying horses, their trainers, owners and vets, Mort is the expert of experts. He’s also gruff, irascible and completely unconcerned about whatever other people think. He’s befriended by Lou after he gets into Lou’s car to snatch a ride towards the racetrack, not only as an expert on the gambling question, but as a guy you just had to like.

And you liked Mort. He had devoted himself to one area of study, he was eccentric but clued-up and whilst you had to admit he was an addict, he was an addict who was in control, who would not bet for the sake of betting, but only on his own, highly accurate perceptions.

At the end, bedridden with near-pneumonia, Mort gets Lou to place a total of $1,500 at his direction on the unfancied Vespi, a 40-1 shot, who goes on to win. Only afterwards does Mort reveal the scam he’d recognised; Vespi was a different horse, a worldbeater, running under the wrong name.

Yes, Mort was smart, he was memorable and he was a winner, so any anti-gambling viewpoint was down in flames. Nevertheless, that’s what the show tried to dom, and spectacularly failed at, with Mac.

Mac, played by Michael Shannon, is a financial reporter at the Trib. More importantly, he’s holding hands with Billie Newman. Mac comes from a rich family, though in his case the spigot has been turned off. He’s the gambler with the problem, the opposite of Mort, because Mac loses. What happens to people who lose more than they have to pay was hinted at but in vague terms that left the audience filling in a pretty substantial gap.

So Mac goes and borrows $2,000 from Billie, on a sob-story about his mother needing money for an urgent operation. She’s not certain about it until Rossi advises her not to and then she hands him a cheque (sigh: complete silliness). Then Charlie inadvertently lets slip about Mac’s family, Billie feels let down and, even though Mac repayshalf the loan dead on time, she breaks up with him and is sad, and so are we because the ‘twist’  in this tale makes gambling look bad because it’s made poor, sweet Billie nearly cry, instead of something a lot more solid.

Cue closing ‘ironic’ gag. Animal has no interest in gambling, completely lacks the urge, is utterly confused by it, but now he’s bet on to football teams and won $25, and is going to invest half his winnings on another two games: “This is fun,” he twees whilst Lou and Billie share ironic looks and the bell goes to end this formless mish-mash.

Lack of conviction dogs the entire episode. Where is that immaculate liberal stance? A bit of polemic was what was missing and the result is dullness. Try again next week.

Lou Grant: s03 e06 – Hype


For once, here was an episode of Lou Grant that simply did not work for me on any level.

Oh, the good intentions were there, but they failed to make theemselves clear enough for the story to have a focus, and in picking Harold Gould to play the chief guest star role, that of Dr George Duncan, head of securing funding at LAU (the University), the show boobed and boobed badly. Gould was good in the part, commanding of appearance, immaculately turned out, full of energy and commitment, but both then and now, and especially then, he was identified with the part of Martin Morgenstern, father of Rhoda in the massively successful sitcom of the same name which was the first spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Gould was indelibly identified with the good guys, but the role needed a more equivocal figure, especially as Dr Duncan was supposed to represent the issue the show was tackling. Which was University funding.

The rather shapeless and decidedly underwhelming story was about LAU research scientist Dr Dan Todson (an altogether too vague and formless performance by David Huffman). Todson was involved in arthritis reasearch, which mainly seemed to consist of picking up a bunch of identikit white rabbits by the scruff of the neck and putting them down again. Dan was convinced he was on the edge of a breakthrough if only he was given time, but so far he’d been unable to duplicate his successful experiment. Under pressure from Duncan to produce, overtired and stressed, Dan switched tags on two rabbits to ‘prove’ his theory.

It was a dumb move, unethical, illegal and devastating to the reputations of both Dan and LAU, not to mention Dr Duncan, but most of all it was dumb because it was so easy to uncover. And when it came out it was disastrous, not least for Dan, who was genuinely intelligent, and dedicated,  and who had not only killed his own career, but who had seen to it that his research would never be taken up again, potentially costing millions freedom from arthritic pain.

The point of the story was to expose how the pure, independent research of Universities, Halls of Knowledge, seekers of truth, had been perverted by funding, from businesses, that produced outcomes supporting the interests of the funders and, more insidiously, restricting research only to those ‘commercial’ ideas. This latter point was brought out by Joe Rossi near the end in a story about Copernicus, which fell flat because at no point could the episode engage you in the people and the effects, nor could it even make clear what it was all about in the first place.

