It’s not difficult to tell that Lou Grant is a show with a theme, a message, and that it is, to use the description I’ve used before, impeccably liberal. That suits me. It always has, it always will. Were it a product of 2019, it would be impeccably castigated as a show for SJWs – Social Justice Warriors. A telling phrase that, a catchphrase for those who hold only contempt for those who think that things should be better for everyone, and who try to influence things to be that way.
The series was created in 1977, and its five year, five season run spanned two Presidencies, that of the liberal Democrat, Jimmy Carter, and that of the hard-right Conservative Republican buffoon, Ronald Reagan. If I can source the series as far as its end, I’ll discuss the ongoing rumours that its demise was partly political, in a changed social and political climate.
But despite being both liberal and Liberal, the series was also a product of Network mainstream TV, and therefore it was also small-c conservative. It had a soft core, the desire to make things work out right, because it wanted the world to be that way. ‘Hero’ was a perfect example of that.
For ninety-five percent of the time, the episode was dark, fractured and, dare I say it, depressing. It was about two principal stories, compared and contrasted, with a third and personal subplot, making it a complex script.
The titular story involved a man named William Danvers (Jim McMullan). Rossii’s covering a story about a right-wing Judge, a hang-’em-and-flog-’em merchant, about to announce he’srunning for Governor, when someone pulls a gun on him. A bystander intervenes, forcing the gun down, saving the Judge’s life, but disappearing before anyone gets a proper look at him or getting his name.
Lou loves the story but wants the guy’s name.
At the same time, Billie’s doing a story about the struggle to keep up a Halfway-House for women ex-cons (ex-hookers, mainly). Magnum House is doing sterling stuff, providiing support, a place to stay, cameraderie and chances to get into legitimate jobs. It is genuinely making a difference as only one-third of its people wimd up back in jail, as opposed to a national average of two-thirds. Biillie believes in it passionately. But its funding has been cut and it can no longer pay the rent: Magnum House is to close.
Which is the classic ironic juxtaposition to Rossi’s story about William Danvers. Because Danvers is an ex-con, hard time in Folson Prison, served, self-educated, and now the leading partner in an investment management firm in San Francisco. From rocks to riches (cheap joke). It’s a great story: ex-con made good saves life of ‘once-a-crook-always-a-crook’ Judge, and even better when set against effective anti-recidivism scheme closes for lack of funds.
Except that whilst Bill Danvers’ partner knows his past, the general public didn’t. His clients didn’t. His fiancee didn’t. However well-meaning Lou had been, the story he pushes for has destroyed Danvers’ life. And there’s nothing he can do about it, except send Rossi out again to do a follow-up that will set Danvers’ story in a better context. And how well does that go down with Danvers, or his ex-fiancee Leslie Williams (Doria Cook)?
She comes to Lou himself to complain abut the damage this invasion of privacy has done to everyone. Lou detects that sshe still has feelings for Bill, sends her back to tell him what she wants to tell Lou about how great Bill is. Perhaps I shouldn’t spoil the dramatic tension at this point, but there is no answer, literally no answer, to the most central point she makes: she’s known Bill a year, she was going to marry him next month, she thought she knew him: it wasn’t the story that he’s an ex-con but that he didn’t tell her himself, that he didn’t trust her.
Where the episode spoils itself is in its insistence on happy endings. Billie’s passionate but ineffective stories about Magnum House turn out to be effective afterall, when a charitable foundation upon which Mrs Pynchon has worked her influence guarantee funding for at least six months: one woman has slipped, gone back to hooking rather than work on an assembly line, but the project has been saved. The liberal outcome has outcomed.
And Bill turns up to tell Lou that the follow-up articles have rescued his business and he’s got more customers than ever now and he wants to buy him dinner. Leslie wants nothing to do with him any more but hey, his Mammon has been served. The show couldn’t give itself up to an unhappy ending that might show the paper as being anything less than wholly positive, and in doing so they killed a tough but important episode.
I did say there was a subplot, which spun out of Billie’s story, and that was the brief period in which she and Art Donovan, the free-wheeling, fun-loving, commitmentophobe with the sharp threads. Donovan fell hard for Billie, seriously hard. She was wonderful, she was perfect, she was everything he wanted. She was just dating him because it was fun, until he proposed to her.
What followed was highly dubious. Billie went on about the pressure to conform, to marry, to stop being single and settle down (the words ‘grow up’ were left to be implied). She hadn’t previously realised this affected men as well. All Donovan’s doing is to cave in a little under this pressure at long last. It’s not her he ‘wants’ permanently, she was just the one there when it struck him. It’s cogent, reasonable and, from my personal perspective, a cop-out. It’s simplistic sophistry and a cheap cheat, constructed to make us feel ok about Billie hurting Donovan as she clearly does, by elevating a case of not-into-him-that-way into a personal philosophy to be admired. Hooey, I say, hooey.
And Art rapidly came to agree with her, though I did wonder how much of that was masking his dejection so as to make it easier for her to get over hurting him (shedid say she wished he hadn’t spoiled things by saying that), and how much was genuine acceptance of her principle and relief at getting to go back to being shallow. Commendably, the scene didn’t tip its hand.
But like the main stories, it was the soft outcome, not the hard one. The good guys will always win, just because they’re the good guys, not because they’re in a winning position. That’s a given with Lou Grant. This week, it was particularly egregious.