Lou Grant: s04 e17 – Business

Despite an excellent performance from guest star Edward Winter as a new, progressive business CEO, this was another case of one step up, one step down.

If I were to tell you that this story was about relations between American busoiness and the Press, would you be expecting great drama and edge-of-the-seat watching? Maybe in America, where one President went so far as to define that ‘the business of America is business’, but through British eyes the story failed to convince as a worthwhile one, and ended up coming over as a whole lot of fuss about very little.

We began in media res with the aftermath of a devastating fire affecting plant belonging to long-established Los Angeles company, Cal-electronics. The company’s recently shed veteran officer Lester Sorenson (Phillip Abbott) almost as soon as he’d been appointed President, replacing him with the much younger and go-getting Russell Davidson (Winter) but they’re being intensively secretive about everything, to the extent that they’ve triggered Joe Rossi’s permanently lurking suspicions as to what they’re hiding.

It was at this early point that the episode lost me. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason in ducking questions, failing to supply information, especially when the truth that was being buried was minor and insignificant. It was all very Watergate, the cover-up creating far more harm than the story being suppressed.

But Davidson and everyone else at Cal-electronics seemed to think that the press was against them, that automatically it gave businessand companies grief, sensationalising stories, slanting them to make the problem out to be more widespread than it really is.

There was an example on the Trib’s side, and this from Adam Wilson, the economics writer and a natural friend to business, with a story exposing the cancer risk to employees that came over as a company-wide thing with potential spread to consumers when in strict fact it was five workers in one division, a risk neutralised instantly.

Without a background of familiarity with press reporting of business in the early Eighties it was hard to viscerally accept that the company were justidfied in their extreme circle-the-wagons approach. Naturally, the company wanted to fight back, buying full-page ads in the Trib to put over their point of view, hassling the Trib over sitting on a Washington State story about a labour dispute that escalated into deaths, because it was at a paper mill owned by the Trib.

To be honest, it all seemed very superficial and the ending – Sorenson explains the humiliating circumstances of his resignation, a breakdown due to promotion to a role he couldn’t handle and the secrecy merely being Davidson’s innate decency over not wanting to expose an old man’s frailties – fell flat because the story, well-acted as it was, was flat from introduction to coda.

I shall, out of decency, refrain from mentioning the thin-to-the-point-of-skeletal ‘B-story’, included assumedly because the actor needed a job.

One step up, one step dow. There have been rather more of the latter this season than any other.

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.

Lou Grant: s01 e11 – Housewarming

Julie Kavnar

The title of this episode is deliberately misleading. Sure, Lou’s having a housewarming, and everyone at the Trib is invited, with their wives and dates (Rossi, typically, doesn’t have one), but that’s not what this is about. This one’s about wife-beating.

In a way, this is something of a time-capsule. It’s a forty-year-old reminder of times when wife-beating was the great swept-under-the-table secret, the thing that we didn’t like to look at, and that far too many people seemed to think was acceptable: they are husband and wife, you know. Apart from a few nervous jokes, no-one in the episode except the main wife-beater pushes that viewpoint, which I can’t make up my mind whether it’s because the programme is so dead set upon its earnest credentials as a socio-liberal series, or that it’s avoiding a too obvious cliche.

The two principal characters are Jerry and Alice Merrin, played by John Reilly and Julie Kavner. Jerry’s a walking cliche, almost a caricature, the complete abusive husband, the selfish bastard forwhom everything hasn’t gone his way and who’s taking it out on the nearest person to hand, the least likely and able to fight back. The first reaction is the one tv series usuually forget to cover, which is why on Earth did Alice ever marry this loser in the first place.

For that, we have Kavner. She’s now beyond famous as the voice of Marge Simpson, but in 1978 she was almost family, coming off a five year stint as Brenda Morgenstern, younger sister of Rhoda in the sitcom of the same name, which sitcom was the first spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Kavner depicts Alice as almost completely passive: quiet, browbeaten, unable to think for herself, completely dominated. She won’t do anything to save herself because she can’t. That may be less true now than then: I’d like to think that women generally have become more assertive and less willing to put up with this crap, but I’d still bet there are Alice’s out there.

Alice is so cowed that she’s almost lifeless, she won’t co-operate with Billie on the story, she’s so afraid of getting in trouble. Her black eye is a mugging, not her husband (at least she didn’t walk into a cupboard door). But there’s a moment, when Bilie corners her in a laundromat, when she speaks about her and Jerry being high school sweethearts, marrying out of school, and Kavner lights up from within, her whole attitude changes, her voice is different… until she hears what she is saying and remembers the gulf between then and now. But we’ve seen.

What the episode gets really right, and its a strand that’s neatly inserted, is to bring the problem in-house and personal. Roger Trent (Edward Winter) is a night copy editor, but he has ambitions to write features, not just correct them. His wife, in a misguided attempt to help him, since Roger won’t help himself, phones Lou to ask him to take Roger off nights. The outcome is that Roger hits his wife, and blackens her eye.

Which brings us to the titular housewarming party. Despite a feeble attempt to cry off, Roger and Dorothy attend, she in dark glasses, which doesn’t stop Billie realising they’re not for an eye infection. Roger’s gotten obsessed with Billie, however, mistaking ordinary in-office conversation for an interest in him. Billie wants nothing to do with him, even before she sees Dorothy’s black eye, but he goes on to threaten her, call her whatever the Californian equivalent of ‘prick-teaser’ might be, and raise his hand to hit her…

Billie learns a lesson, of how frightening that can be, of how paralysing fear can be, and how possibly glib it is to say that Alice should just up sticks and leaves. But at the end, Alice does just that, turning up at Billie’s with her two kids, having left Jerry because of the age-old classic reason why beaten wives can find the strength to leave abusive husbands, the fear that he’s turning on the kids now. Jerry’s followed her, threatening and abusive to the last (look at you, you’re a mess, who’ll ever want you?), planning to take them back and resume the reign of terror that is all he is adequate for. But Alice remains determined: the last chance was not hers but Jerry’s, and he’s failed it.

As for Roger, Lou wants to knock his block off, but Billie’s contemptuous of that response. Instead, and in an ending whose equivalence was not entirely to my taste (I’d have knocked his block off), Lou grants him his ambition to write features. Starting with one on wife-beating. In depth. The men who do it, and why. Speak to doctors, researchers. Psychiatrists.

It’s giving a chance to smeonewho, in my eyes, doesn’t deserve a chance, but it’s consistent with the show’s principles. Mind you, it does show a class-based inconsistency: Jerry, the blue-collar Joe, goes off to find another victim to terrorise, Roger, the white-collar middle class guy, the ‘talent’, gets help to change. The working stiff is written off as unredeemable (which, as Reilly plays him, is probably true), but is still pretty shitty. And a pity.