A rare complete failure, made emphatic by the flimsy B story, a feather-light portrayal of Mike, volunteer test subject at $3 an hour, wasting his life away much to the chagrin of Lou. Mike was a lazy drone and Craig Wasson portrayed him as happy-go-lucky, unconcerned and, well, happy. He neither toiled nor did he spin, in fact he offended the entire Protestant Work Ethic, but you would have waited a long time before you  found him anything more than just dull.

Lou Grant: s03 e05 – Frame-Up


Slimeball

Though there was a certain degree of satisfaction in the conclusion to this story, overall this was a very nondescript affair that dispensed with having a point to it for over half its length. The story was a Billie Newman solo to all intents and purposes, or almost a two-hander with Stephen McHattie as Curtis Folger, the public face of a deal to bring a substantial company, Anacott, from Detroit to LA, along with 2,500 jobs, an injection into the economy of $5,000,000 in salaries and a tax windfall of £1,000,000.

Yes, all very dry stuff, made drier by the decision to not actually tell us what Anacott do.

Billie’s at the Press Conference, pushing the Environmental angle, and Anacott’s ability to satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirements. Something doesn’t feel right to her and when she discovers Anacott have veen cited 117 times for breaches in Detroit, she writes the story that has Anacott pulling out and moving to Mexico instead, not to mention Billie’s name becoming mud.

It’s still very dry. Folger points out, reasonably enough, that it’s far easier to build a standards-fit plant from scratch than to adapt an old plant to changing standards, and Billie’s determination to follow her hunch that something’s not kosher, especially when the EPA and the City give Anacott substantial concessions make her look slightly vindictive. Where we’d normally applaud her integrity, this time it’s all very much what’s the point?

Well, the point is when Folger’s sacked secretary, Nell Wheeler (Wendy Phillips) smuggles out a memo that sets out the whole manipulative scheme in all its slimey detail – only for Folger to denounce it as a forgery, and prove it. Cue a $5.3million lawsuit against the Trib.

Cue also a prolonged and strange interlude in which everyone at the Trib starts to treat Billie funny. She’s quizzed on all the angles that might have led her to fake this fake memos, everyone’s all eggshell solicitous around her, the lawyers are talking about settling. It’s driving Billie crazy that no-one, not even Lou, will support her, will actually consider that this is a frame-up. By a man who used to work for a major Agency in Detroit that specialise in dirty tricks in political matters of a kind that, in 1979, would still be very fresh in the American people’s minds from the panoply of Watergate.

Oh, and it’s also the Agency to which Nell Wheeler is tracked down for her new job after she disappears without trace…

Yes, it was a frame-up, and Folger’s hands were in the cookie jar up to the elbow. Behind the scenes, the Trib worked to expose the story, to vindicate themselves and Billie.The satisfactory bit was Folger in Lou’s office, trying to bluff, bullshit and bribe his way out of being pinned to the wall for this, and Lou’s quiet, almost monosyllabic refusal to take any bait.

Less satisfying was the episode failing to give Billie any agency in this. Apart from four paragraphs to be batted out before deadline, it was all done for the helpless little woman by the male staff, covertly, and without any actual apology for how shittily they’d treated her. Still, it’ll all be forgotten by next week, won’t it?

And whilst this has nothing to do with the story’s merits or demerits, I have to point out that, to considerable shock, Linda Kelsey actually wore a midi-dress without knee-length boots for one scene, in which she crossed her legs and exposed a kneecap. It was a shocking display of flesh and for for which I was wholly unprepared. But it’ll all be forgotten by next week, won’t it?

Lou Grant: s03 e04 – Charlatan


Cast out by the Church

When your episode title is ‘Charlatan’ and you open with a church service in opulent surroundings, with a well-dressed Minister declaiming above a congregation, it’s not hard to tell where the story is going to go. Nevertheless, the show made its course more complex, and more equivocal than it need do, the result being a thought-provoking episode.

We began with three separate strands, two of which became swiftly intertwined, and a third which seemed irrelevant but which became an important counterpoint to the major story.

The Church was the United Pilgrim’s Crusade, founded and led by Dr Thomas Chamberlain. The Trib’s Religious Affairs writer, Marcus Prescott, was there to conduct a standard profile. Joe Rossi was there because he’d spotted a naked man climbing the Church Tower to display a banner reading ‘God Sees All’. What was it God saw? From the Church’s enthusiasm about their disturbed brother’s privacy, it was clearly something needing investigating, as Rossi automatically assumed. Prescott, the son of a Southern Hellfire preacher, did not see it that way.

