Lou Grant: s04 e18 – Violence


Sometimes, balance is inappropriate. Sometimes it’s wishy-washy. The impulse to be fair, to let all sides of an argument be aired to enable the viewer to make up its own mind, to demonstrate complexity, is always laudable. But it’s still wishy-washy. Failing to show a clear moral standpoint, or failing to show it with sufficient force is a cop-out.

It’s something that’s been a characteristic of Lou  Grant  from the outset. The show’s innate, small-l liberal mindset demands that it doesn’t slant stories, as much under President Carter at the beginning as under President Reagan now and until the end.

But the determination to be ‘fair’ sometimes, as in this week’s episode, undermines the story. The violence of the title was primarily about American Football, and the way the game had changed by the early Eighties to de-emphasise the skill of passes and runs in favour of pumping up the violence: the blocks, the tackles, the ‘hits’

The lead was LA’s star defensive back, Cliff ‘Crusher’ Carter (Fred Williamson), who starts the show on a B&W TV at McKenna’s Bar that was so dark you could have thought the game was being played at night without floodlights. Crusher ‘spears’ Ron Templeton, who winds up in a coma from which he eventually wakes, paralysed from the neck down for life and refuing to support his wife’s $3.5 million lawsuit because it will hurt the Club.

Rossi’s doing a story on Crusher, who he already idolises, for Sportsweek. Charlie wants the Templeton story treating as news instead of Sports, where everybody is ganging up to support Crusher in his hour of need. Lou’s on their side so he assigns Billie, who can’t understand or stand American Football, and then objects when she examines the background of violence and injury in the sport instead of treating it like the ‘freak incident’ it is. Some freak: the more finessed defensive back Mike Hauser (Fred Dryer) puts another plyer into hospital with an undisputably clean block and resigns immediatey, sick to his stomach.

We know Crusher’s the bad guy. He is open about how he intimidates opponents, hits them hard. He films a Public Service Announcement about the importance of family then, off camera, slaps the ball out of the kid’s hands (‘You hold like a girl’). He gives tips to college players on how to get away with illegal hits, focussing on breaking the star kid who’s broken Crusher’s college interceptions record. And when he wants to kill Rossi’s interview, in the wake of Hauser’s retirement, he orders Joe around, slams him against a car and steals his notebook.

Yes, the show does paint Crusher as he is, a vicious, arrogant thug not all that concealed under his surface bonhomie. But it hedges that truth around with a mixture of Football’s own denials about itself, its attempts to squash Mrs Templeton’s lawsuit, the sports writers’ overlooking details, Lou’s own refusal to confront the genuine issues in the game, and the fans’ preferemce for violence and thuggery. Crusher has boxes of fanmail applauding him from wht he did to Ronnie Templeton.

There’s a counterpoint to this in the form of a B story. Lou bumps into the Trib’s film critic, the attractive Melissa Cummings (Tyne Daly, about to star as Lacey of Cagney and…) and they start dating, despite the fact that they have no apparent opinions in common. The problem is that Melissa isn’t a character, she’s a viewpoint, she’s 100% supportive and promoting of violent films, all of which are masterpieces, reflecting not influencing audience’s underlying violence and providing catharsis.

In short, she’s the advocate of the slasher movies and video-nasties of that era, in the face of the regular cast’s more mainstream tastes, but beyond her taste in films and ability to spout lyrical, she doesn’t exist.

(Case in point re the show’s unwillingness to get too close to genuine issues, not to mention the American character: we see an excerpt from ‘Carlos and Wendy’, about a couple on honeymoon attacked by three bikers, who beat Carlos and rape Wendy before driving away on their hogs, respecting the speed limits in a subruban area, allowing Wendy to drive up behind them and ram at least two of the bikes in a cathartic release of vengeance. The drawback is that whilst this truth-telling ‘film’ shows Carlos being punched, clubbed and kicked, Wendy is dragged off behind a suitable outbuilding to be raped invisibly, offscreen. I never was an aficionado of video-nasties but I lived through that era and the sex was always upfront. The show tried to exemplify something by introducing evidence it could never ever show.)

There were some decently subtle moments in the episode, including the reporter who, when Hauser announced his retirement and why, immediately tried to brush it under the carpet by asking if this was just a ploy in salary negotiations,and Crusher’s turning on Joe, who was starting to have doubts about him, was in the face of hassle from the Press and the Club over Ronnie Templeton but come on now, did you really think we’d see him get his comeuppance? Even a defiant supporting/lionising of him would have gie the episode some heft by giving us a form of closure – any form – but we know better than to accept that after nearly four full seasons of Lou Grant.


