Lou Grant: s03 e18 – Censored

Lasagne with American cheese

It began with a burning and it ended with a burning. At first it was just books, but by the end it included album covers, magazines and even television sets. It was creepy, because bok-burnings are always creepy, because they’re about trying to stop ideas existing and especially about keeping the young from finding out anything that doesn’t replicate their perents’ beliefs, that might change them out of being mindless, ignorant copies of their parents. How is it good parenting, true parenting, true love for a boy or a girl you have created to want them to be less than they can possibly be?

There were two censorship stories in this episide of Lou Grant but one was lightweuight and comic, aptly so because it involved Charlie Hume refusing to run a satirical cartoon strip that accused a California Senator of being in Arab politics, the fuss it caused, the Senator’s refusal, to take legal action and the cartoonist suing the Trib for breach of contract for failing to publish. That”s still censorship, but it’s the very thin end of the wedge.

The thick end is Altamira, where the book-burning(s) are takiing place. Rossi went out there to investigate, armed with an introduction to Mitchell Webster (Richard Dysart, later of LA Law), editor of the local newspaper and an old buddy of Lou. Webster had changed though. It was obvious from the outset, his overplayed avuncularity, his Altamira-is-a-nice-town-full-of-nice-people schtick.

But a very popular, very enthusiastic, very thought-provoking teacher Marilyn Keefer (Laurie Heineman) had been fired for refusing to drop books that are part of the National Curriculum, books with ‘radical’ ideas, asnd wound up working in a cowboy bar in a bare mid-riff fringed top and probably the shortest skirt in the entire run (so short we weren’t allowed more than tjhe briefest glimpse of the approximate position of its hem). She filled in Rossi on the Paul Revere Society, a self-appointed groupn of concerned citizens, out to drive ‘progressive’ ideas out alongside the ‘filth’.

There was also Irene Teal (Karen Ingenthron), the Librarian who brought her daughter here after her divorce, to live in a quiet, peaceful, nice town, who has to deal with famous and classic books being removed from the shelves, who has to accept borrowers editing The Catcher in the Rye by cutting out lines they don’t like with scissors, turning pages into doilies, who goes to dinner with Rossi in a place that makes lasagne with American cheese because she’s afraid for her job if she’s seen talking to him.

There’s the owner of the motel where Rossi’s staying, who takes out the televisipn to burn it, and bans it at home, because a popular character in a popular sitcom mentions being on the Pill.

Webster, an aptly chosen name is the spider in the centre, lying stories, slanted stories, praising the Paul Revere Society before they’d even formed, running their PO Box, creating, not reporting the news. And why? His son Jim, a Vietnam vet, died in 1969. not from the war, but from getting mixed up with drugs when he got back to LA (the episode was rigidly silent on the possibility that Jim Webster got hooked on drugs in Vietnam as a response to such a shitty war because if it hadn’t been you would never have seen this episode). Webster was out to stop the corruption spreading.

He was a fightened and confused man. They were all frightened and confused men and women, well-meaning and, in a way that would get the episode on the air, they were immocent. They wanted the best for their children and their neighbours.

And what made this episode horrible to bear was they we are their future. this episode was broadcast in January 1980. Before the year was out, Ronald Reagan would be elected President on a rising tide of fear, selfishness and conservatism (for what else is conservatism but the denand that you should do only what I allow?) This was a warning of what has become Trump and Johnson, with no end in sight, only we missed all the signs. We thought they had good intentions. We thought that they were just misguided.

But they burnt books out of fear of what was in them. The people who do that cannot ever be trusted to leave you alone. And too many still can’t see that.

Lou Grant: s03 e17 – Inheritance

In imdb‘s episode ratings, this latest Lou Grant gets a below-par 7.8. I can understand that on an objective basis, especially given one substantial plothole in one half of the story, but my own history left me unable to be objective about the subject of the other.

Whilst the amount of time devoted to each, vastly different strand would justify me designating them as A and B stories, both did deal with very different questions of heritage and both turned on matters of significance. The ‘A story’, if I have to designate it thus, began with a determined but nervous woman walking onto a golf course, confronting one of four Doctors finishing a round, identifying herself as a baby he once delivered – and slapping him across the face before collapsing, sobbing that he had given her cancer.

In contrast, the ‘B story’ started in comic manner, with an elderly, well-dressed, rich and foreign-looking couple invading the Trib to try to withdraw someone else’s already-published wedding announcement, as preparation to prevent the wedding. Billie gets the girl, Rossi gets the other girl.