Our third strand was a sneaky phonecall to Lou from an Arnold Zinner, soliciting Lou’s support against Prior Restraint, that is, the Law’s intervention to prevent a newspaper publishing something, the very thing the First Amendment prohibits. Of course, from the shifty way he didn’t identify any specifics, we knew what sort of publication Zinnah ran – Grabber magazine, a cross between a pre-National Enquirer cheapie and a low-rent porn monthly, but which happened to have all the names and addresses of all the undercover Narcotics agents in LA (how and why were never explored).

There was a lot of stick over supporting a disgusting rag like that, but Lou held to the principle. Because we all know that it’s the difficult to defend cases that are prosecuted first, because it only takes one case to set a precedent.

This would tie back into the min story in two ways. First, however, a succession of minor matters drew attention to the possibility – to some an evidence-unsupported certainty – that something fishy was going on, that Chamberlain was not as he painted himself, that the United Pilgrim’s Crusade was not a legitimate Church with a genuine doctrine.  Rossi’s convinced this is so. So’s Billie, when she gets brought in on this. Marcus, on the other hand, is far less convinced, considers the evidence too shaky, is blocking the story to the point where Lou takes him off it.

Is he just too (self-)indoctrinated to accept an anti-Church story? Or is he someone who demands a high level of proof because he’s aware of how susceptible people are to anything that appears to tear a minister down? Or is he just not enough of a bastard? Donovan, who sympathises with Prescott, thinks the latter, and it is his encouraging reaction that spurs Marcus back to the story.

There were multiple levels to this. Prescott interviews Agnes Carson (Ruth Silveira), a believer who’d found salvation in Dr Chamberlain, a volunteer who was giving far far too much money to the Church. Lou, Charlie and Mrs Pynchon discuss things with ‘orthodox’ Minister, Dr Bunning. who confesses his suspicions of and distaste for Chamberlain’s church but who implcably opposes stories against them: hurt one religion and you hurt all.

In the end, it’s Prescott who gets the real deal, persuading Smithfield, the naked man, already identified as a fanatic, to give up the print-outs that expose the frauds. Even then, Chamberlain and his business manager Crossley admitted the truth of the facts but not their meaning, heedless  of the figures having gone to the Attorney-General.

No, all of this was Stan’s doing, an attack upon God, by a heathen newspaper, the state, an editor who openly advocated for a pornographer out to destroy their children… Even Agnes Carson told Marcus Prescott he was mistaken, but she was the true Christian amongst them.

And fittingly, the story was left with that ending, no neat little bows of pink ribbon to sign it off, even though all of us, and not merely the cynical, understood where truth lay and that there was no God in God’s Temple. An excellent episode.

Lou Grant: s03 e03 – Slammer


Jury Duty

Most of this week’s episode was set in and around a prison, which gave me pause for reasons I’ll explain momentarily. The set-up is that Rossi has been teaching a Journalism class and inveigles Lou into being a guest speaker: the class is in a Maximum Security Prison and the students have been convicted of a variety of crimes, up to and including murder.

The problem is that, being a Maximum Primetime Series, the programme couldn’t go anything near the reality of a prison, nor the truth of the things that can be done by and to the prisoners. It’s big move to establish the regime’s harshness was a boxing match, being watched on TVs by the inmates, who are really into it, excited, shouting, blowing off steam – until a cruel and saditic guard who was trying to read switched all the sets off before the end.

I m no expert on prisons and will never pretend to be. The episode took care to avoid anyone enjoying such a status, especially not the genuinely decent  and would-be liberal Governor. But early in my legal career, when my field included criminal work, I had occasion to visit Manchester’s infamous Strangeways Prison to interview a client. This meant going inside E Wing, the remand Wing. This was the part of the prison that held prisoners waiting Trial, in short, those who were not convicted and who were therefore innocent in the eyes of the Law. From the moment the doors slammed shut behind me, my skin crawled, and I tried to defuse my feelings with a ‘clever’ joke, telling the guard who was leading us to the interview room that I wouldn’t feel comfortable until I got out, or else I looked down there and saw Ronnie Barker cheating at dominoes. Defensive or what?

So the episode could not give us even a fraction of that atmosphere, nor did it make any attempt to, which undermined everything it was trying to achieve.

The prisoners were taking a Journalism class but had no paper to print their stories in. When Lou took it to the Governor, he got a paper but then had to restrain the convicts over their urge to print the truth about what goes on. Lou was drawing the disincion between the truth as what can be proven and the truth as what they knew was the truth, and which one could be printed, though the convicts went behind his back, tried to print their story alleging one of their fellow students had been murdered by a gang inside, caused a near-riot, a lockdown and withdrawal of their project.

