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.

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.

Lou Grant: s03 e07 – Gambling


Gambling only pays when you’re winning

All the Lou Grant episode titles are one-worders, though they are often somewhat oblique in their reference to the subject of the episode. ‘Gambling’ is flat and prosaic, and so, unfortunately, was the episode.

That starting point is the Turner-Landis Proposition, a California State Government proposal to legalise gambling, not merely in the form of betting on the horses, but also casinos, the proceeds of the tax to go to Education. Ok, decent topic, lot of meat in there (though as there seemed to already be a well-established betting industry, including the Trib’s ‘in-house’ bookie, for playing sports, there was a subtlety to the question that, not being an American in 1979, I’m completely missing).

What crippled the episode from the beginning was its refusal to take a stance. It should have been a straightforward Gambling is Bad to have a moral centre (Gambling is Good, or Gambling is Neither One Thing Nor Another doesn’t make for a story). Instead, it thoroughly confused the issue by splitting the episode between Mort Farber and Mac McIvor.

Mort was the story’s gem. An elderly man, played by Charles Lane, a lifelong track follower who spent every day of his life studying horses, their trainers, owners and vets, Mort is the expert of experts. He’s also gruff, irascible and completely unconcerned about whatever other people think. He’s befriended by Lou after he gets into Lou’s car to snatch a ride towards the racetrack, not only as an expert on the gambling question, but as a guy you just had to like.

And you liked Mort. He had devoted himself to one area of study, he was eccentric but clued-up and whilst you had to admit he was an addict, he was an addict who was in control, who would not bet for the sake of betting, but only on his own, highly accurate perceptions.

At the end, bedridden with near-pneumonia, Mort gets Lou to place a total of $1,500 at his direction on the unfancied Vespi, a 40-1 shot, who goes on to win. Only afterwards does Mort reveal the scam he’d recognised; Vespi was a different horse, a worldbeater, running under the wrong name.

Yes, Mort was smart, he was memorable and he was a winner, so any anti-gambling viewpoint was down in flames. Nevertheless, that’s what the show tried to dom, and spectacularly failed at, with Mac.

Mac, played by Michael Shannon, is a financial reporter at the Trib. More importantly, he’s holding hands with Billie Newman. Mac comes from a rich family, though in his case the spigot has been turned off. He’s the gambler with the problem, the opposite of Mort, because Mac loses. What happens to people who lose more than they have to pay was hinted at but in vague terms that left the audience filling in a pretty substantial gap.

So Mac goes and borrows $2,000 from Billie, on a sob-story about his mother needing money for an urgent operation. She’s not certain about it until Rossi advises her not to and then she hands him a cheque (sigh: complete silliness). Then Charlie inadvertently lets slip about Mac’s family, Billie feels let down and, even though Mac repayshalf the loan dead on time, she breaks up with him and is sad, and so are we because the ‘twist’  in this tale makes gambling look bad because it’s made poor, sweet Billie nearly cry, instead of something a lot more solid.

Cue closing ‘ironic’ gag. Animal has no interest in gambling, completely lacks the urge, is utterly confused by it, but now he’s bet on to football teams and won $25, and is going to invest half his winnings on another two games: “This is fun,” he twees whilst Lou and Billie share ironic looks and the bell goes to end this formless mish-mash.

Lack of conviction dogs the entire episode. Where is that immaculate liberal stance? A bit of polemic was what was missing and the result is dullness. Try again next week.

Lou Grant: s03 e06 – Hype


For once, here was an episode of Lou Grant that simply did not work for me on any level.

Oh, the good intentions were there, but they failed to make theemselves clear enough for the story to have a focus, and in picking Harold Gould to play the chief guest star role, that of Dr George Duncan, head of securing funding at LAU (the University), the show boobed and boobed badly. Gould was good in the part, commanding of appearance, immaculately turned out, full of energy and commitment, but both then and now, and especially then, he was identified with the part of Martin Morgenstern, father of Rhoda in the massively successful sitcom of the same name which was the first spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Gould was indelibly identified with the good guys, but the role needed a more equivocal figure, especially as Dr Duncan was supposed to represent the issue the show was tackling. Which was University funding.

The rather shapeless and decidedly underwhelming story was about LAU research scientist Dr Dan Todson (an altogether too vague and formless performance by David Huffman). Todson was involved in arthritis reasearch, which mainly seemed to consist of picking up a bunch of identikit white rabbits by the scruff of the neck and putting them down again. Dan was convinced he was on the edge of a breakthrough if only he was given time, but so far he’d been unable to duplicate his successful experiment. Under pressure from Duncan to produce, overtired and stressed, Dan switched tags on two rabbits to ‘prove’ his theory.

