We’re into the back half of season 3 of Lou Grant, with a low key episode poised equally between parallel and contrasting stories sufficiently well-balanced that they couldn’t be defined as A and B.
The official peg for the episode is that the Trib is preparing a series on child labour, for which Rossi is interviewing child star actor Carly Mitchell (Elizabeth Bliss), and Billie is shunted off into a minor role tackling more obviously serious aspects of the problem, down at the courts, to which the episode pays little more than lip-service.
The other story is Lou himself, in his role as Coach to a junior league baseball team, getting involved in the life of basically good kid Mark Donner (Matthew Labyorteux) after discovering that he appears to be being neglected by his divorced mother Meg (Jenny Sullivan), who seems more interested in dating men in the evening than staying in with her son.
Both kids are 12. Carly is leading what anyone who assume is an idyllic life. She’s a star on a soap opera, totally professional, immensely popular, been offered a spin-off show of her own and, yes, you guessed it, very unhappy.
Yes of course, this is venturing into cliche drawer territory, but Bliss’s playing made young Carly a welcomingly calm presence, aware of her responsibilities to everyone, not least the father who gave up his job to manage her career, whilst growing increasingly upset at how her father, who regarded it as his job to worry for her, failed to listen to her wishes: for some normality, like regular schools, friends, Jacques Cousteau movies at the marina, and her prized seashell connection, which he threw out because it smelled, and it nearly made a Network Vice-President faint (can’t say vomit in 1979).
This was the catalyst for Carly to run away, maintaining contact only through Rossi, who was pretty paternalistic about her but respected her need to not be given back to her parents. She’s on the point of agreeing to be taken back when she collapses with some unknown complaint she’s been keeping quiet (from the stomach-grabbing, I suspect it was appendicitis). Once everyone’s reunited, Rossi manages to get the parents to listen to Carly, who wants to give up acting entirely, but who still won’t let Rossi put this off-the-record story in the paper!
Lou’s story was of an entirely different tenor though ultimately it boiled down to the ame thing, a kid not getting enough attention. Carly had love and attention but it was all being paid to an image of her she wasn’t inside. Mark just isn’t getting attention. He lives with a divorced mother who has had to look after him alone since he was two, who has to work to support them, who married young, didn’t go out one night from when he was two to seven and now wants a bit of a life for herself (you can’t say she wants to get in some vigorous sgagging in 1979).
The problem is that when Meg is there, she’s no good at boundaries, seting limits and discipline, the kind of attention a 12 year old needs when their testing boundaries. Mark is trying to make Lou into a father figure, his own living out of town and being too busy to even come see him, even to the extent of trying to set him up to date Meg (who thought that was what Lou was interested in). But he was in danger of losing himself: ranting at an umpire who called him Out, fuming at Lou that it was his fault he didn’t swing, stealing an expensive baseball bat from the store where his Mom works, breaking Lou’s window with a baseball when Lou tried to stop him blaming everybody else and making excuses and understand his responsibility.
In the end, Mark wound up starting down the path towards rehabilitation. His was a mental, not a situational change, so you had to take it a bit on trust, but the show’s general prime time penchant for happy endings told you that that was what it would be.
Two minor points about the episode: the imdb cast list for this week revealed that the only other kid on Lou’s team that was given a name was being played by a young Michael J Fox, whilst Jenny Sullivan, a nicely attractive actress of a certain age, seemed very familiar to be, both in her face and especially her throaty voice without me being to place just who I was recalling.