Of curse, Lou then goes into bat for them, blurring the reality with some Defence Attorney style sophistry that persuaded the Governor to allow them another go, giving the episode the required happy ending annd liberal conciousnesses their sop.

How you react to an episode like this depend on your pre-judgements about criminals. It was made plain that this prison was not about rehabilitation but about punishment. The inmates’ ‘leader’, JD (Kene Holiday), was presented as passionate, articulate and frustrated at the lack of outlets for the truth, conscious of the State’s right to punish, but chafing at the small cruelties meant to make prisoners feel humiliated or dehumanised.

But the episode, in a neat reversal of the usual Rossie/Billie roles, covered its bases by having Billie interview JD’s victim, pointing out that the criminal can serve his time and go free, but the victim cannot.

There was a sub-plot, a B-story about Mrs Pynchon undertaking Jury Duty, leaving Charlie Hume in charge at the paper, that folded into the A-story at the very last, Lou’s final departure from the Prison crossing the arrival of the dude convicted by the proprietoress’s Jury. But overall, despite its good intentions, and despite its cautious determination not to make the prisoners into absolute heroes, the episode failed from the start because it could not be nasty, grimy or sufficiently frightening enough to anyone with even the most peripheral experience.

Lou Grant: s03 e02 – Expose


A good woman doomed

Due to the nature of the story that introduced Lou Grant season 3 last week, it wasn’t really possible to bring in the new credits and theme music this year, without making an even more awkward segue than usual, but I can lead with that for this episode as the subject played a part in setting up the story.

Between seasons, the LA Trib has undergone an upgrade. Out have gone the typewriters, in have come the first computers, although they’re more likely to be word-processors, and not everyone is taking to them easily. As a consequence, the credit sequence has been completely reshot, with everybody playing the same role but from different angles, and different takes (all except Dennis ‘Animal’ Price, who has been given a more serious introduction, developing films in the dark room instead of goofing around with flashes). And the theme music has been reearranged to closer to the season 1 sound, elimination most but not quite all of that annoying guitar overlay.

I can bring this up because this upgrade helped spur one of the two stories this week that seemed to be of no relevance to each other, and which mde it hard to get an angle on which way the episode was going.

First in appearance was Rossi’s pursuit of Bonita Worth (Louise Troy), a very effective and down-to-earth County Supervisor with a substantial future ahead of her. Mrs Worth was straight-talking, a successful businesswoman, honest and open, in short a public asset. Rossi, constitutionally incapable of believing a public official can be all of those things, is worrying away looking for something that plainly didn’t exist. So Billie was brought in to interview Bonita, and produce a genuinely admiring piece. But in a cleverly unforced irony it was Billie who found Bonia’s achilles heel, her husband Mark (William Schallert).

Mark Worth ended up being the story, costing Bonita Worth her public career. Mark was a lush, a business failure, a racist and a fool. He was an albatross whose exposure in public and a drunk, and as openly unfaithful to his wife, left her te impossible choice of abandoning him and showing wifely disloyalty (a powerful thing, forty years ago) or abandoning her career. No wins either way: Bonita fell on her sword and resigned. A good public servant was lost.

You could look at Mark and find him a complete idiot, even despicable in some lights, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But Schallert took on a difficult role and, with the aid of some inspired scripting, rose to the challenge of making you see him in a different light. A clearly bombed Worth invades the Trib’s budget meeting to insult and carp at the way he has been made a public fool. It’s simultaneously embarrassing and painful, for Worth is a failure at all things, unable to do more than mouth empty threats, but worse, he is aware of this, and his bluster falls apart under his understanding of his own ineffectiveness, rage at the unfairness of being made a laughing stock in the Press and the unfirness of being unable to do anything aboout it. He ends in tears at his own humiliation, asking the question, “Why me? What did I ever do to you to pick on me?”

And the answer is the painful truth that everything written about him is true, but he is only news for how he may, and does, drag down the career of the woman he’s married to, a woman in a position of authority. The sexism inherent in this is alluded to but not rubbed in our faces, and could indeed have done with being a bit more openly expressed.

All this would have its parallel, in completely different form in the other half of the episode, which took a very long time to show its hand. It began with an argument between Lou and Mike Norvette (Richard Berstoff) over a line that wasn’t acceptable. Norvette was an asshole, seeing Lou as dictatorial, conservative, an obstacle to reporters like him, rewriting the rules, sticking opinions in unburdened by real facts. Lou was threatened by the every existence of Norvette, overturning every hidebound precept of his life and career.

So, when Mrs Pynchon was forced to trim staff to get the loan needed for all this new technology, Norvette was let go. He took it well. No, he didn’t, actually: the Norvettes of this world do not take anything like this as anything but personal, which it was in a way. Lou didn’t like him, but he fired him for not being a good enough reporter.

