Lou Grant: s03 e23 – Guns


A patriot

Oh boy.

That was my reaction to this episode’s title, knowing America’s relationship with guns and the right to bear arms. But this story wasn’t about gun control, despite the programme showing its hand with on, deliberately comic line.

No, this was about something bigger than that, and about something a lot closer to our home, because it was about the IRA, and the ongoing Troubles.

The episode began with a break-in at a gun shop and the methodical theft of eleven automatic rifles, banned from sale but part of the owner’s private collection. His was the positional statement that got slipped in: challenging Rossi’s lack of interest in his position on gun control, his answer was, ‘Like any sane person, I’m against it!’.

The first real giveaway to the story’s true aim came in McKenna’s at lunch. Owner Maggie McKenna (played by future Golden Girl Rue McLannahan) is over from Ireland for the night’s big St Patrick’s Day party, and she’s shaking the collection tin for starving children back there. The wives and children of the men held in prison in the North.

It’s an old story now, swept thankfully to the pages of history and, we fervently hope, confined forever there, but this was about the support given to the IRA by Americans, support in money, support in guns, support in money-for-guns, bought in Los Angeles and smuggled back to the old country. And the programme trod carefully, allowing the Freedom Fighters their say about what they were doing, justifying their actions, their use of force as unwelcome but necessary, as force was the only thing the Oppressor understood, without condemning them in any but a polite, cautious manner.

In its way, it was a history lesson, a pertinent reminder to those of us who lived through those times. There was a reminder of the death of Earl Mountbatten that brought back in an instant where I was and what I was doing when that news broke, in 1979, on Anglesey, and there were two women, housewives and mothers, one Protestant, one Catholic, to recall the Mother’s Peace Process, wanting nothing but an end to fear and death.

The programme allowed those who represented the cause to make their argument a point of principle whilst allowing the viewer to make up their own mind on the extent to which the death of ordinary people was justifiable by any principle. It allowed the supporters to condemn themaselves out of their own mouths via the passionate but unthinking Maggie, at one point relishing the takeover of the North and showing the protestants what it feels like, and at another refusing to even think about how the British could be removed from Ireland without the very real damage a precipitate withdrawal could cause. Yet Maggie would also be the means by which the episode offered its sole hope of minds changing.

First though, there was Francie Fitzgerald (Redman Gleeson), intrduced by Maggie to Lou as a fellw journalist. Francie was one of those easy-going sons of the blarney and it’s to Gleeson’s credit that, whilst playing him to the hilt as an Irish charmer, he kept him the right side of an Oirish caricature. You liked Francie, you’d have a beer and the craic with him any day, but he was the militant, the gun-runner, stealing Lou’s Driving Licence and Social security card to set up a fake, gun-buying identity.

Francie also turned out a target at the last. He had doubts, or so he said, he wanted to resign, or so he said, but you don’t get to resign. Besides, he was too sloppy, known to the FBI and the Police. So a bomb was planted under Francie’s car.

But this was the show’s only serious failing, and that because of what it was and when this was, and what it couldn’t show. Two kids were throwing ball in the garden. One threw it too hard and it rolled under Francie’s car. The other went scrabbling for it. The show underplayed it too much, neither taking you by surprise nor tightening your stomach with tension of the ‘oh no, they’re not going to…’ kind. We didn’t even hear a bang. Just Police sirens, Rossi arriving to see a totalled car, and a far too offhand resigned line from a Detective to tell us the kid was killed. The moment was thrown away.

At least it had its decent aftermath. The epilogue took place in McKenna’s where a drunken buffoon announced Francie’s death in sententious tones of faked regret. Rossi corrected him: Francie got away, to which the buffoon cheered. Lou told him to tell the rest: our barometer buffoon sighed about it always being the innocent suffer in this war, but in the only shaft of light possible, Maggie herself, the unthinking patriot, told him to shut up. And she tok the collecting jars from the tables and put them away in back.

Back in 1980, that was pretty much the only hope anyone ever dared have about the Troubles, that minds be changed, one by one. I thught that the episode suffered from not once giving the viewpoint of the North, coming closest with Art Donovan’s refusal to be co-opted by reason of his Irish roots and making the practical point that the British simply can’t be thrown out bag and baggage on the next boat, much as the simplistic Maggie wanted.

It was a strong and memorable episode, my choice for the best of season 3. It did its best to stay neutral from an editorial perspective, concentrating upon death and misery rather than the politics, and I’ve tried to do the same today. My curse has always been to see the rights and wrongs of both sides in such situations as this, and whilst my instincts always come down against the users of violence, I do know that sometimes it is necesary, in the same way that Hitler and Nazism could, in the long run, only be overcome by blood and destruction. All I can say is that it is complicated and blessed are the peace-makers of every stripe.

I am so glad that this story is, for now at least, out of date.

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 e14 – Brushfire


The first Lou Grant episode of the Nineteen Eighties (broadcast on 7 January) was an unusual amalgam of elements, lacking the show’s usual ‘agenda’-based storytelling. It started at night, in the heat, the dry Southern California summer, the Santa Anna winds drying things out and a fire reported in a canyon that expands rapidly and almost uncontrollably until seven fires are burning, home are being evacuated and burned down, people are losing everything, 2,000 acres alight. In view of the current Australian fires, this became an oddly topical story.