It was a dumb move, unethical, illegal and devastating to the reputations of both Dan and LAU, not to mention Dr Duncan, but most of all it was dumb because it was so easy to uncover. And when it came out it was disastrous, not least for Dan, who was genuinely intelligent, and dedicated,  and who had not only killed his own career, but who had seen to it that his research would never be taken up again, potentially costing millions freedom from arthritic pain.

The point of the story was to expose how the pure, independent research of Universities, Halls of Knowledge, seekers of truth, had been perverted by funding, from businesses, that produced outcomes supporting the interests of the funders and, more insidiously, restricting research only to those ‘commercial’ ideas. This latter point was brought out by Joe Rossi near the end in a story about Copernicus, which fell flat because at no point could the episode engage you in the people and the effects, nor could it even make clear what it was all about in the first place.

A rare complete failure, made emphatic by the flimsy B story, a feather-light portrayal of Mike, volunteer test subject at $3 an hour, wasting his life away much to the chagrin of Lou. Mike was a lazy drone and Craig Wasson portrayed him as happy-go-lucky, unconcerned and, well, happy. He neither toiled nor did he spin, in fact he offended the entire Protestant Work Ethic, but you would have waited a long time before you  found him anything more than just dull.

Lou Grant: s03 e05 – Frame-Up


Slimeball

Though there was a certain degree of satisfaction in the conclusion to this story, overall this was a very nondescript affair that dispensed with having a point to it for over half its length. The story was a Billie Newman solo to all intents and purposes, or almost a two-hander with Stephen McHattie as Curtis Folger, the public face of a deal to bring a substantial company, Anacott, from Detroit to LA, along with 2,500 jobs, an injection into the economy of $5,000,000 in salaries and a tax windfall of £1,000,000.

Yes, all very dry stuff, made drier by the decision to not actually tell us what Anacott do.

Billie’s at the Press Conference, pushing the Environmental angle, and Anacott’s ability to satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirements. Something doesn’t feel right to her and when she discovers Anacott have veen cited 117 times for breaches in Detroit, she writes the story that has Anacott pulling out and moving to Mexico instead, not to mention Billie’s name becoming mud.

It’s still very dry. Folger points out, reasonably enough, that it’s far easier to build a standards-fit plant from scratch than to adapt an old plant to changing standards, and Billie’s determination to follow her hunch that something’s not kosher, especially when the EPA and the City give Anacott substantial concessions make her look slightly vindictive. Where we’d normally applaud her integrity, this time it’s all very much what’s the point?

Well, the point is when Folger’s sacked secretary, Nell Wheeler (Wendy Phillips) smuggles out a memo that sets out the whole manipulative scheme in all its slimey detail – only for Folger to denounce it as a forgery, and prove it. Cue a $5.3million lawsuit against the Trib.

Cue also a prolonged and strange interlude in which everyone at the Trib starts to treat Billie funny. She’s quizzed on all the angles that might have led her to fake this fake memos, everyone’s all eggshell solicitous around her, the lawyers are talking about settling. It’s driving Billie crazy that no-one, not even Lou, will support her, will actually consider that this is a frame-up. By a man who used to work for a major Agency in Detroit that specialise in dirty tricks in political matters of a kind that, in 1979, would still be very fresh in the American people’s minds from the panoply of Watergate.

Oh, and it’s also the Agency to which Nell Wheeler is tracked down for her new job after she disappears without trace…

Yes, it was a frame-up, and Folger’s hands were in the cookie jar up to the elbow. Behind the scenes, the Trib worked to expose the story, to vindicate themselves and Billie.The satisfactory bit was Folger in Lou’s office, trying to bluff, bullshit and bribe his way out of being pinned to the wall for this, and Lou’s quiet, almost monosyllabic refusal to take any bait.

Less satisfying was the episode failing to give Billie any agency in this. Apart from four paragraphs to be batted out before deadline, it was all done for the helpless little woman by the male staff, covertly, and without any actual apology for how shittily they’d treated her. Still, it’ll all be forgotten by next week, won’t it?

And whilst this has nothing to do with the story’s merits or demerits, I have to point out that, to considerable shock, Linda Kelsey actually wore a midi-dress without knee-length boots for one scene, in which she crossed her legs and exposed a kneecap. It was a shocking display of flesh and for for which I was wholly unprepared. But it’ll all be forgotten by next week, won’t it?