Billie’s girl is Jessica Downey (Sands Hall). Twenty-odd years ago, the Doctor prescribed her mother a new drug named DES which was supposed to prevent miscarriages. In fact, it had no such effect. But in about one in one thousand four hundred cases, it led to canccer in the baby, about twenty years later. Not merely cancer, but it also deformed the uterus, meaning that a woman so affected could conceive but not carry a baby to term. Before the episode was over, Jessica had had all her ovaries removed and at least part of her vaginal wall, losing her desire to become a mother, and bitter about how long her loving boyfriend would stay with her when she couldn’t give him babies,  nor ‘normal’ sex.

In a way, this clinical and detailed exposition was shocking, especially for a forty year old episode (original broadcast 28 January 1980), not just for its explicitness about the sexual aspects – the word orgasm was used, out loud – but also for the use of the C-word. . There was still a massive inhibition on saying the word Cancer so far back, a horror-movie fear that to say it was to bring it down on you.

That it was about cancer left me unable to look at it without my own background blurring any attempt at judgement, and the episode opted to bring the subject into the family with Billie herself. She’s the right age: did her mother take DES when she had her?

The short answer, after a whirlwind of emotions including some very understandable re-writing of the past to pretend it was exactly the same as the present, was yes. no suggestion of actual cancer, just a twice-yearly check-up that will doubtless never be referred to again: a Sword of Damocles hanging high indeed, but still hanging.

Rossi’s story involved Sarah Hartounian (Carol Bagdasarian), who was marrying Jamahl Azar (Gregory Rozakis). The couple trying to prevent the wedding or at least word of it getting out were her Uncle and Aunt Leon and Levinia (Buck Kartalian and Magda Harout). The reason? Sarah was Armenian and Jamahl Turkish.

Sarah and Jamahl were nothing more than two people in love, but to Leon and Levinia they were symbols, and a disgrace. For centuries, the Turks have tried to wipe out the Armenians, including two genocidal massacres, in 1915 and 1916, the outline of which was told in blunt and horrific detail, to which was added the approbation of Hitler (true historical fact) in comparison to the Jews.

To the older Hartounians, Sarah was not and could not be Sarah alone. She was and must be a symbol of her people, and be a representative of her ethnicity, which made her both more and less than she was. Lou tried to point out that only by such things as the pair marrying can ancient hatreds, however well justified, begin to be repaired, but Leon’s personal experiences, alongside his late brother, Sarah’s father, were so intense that he would never break out of that. And so intense that who had the right to try to bend him?

Leon and Lavinia believed Sarah was only marrying Jamahl to hurt them, when the truth was that they were marrying for the only good reason for marrying: love and compatibility. But, in the episode’s biggest plot hole, Leon intended to alter his brother’s will to disinherit Sarah. The show never explained how he could do that: his own will, yes, as was first mooted but his brother’s already operational one?

Either way, this inheritance ended up in court where the judge, after hearing compelling arguments both ways, voided the change of will. The elder Hartounians marched out, refusing to speak to their niece, which made you wonder just exactly who had won.

And Billie reconciled with her mother, who herself was torn up over the fear she had hurt her child but who had not been able to express it before.

Lots of cliches in there, put in service of an episode with solid roots that would probably have been better served as a one-off, not a weekly series produced under headlong time constraints. But I felt it in that part of me that only knows cancer for what it did to my family, which cannot think but only feel.

Lou Grant: s03 e16 – Cover-up

This is the perfect example, after last week’s dismally didactic episode, of how to do a story right. Lou Grant came up with a two-sided story of equal weight, no A and B stories, both reflecting the same theme and, for once, both reaching negative conclusions instead of making the world a better place.

The episode started in quasi-comic form: a magazine story written by Rossi has been optioned for a TV Movie-of-the-Week (remember them?) and he has an appointment with Alex Brubaker (Edward Power) at the Studio, who’s eager to produce it, with Rossi as scriptwriter. You can  just imagine Rossi over this.

Meanwhile, as part of her series on alternative schooling, Billie’s at a private school, where Mrs Pynchon is on the Board. Everything looks swell, especially popular, easy-going and very effective teacher Jeff Lindsey (Andrew Rubin). But Billie is inadvertently the pebble for the mess that follows, when her escort stops 10 year old Bryan Furniss (David Hollander) from getting to the bathroom in time. Bryan wets himself.