Lou Grant: s04 e17 – Business

Despite an excellent performance from guest star Edward Winter as a new, progressive business CEO, this was another case of one step up, one step down.

If I were to tell you that this story was about relations between American busoiness and the Press, would you be expecting great drama and edge-of-the-seat watching? Maybe in America, where one President went so far as to define that ‘the business of America is business’, but through British eyes the story failed to convince as a worthwhile one, and ended up coming over as a whole lot of fuss about very little.

We began in media res with the aftermath of a devastating fire affecting plant belonging to long-established Los Angeles company, Cal-electronics. The company’s recently shed veteran officer Lester Sorenson (Phillip Abbott) almost as soon as he’d been appointed President, replacing him with the much younger and go-getting Russell Davidson (Winter) but they’re being intensively secretive about everything, to the extent that they’ve triggered Joe Rossi’s permanently lurking suspicions as to what they’re hiding.

It was at this early point that the episode lost me. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason in ducking questions, failing to supply information, especially when the truth that was being buried was minor and insignificant. It was all very Watergate, the cover-up creating far more harm than the story being suppressed.

But Davidson and everyone else at Cal-electronics seemed to think that the press was against them, that automatically it gave businessand companies grief, sensationalising stories, slanting them to make the problem out to be more widespread than it really is.

There was an example on the Trib’s side, and this from Adam Wilson, the economics writer and a natural friend to business, with a story exposing the cancer risk to employees that came over as a company-wide thing with potential spread to consumers when in strict fact it was five workers in one division, a risk neutralised instantly.

Without a background of familiarity with press reporting of business in the early Eighties it was hard to viscerally accept that the company were justidfied in their extreme circle-the-wagons approach. Naturally, the company wanted to fight back, buying full-page ads in the Trib to put over their point of view, hassling the Trib over sitting on a Washington State story about a labour dispute that escalated into deaths, because it was at a paper mill owned by the Trib.

To be honest, it all seemed very superficial and the ending – Sorenson explains the humiliating circumstances of his resignation, a breakdown due to promotion to a role he couldn’t handle and the secrecy merely being Davidson’s innate decency over not wanting to expose an old man’s frailties – fell flat because the story, well-acted as it was, was flat from introduction to coda.

I shall, out of decency, refrain from mentioning the thin-to-the-point-of-skeletal ‘B-story’, included assumedly because the actor needed a job.

One step up, one step dow. There have been rather more of the latter this season than any other.

Lou Grant: s04 e16 – Campesinos

One of many sides

Once again I’m in the position of being an unintentional contrarian in my opinions about a television episode. According to imdb‘s ratings, this episode is the lowest rated in season 4, one of only two to be given a rating under 7. Yet whilst the story was often confused, and was predictable in one major aspect, I thought it better than that, especially as, for once, the series’ reluctance to provide distinct outcomes was fitting: this was a story that would never end.

The story was about labour relations, in a time when, even in America, workers had a lot more going for them than they do now. Immigrant workers, Mexican, are employed in picking celery in California’s Central Valley. It’s wht it always is: back-breaking work, ten hours in the field under a blazing sun, or in pouring rain, for minimum wage, and that’s just for the ones who get to work: the rest starve.

There’s been a strike for six months, and the growers are getting illegals in to do the job for even less. The owners don’t care about the workers, they see them as free of responsibility. The owners hold the land, they work it and manage it, they are invested in it. They don’t have the freedom to move on and do something else whenever they feel like it. Besides, the owners don’t want to be told how to run their business, forced to hire workers they don’t consider sufficiently skilled or fast enough.

It’s an arguable case, but it contains a wilful blindness as to the real lives of the workers, their need for a living wage, their need for security. Oddly enough, the show allows the owners to make their viewpoint explicit but doesn’t give the same to the Union. I suppose it’s because their case is bindingly obvious: you take one look at the conditions under which they work and immediately support their need to be treated decently and fairly.

But what’s this all got to do with the Trib? It starts with Union organiser Tommy Hernandez (James Victor), former football star and school contemporary with Joe Rossi, roping him in to the story with the hook of former worker’s activist, the Reverend Hugh Holstrom (Jeff Corey) coming out of retirement after 18 years to rejoin the fight.

Though Lou is more interested in the Tommy Hernandez story than the strike, Hernandez uses Rossi’s presence (and that of a dozen other reporters also on the same ‘exclusive’), to advance his cause. The Reverend breaks the picket to try to address the illegals, bring them round to the cause (they cannot: without work they will starve) and is arrested. A rumour he’s had a heart attack in the Sheriff’s station causes a mini-riot in which Rossi is caught up and gets him jailed.

