This was something of an oddball episode, with a prominent but slightly out-of-place guest star, elements of spoof, an emphasis on Joe Rossi (who, despite being the second-billed cast member, has been more of a background character for most of the series so far), and an uncharacteristic downbeat ending. It also included one of the sharpest individual reminders of how this series is shaped by being made in 1978. Let’s pull all this together.
We began in slightly pantomime mode, with mildly OTT spooky music, shots of shoes walking towards the camera, pans around an almost empty parking garage, oh yes, we’re going All The President’s Men here, people, but with a twist, because this is Rossi meeting the clearly nervous Larry Kean, aide to ex-Senator, now County Supervisor Archer Corwin (James Olson, note the spelling, this is not the red-haired one). Corwin’s up for re-election, Rossi’s digging, Larry’s his source but he’s not giving up much because he’s not got much to give. The story’s going nowhere.
Enter Liz Harrison (Gail Strickland). Liz is a hotshot reporter from Sacramento, who’s been brought to the L.A. Tribune by the efforts of Lou Grant. She’s the new star, made welcome by everyone, especially Bilie, who loves the thought of a successful, and widely-respected female reporter. Charlie pushes to have her replace Rossi on the Supervisor story because he’s going nowhere, and despite Lou’s reluctance, eventually the move is forced.
Rossi takes it well: he packs his things, he’s quitting. Thank Heaven for a new hot story Lou can direct him to, about a DA’s investigation into badly run Nursing Homes for the elderly (which gave me an unwelcome reminder of a former boss: don’t ask). We don’t yet know, but we ought to suspect that the two stories will end up meeting.
Liz is a success. She impresses everyone but Rossi (the hatred is mutual). She refreshes the Supervisor storry, gets great leads. All is going well. Until…
But before I go there, I have to record that the show slipped, and in my opinion badly, in how it handled Liz Harrison as herself. She’s introduced early on, much celebrated, not just by Lou and Charlie. And yes, she’s a guest star, here today, gone next week, so we don’t expect her to instantly fit into the established dynamics of the show’s regular cast. But from the moment of her first appearance, Liz felt out of place, and awkward. There wasn’t even the beginning of integration. Strickland played the character as aloof, and shallow, with no personality or characteristics, and given what her role in the episode was to be, this was a serious let down.
And I’m bound to say that her appearance, in how she looked and dressed, didn’t help to bring her in. Strickland wore elegant, almost formal clothes, long sleeved blouses done up to the neck and down to the wrist, calf-length skirts paired with boots, or tailored trousers paired with waistcoats over blouses. It was elegant and stylish, and emphasising that there was no point of contact between her and the paper. It was the living image of 1977/78, and it made Liz stand out like an outsider who not only hadn’t mixed with her fellow reporters, but who never would.
This was important to the episode, negatively. Because where this was going was the combination of journalistic ethics and how vital they are (this is not what made me think sharply about the period) and the inevitable and vile accusations that all female successes attract to themselves as a way of demeaning and controlling them.
It started, inevitably, with Rossi. His Nursing Homes story was leading back to Corwin, who has investments. Suddenly, Corwin announces an investigation. Rossi’s convinced that Liz has fed the story back to Corwin. Her pieces on him certainly don’t sound politically balanced. It comes over as paranoia, and sour grapes, and Billie is furious that yet again an ambitious, talented, successful woman is being accused of only getting to where she is by sleeping with someonee.
That’s not where the episode is going though. Because Liz is indeed sleeping with Corwin. Ultimately, Rossi finds out, by following Corwin and staying out half the night when the Supervisor doesn’t come out of Liz’s apartment. This is serious enough for him, Billie and Donovan to take to Lou and Charlie – if Liz is slanted towards Archer because she’s screwing him, not only will her reports not be believed, but neither will everybody else’s – and for Lou and Charlie, despite their blythe dismissal of the allegations, to investigate.
Liz, when questioned, admits it. She’s started an affair, she actually loves him. It’s an absolute (this is so 1978), she has to go, though when Lou reluctantly tells her, she takes it well because she still doesn’t see what a foolish thing she’s done, thinking first she’s just being taken off the story, then fearing she’s being taken off politics, and only lastly realising she’s being canned.
And that her career as a reporter is over.
It’s all reminiscent of the Tommy Docherty story, when he was sacked as Manager of Manchester United for sleeping with one of his staff member’s wife. Docherty fell in love. That’s not the crime, for him or Liz. It’s what they did around it, or in Liz’s case didn’t do, that had the consequences. Liz could have gotten herself taken off the story by telling Lou, and she’d have saved her career. She tried to get off the story, but she tried a feeble excuse that Lou brushed aside, and even then she didn’t tell the truth. In 1978, on a show that is painting an idealistic picture of journalism, only half a decade after Watergate, that was fatal.
As for the moment that reminded me sharply of the times, that was a Watergate reference, out of the back of the hand. Remember Rossi’s contact, Larry Kean? Started as a disgruntled, put upon staffer, willing to leak but with nothing to leak about, got promoted and all we’re-not-virgins cynical about tossing staffers to the wolves to protect the Supervisor, and with an irony you could see coming from Saramento, tossed to the wolves over the Nursing Homes thing. It was in that Press Conference called to announce Larry’s ‘resignation’, when Archer spoke of ‘in these times’ and how the mere appearance of malfeasance was as bad as actual malfeasance, and I flashed so hard back to post-Watergate syndrome, to Jimmy Carter, only just a second-year President when this was made, elected on a tide of post-Watergate cleanness, and what an utterly different world it was back then, before Reagan and Thatcher.
And how utterly hollow those ideals were in the mouth of Supervisor Corwin.