It’s not for the first time. Bryan has high achiever parents, the kind who believe that ‘average’ is a polite way of saying ‘failure’ (great line from the script, there). Wetting yourself is a common response among kids being pressured. Though Bryan insists everything’s alright, Lindsey senses the problem, sends the class out early and assists Bryan to get out of his wet underpants without public awareness by taking him to the Teacher’s loo. He even provides a paper bag in which Bryan can put his wet shorts to get home, though Bryan dumps these in a bin before getting home.

Unfortunately, his mother sees him changing and both parents force the story out of him. When they here he was taken to the bathroom alone by a male teacher, their thoughts both speed in the same direction: did he touch you? they demand, and poor Bryan is almost browbeaten into saying yes, though it may be that he’s not totally understood where they’re going: Lindsey does touch the kids in a friendly fashion, frequently, and a pat on the head or a shoulder is still a touch. But that’s a fine distinction that the show isn’t going to take up.

Meanwhile, Rossi learns that Brubaker is being sued for extorting kickbacks from  a caterer. He’s still up for his story, yet he’s honest enough to want the story investigated. Lou solves the conflict by swapping assignments: Rossi gets the school story in time to walk into Lindsey’s issue, Billie takes over the Brubaker accusations.

Things progress in a simpler fashion on her side. The caterer’s action gets dropped when it’s settled out of Court and he’s re-hired, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. Brubaker is intelligent, creative, powerful and more than adequately compensated, yet he extorts payments and kickbacks all over the show, to the extent that his long-term secretary, a former PA to Humphrey Bogart, ups and retires on it rather than continue to be a party to this.

From her, Billie gets a list of victims which she takes to studio Vice-President Ross Danziger (William Jordan) who, both before and now, says this is intolerable and despite the fact that Brubaker has saved the Studio from bankruptcy single-handedly, he’ll be out on his ear if this is true. No question.

Straightway you are cynical, especially as things are going badly at the school. Lindsey denies everything. It’s his word against Bryan’s. But the Board, over all Mrs Pynchon’s attempts to talk and think sensibly, panics and sacks Lindsey, rather than face publicity which will hit them over admissions. And income.

Lindsey loves teaching. Even though the reason for his dismissal isn’t being recorded publicly, his career will still be blighted. He could fight, but he won’t. The risk of loss if bryan is believed is too high. he won’t go High Noon. Was he telling the truth? You want to believe him. He’s very likeable, and incredibly good with the kids, but does that exclude…? The episode doesn’t give you any absolutes. As Mrs Pynchon points out, if the Board are not sacking a brilliant teacher on a single unsupported allegation, they’re sending a child molester out to do it again, only somewhere else. Nobody, least of all truth, wins this one.

Which sets us up for the finish we’ve been expecting ever since Danziger said he’d do the right, but wholly uncommercial thing: a Press Conference to announce, not Brubaker’s sacking but rather his resignation… to go  Indie-Prod and work in close alignment with the Studio. The rich are different from us, they don’t recognise laws in the same way, and everybody would rather bask in the wealth that drips off them than serve justice. After all, who are the little people getting screwed? What do they count for?

So, a serious episode made all the more effective by working through people rather than statistics, and with a pair of dark endings. A better antidote to last week I can’t imagine.

Lou Grant: s03 e15 – Indians

After a long series of episodes that have focussed on human beings as being in situations, this week’s Lou Grant reverted to its didactic roots by presenting a situation about which to show well-meaning liberal concern in which the humans involved were only tokens through which the subject was displayed. It didn’t work. It was well-meaning, and earnest and failed to make any connections.

As the episode title makes plain, the subject was the American Indians and their place in American life and culture in 1980. The Indians occupied a different culture, imperatives that were at odds with the overwhelming Anglo culture. Four tales were told to illustrate different aspects of this.

Raymond White (David Yanez) was a twelve-year old boy, a Papago Indian from Arizona who’d run away from a North California boarding school to find his Uncle, Howard Sweetman (Ned Romero), who was having difficulty getting a job because his cultural heritage, including attitudes to time and honour just didn’t mesh with basic Anglo business creeds. Howard got fired for leaving his job to help Billie Newman change a flat tire. He wasn’t doing a good job of sorting out his nephew’s schooling once animal had reunited them, but was better served by appplying to a business run by a Sioux Indian, who understood him.