Which Norvette proved by immediately joined Pacific Magazine, a trashy, sensationlist magazine. We already knew about Pacific Magazine through the attractive, vivacious Barbara Benedict (Julie Cob), who thought Lou was ‘cute’, and had lunch with him, all attention and big eyes. The set-up led you to believe she was after a job at the Trib: it was a job alright but not the one you thought it was. The lovely Barbara was Rossi’s heavy date, she was having a meal with Donovan, had had a coffee with Charlie.

And everyone had talked, including Billie to Norvette, telling the stories you tell, the funny ones you share with colleagues. Except that the episode finally came into clear focus when everyone joined the dots of Barbara’s attentions and realised that Pacific Magazine was building up an expose on the Trib. When it arrived, everyone was in denial about saying what was quoted of them, and it took Animal too point out that they had said what they said, not as shaped here, in cold print. But the words were the same.

It took Mrs Pynchon to draw the two stories together. The hatchet job Pacific Magazine had done on the Trib was not far enough removed from what theTrib and others had done on Mark Worth. Lou and Charlie disagreed, and this viewer did too, but also saw the side of the coin that Mrs Pynchon was seeing: what was done to Mark Worth, hoever true, was going to bring down Bonita Worth, whose only crime was to have fallen in love with and married a weak man, years ago, and stayed loyal to him.

No, her crime was to be a woman in authority, and the show let you see that for yourself. It’s still not different enough forty years on. It would not take much adaptation to put that side of the episode into production in 2019. A superior episode with very strong guest performances.

Lou Grant: s03 e01 – Cop


New credits

Despite my doubts, in the back half of season 2, I’ve decided to press on into season 3 with Lou Grant, thanks to some strong late season stories that countered the effect of the more didactic, bleeding heart liberal episodes that turned me off. Naturally, my reward was an opening episode that bordered strongly on the didactic.

The episode title was both misleading and inevitable. Yes, it was about a Cop, patrol car officer Dave Tynan (a very good guest appearance from Joe Penny, matched by an equally important role by Edward Winter as his partner, Robert Dennehy). But Tynan, good cop as he was, was only important in regard to what else he was, which was gay.

The episode started and finished with drama: a man is beaten to death in a house across the street from Lou, who becomes personally invested in the case, especially when one of the Homicide detectives calls in a beat cop to consult. This unfolds into a story that illustrates the plight of the gay person in 1969 Los Angeles. The victim was gay, though his wife had no idea (a brief cameo by Mariclare Costello, full of confusion and ignorance and a touching, loving concern for why her husband had been so unhppy but had never opened up to her about it). His killer was his male lover. A bar that was firebombed was a gay bar.

Lou liked Tynan, got on with him, put the pieces together to work out Tynan himself was gay. The episode didn’t telegraph it, giving no obvious clues, but the logic of the drama demanded this situation as anyone could tell.

Tynan was in the closet with a vengence. Sexually inert, alert at any moment to the risk of exposing himself, unable to trust any cop to be decent over the knowledge, his was no life to envy. The show mainly left the description of what it was like to Tynan without depicting prejudice against him in action, which weakened the case but would have fundamentally destroyed the ending.

Instead, and here was where Winter came in, that his partner Dennehy worked it out for himself and promptly requested a transfer, because gays shouldn’t be cops because they’re all emotionlly unstable, and how can you trust one if you have to have one of them watching your back.

Which set up the expected violent ending. Tynan and Dennehy corner the killer who gets Dennehy’s gun and the drop on him, Tynan saves his life by shooting the killer, at the cost of a bullet to the upper chest, thus causing a complete volte-face on the part of Dennehy. Dennehy admits he was wrong and is ready to back Dave coming out of the closet

But Dave’s not ready. It’s got to still be a secret. He kows better than Dennehywhat the reaction will be, or maybe he’s just too untrusting, even after Dennehy’s conversion. Today, Tynan would just come out and everyone would be understanding, but this is not today, this is forty years ago. I work alongside people who are openly gay and nobody gives a damn but this is not how it was in 1979, and despite leaning a bit too heavily on its liberal agenda, Lou Grant gives us a very apposite reminder of what it was like wihin my own lifetime.

And what it is still like in too many parts of the world, and too many parts of America, yes, and Britain, even now. Dave Tynan stayed in the closet, his sexuality closely guarded, and both Lou and Rossi, the only ones who know, agree that it’s not relevant to the story. Yeah. Journalism 1979. Unreal today.