Into this scenario, of panic and desperation, the show introduced several elements, the major aspects of which was the coverage of the ever-developing fires. Rossi and Animal on the scene, Billie doing re-writes at the paper despite her father Paul Newman being in Town to see her (cue for a few jokes there), Lou and Donovan managing calls and a substantial role for Mrs Pynchon for once, caught in the middle of things at her niece’s riding school, rescuing a forgotten horse and pitching in as a volunteer with that uncmplaining sense of duty that’s much derided but nonetheless heartfelt.

Also in the middle of this was Charlie Hume and his wife Marion. Their marriage is in difficulties, they’ve been growing apart since the kids moved out, Marion wants a job, to feel independent, Charlie’s crusty enough to resent that: they’re selling the house, they’re separating, they will end up getting a divorce.

But the house they’re selling is in a canyon, and the fire spreads. Charlie panics, grabs a bundle of stuff to take with them and flee. This includes one specific dress of Marion’s. They’re supposed to evacuate but Charlie’s gone nuts, refuses to give up the house, dowses the roof continually with water. Marion won’t leave without him.

It’s a sharp contrast to a guy named Bergman that Animal meets, who’s lost his home, though thankfully not his partner. Bergman’s sanguine about the house: it’s only a house after all. But like Animal he’s a photographer, and he has lost a lifetime’s negatives, irreplacable photos, irrecioverable memories. Yet he bounces back, borrowing a camera from Animal, gifted several rolls of film. Bergman can start again with just the clothes on his back.

Charlie can’t or won’t. Adam Wilson loses his house to the fires but Charlie fights to keep his and succeeds. He and Marion are full of adrenalin at the outcome, too many good things happened in that house, Charlie says, to not fight for it. The metaphor is obvious but not plastered in your face, and Marion is more impressed by the dress Charlie chose to save, because he always thought she looked great in it.

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche, the stress that pushes a failing couple back into each other’s arms, the adrenalin solution. Forty years later, a series like Lou Grant would make that into an ongoing strand, explored over several weeks, to see if there’s a lasting effect. Forty years ago, a happy endng was taken for granted, and for once why not?

The episode was at its weakest in hinting at a firebug as the cause of the disaster, but redeemed itself with a neat twist. Animal has been quick on the scene to several fires recently and the Fire Department suspect him. They’ve been following him for the last sixty days. Animal knows – he may look and act goofy but young Mr Price is no fool – and has taken several shots of his shadow. Except that his Fire Department shadow is played by Tony Perez, who I remember for a substantial recurring role in Hill Street Blues, and this is a completely different guy: Animal has been snapping the firebug.

A good, professional, well-made episode that highlighted the paper’s working in a time of developing news, and which used its other themes wisely and not too obtrusively. This is why i like Lou Grant. Edward Asner’s a large part of it too.

 

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.

Lou Grant: s03 e09 – Kidnap


We’re nearly halfway through this Lou Grant rewatch, so perhaps an element of fatigue is creeping in, but I ended up far less impressed by this week’s episode than I anticipated at the outset.

Whilst I’m generally in tune with the show’s liberal ethos, I welcomed an episode that seemed to have nothing more to it than a good, potentially thrilling story. a charter plane carrying the State Championship winning members of a High School Basketball team is missing, overdue, possibly crashed. Billie and Animal are sent to cover the story.

Of course, the episode title gives it away. The plane’s been hijacked, hidden on a disused airforce base, somewhere in the great nowhere, and a ransom of half a million dollars is demanded (to which 2019’s response was “cheap”.)

The set-up is there and there’s lots that can be done with it. But the boys are from Todesca, a desert town of 4,000 inhabitants, a nothing place out in nowhere, and their sheriff may be the traditional little town type in looks, but he’s neither stupid nor pig-headed, which makes for a pleasant change but cuts down on your dramatic posibilities.

And then the episode bogs itself down with cutesy humour, a rivalry between Billie and Rossi over who covers what parts of the story, the ‘naval’ dress their down-at-home hostess buys Billie, and a background story, introduced neatly from the A story, about the Trib being bought out by the McFarlane chain.

Everything gets further and further away fromm the kidnapping. I don’t know if it was a budgetary thing, or whether it was the series trying to encompass the notion within their self-set parameters, but everything pertaining to the real drama, the investigatio, the arrest and the rescue took place a very long way offscreen, whilst an overstrong contingent from the Trib futzed around on camera on worthless and nowhere near funny enough trivialities.

As I said so many time when watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this is an object lesson in the changes to series-writing betwen then and now. The show should never have tackled this subject when it couldn’t bring tension, concern and, above all, a presence to the subject. It made a decent start, with the poignancy of an early scene, using mainly pictures not words, of a town set-up to welcome its conquering heroes, its kids, its boyfriends, left with banners and flags that looked hollow in the suspicion of loss, and then it forgot entirely that these were a generation of youth in a 4,000 person town in favour of cheap silliness. A bad job.