Billie went on to Indian School, teaching children within their own understanding. Theresa Davies (Julie Carmen) was smart, beautiful, westernised, happy to help Billie and Lou understand, but her husband Gordon (Ray Tracey) was much more wedded to the Indian tradition of masculinised company. This was strong, warming, cooperative, but he was out every night, with no time  for Theresa.

Eventually, she ‘divorced’ him by placing all his clothing outside the ‘hogan’, or rather their apartment, just to try to get his attention. he reacted angrily to that but the episode ended at a Powwow, a cultural signifier that Gordon didn’t normally attend but did so, as an indication that he wanted to try to bridge  their differences.

The fourth story was openly lecturing, aa ddelegation of Indian activists attending on Lou and Charlie to get over some little known facts to the audience without any pretence of doing otherwise than editorialise to our faces. Not good drama.

All worthy social arguments and no convincing storytelling. A throwback episode and a disappointing one. Must do better next week.

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 e13 – Kids

Lou and Mark

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.

Lou Grant: s03 e12 – Hollywood

Forties sob-sister journalist

After demonstrating how well it could tell a story over two episodes, Lou Grant went back to single episode mode and showed just how good it could be in its basic style. The show gave itself a stylistic twist, with voiceovers from Lou himself, and stylish, if somewhat overmixed soundtrack combining to create an atmospheric story that went back thirty years, leading to an ending that left you still caught in the haze of the past, without a glib response.

It began with an old, abandoned Mexican food restaurant, Baby Duarte’s Cantina. Lou discovers it by chance, doing a favour, taking a Diner meal across to its owner, the reclusive Mrs Polk (Nina Foch). She never leaves the place, she never sees anybody. Inside, the Cantina is exactly as it was when it was shut, just dust.

Baby Duarte used to be an LA name, a Filipino boxer, a local success and, afterwards, such a sweet guy. His place was popular with the Hollywood crowd until, one night, Baby was murdered, in a back booth. The murder was never solved, though the suspects were Hollywood folk, racey actress Laura Sinclair, her two agents (and reputed lovers) Lee Wittenberg and Ken Holmes, and Director ‘Wild Man’ Moran.

Laura. who reputedly also had a mobster lover, kissed Baby in front of her two Agents.moran, already drunk, was refused a drink by Baby, who he provoked into beating his down. Mrs Polk, widow of Baby’s co-owner, discovered him at 3.45am, shot dead.

It’s an old murder of a forgotten name. At first, the Trib does a picture series on the Cantina. Then the team get involved in the old story. They interview the surviving players, Holmes and Moran. They interview Thea Kaft (Margaret Hamilton), the hard-boiled reporter who covered the story in the Forties, who supplies cuttings. Slowly, the story enlarges. Animal befriends Mrs Polk, a lonely woman trapped in a past that has captured her and refuses to let her leave. She’s a woman of her times, of her raising, a note the show slips in unobtrusively.

Can Billie or Rossi or Lou solve the crime after all these years? Billie discovers that Laura Sinclair, who supposedly cracked up a few months later and died in a Sanatorium in Indiana, is neither dead nor insane: she got out of the business, gew her hair. put on her glasses annd married a Doctor, becoming a fat, placid, contented mother.

I was beginning to think this was going to stay unsolved, because the atmosphere, the sense of times past and irrecoverable, so gracefully captured, was the main point of this episode, but there was a sting to the tale, a sting that left  you sad and helpless to its pointlessness.

Animal interviewed Mrs Polk, softly, gently, sympathetic. And out of that sympathy he understood what had happened. Mrs Polk had loved Baby, been in love with him. To us, and to him, there seemed no obstacle: he was single, she was widowed. But there was an obstacle, an insuperable obstacle. Baby was ‘coloured’. He came from Manilla, he wasn’t white. Mrs Polk wasn’t raised that way. It was against the Law (the look in her eyeswhen Animal told her, very gently, that that Law was changed, twenty-five years ago versus her soft comment that it was a good Law). Baby had a dream, of owning a chicken farm. he wanted a wife, he wanted to go back to the Phillipines. Mrs Polk loved him so much.

There was no heat to it, not now, not thirty years later. Just a hopeless sweetness, and the human heart in conflict with itself. Good Law? No. Yet it was not the Law but Mrs Polk’s upbringing that killed Baby Duarte, forgotten name of Los Angeles.

It waas, after all, so long ago. but without leaving 1979, the episode had spent its life there, and it was hard to emerge from it.