This forces Lou to take the overall story more seriously, sending a team to Ortega: Animal, Billie, Spanish-speaking Rubin Castillo (Emilio Delgado) and Donovan, whose beat this was fifteen years earlier. We’ve not seen much of Billie recently because Linda Kelsey had broken her left wrist, arm in slings and slimline plaster cast and she’s officially acknowledged to be on the Reserved Injured List herein. Continuity-wise, it’s a throwback to Billie’s injury during episode 13, ‘Strike’.

As the show develops, the strike is given a more personal edge by an unconvincing detail. One of the owners, Paul Geyer (William Lucking, Gandy Dancer in Tales of the Gold Monkey), is a former friend of Tommy and a team-mate who worked well with them. Geyer tries to negotiate separately with Tommy, but Tommy won’t budge, leading Geyer to conclude there’s a personal element to this, that Tommy is focussed on beating Geyer, not on his members interests. They’d be better off without you, he tells Tommy.

Straightway, you knew what was to follow. The frustrated pickets, whipped up by Tommy, break their lines and enter the fields. Tommy racesafter them, as much as you can in a celery field, urging them to go back. The guard with a rifle fires three shots, everybody turns round and retreats but one man has been hit: it’s Tommy and he’s dead. The show makes a hash of this scene, with the violence off camera, but it was all so predictable.

As was the outcome. without Tommy, the strike was settled, the Union compromised, the purveyor of Unintended Manslaughter got the traditional slap on the wrist and everything went back to normal, until the next time. The illegals were collected in a truck and went somewhere else.

It was a deliberately downbeat ending, recognising that here was a scenario that would repeat and repeat uintil the heat-death of the Universe. It was an episode ito which you could read any political position your own prejudices endorsed and in which, if your mind was open enough, see the opposite side and the practical reality of the world in that it was those of us who buy celery (I don’t) and want it cheap force conditions, compromises and even deaths on those at the other end of the production chain. And it did all these not to be wishy-washy neutral but to show us that this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Could it have done it better? Oh, certainly. Two seasons ago this topic would have produced a tighter, sharper, more concentrated episode to say and show all these things, but it still got its intentions straight, and it deserved a bit more respect from its audiene. There are higher rated episodes this season that aren’t half as good as this, albeit flawed story.

Lou Grant: s04 e13 – Strike

I don’t think there’s been an episode of Lou Grant that made me feel the gulf in years between then and now more than this week. The Trib is facing running at a loss within a year and Mrs Pynchon is looking at ways to turning the situation around. The way is automation, of the presses, but at the cost of 200 jobs. The Union won’t agree one. The result is a strike. Lou Grant, as a lifelong Union man, is torn because, as Management, he has to be on the other side of the divide.

It was a very odd experience to watch this. It was so completely reflective of its era, and it was a sign of how far I’ve absorbed the present era management-dictated situation that I so easily accepted the management position. It was easy to see, from the perspective of 2020, that the Union were on the wrong side of history, that they were fighting against improvement, against efficiency, against better ways of doing things. They wanted to keep things in the past.

Yet they were also fighting for people, men and women with families dependent upon their wage. The paper was bending over backwards to accommodate those who would be affected, but there was a strong element of people not wanting to change. The old line about jobs guaranteed for life was used.

Of course, based on the Bitish experience of Print Unions, which were notorious for featherbedding, I couldn’t help but query how mny of those 200 people had real jobs: that was something the episode didn’t go near. There was Management’s line, represented by hotshot business advisor Bart Franklin (a young and not altogether recognisable Ray Wise), and there was the Union line and neither was subjected to any external, and potentially objective line.

The resolution came after at least three weeks of a near all-out strike when Mrs Pynchon forced Franklin off the negotiations; after all, as Lou had already seen, his goal was to crush the Union and hers to save the paper for as many as was possible. The compromise was a sixteen-strong composers room, which was quite a way down from twenty-five, suggesting what I said about featherbedding.

Of course, the episode also involved itself in the animosity between the two sides during the strike but as every scintilla of that will have never happened by next week, I don’t see any reason why I should go into it.

It was truly looking back into times that are gone and maybe need to be resurrected, to protect workers from the incessant desire of management to have absolute, and therefore capricious control over the people they employ. I have never felt the programme to be so far away than today.

Lou Grant: s04 e12 – Search

Guest star

With the exception of a no-better-then-middling B story about Lou discovering an excellent, out-of-the-way Italian restaurant that is almost destroyed by publicity, this was a gentle, indeed sweet episode, bucking the trend of most of this season.

Search was about junior Trib photographer Lisa Carruthers (Alley Mills), who was introduced working alongside Joe Rossi on a story of a mother-daughter Jewish family, separated in the concentration camps and rediscovering each other after thirty-seven years. Brief, avoiding histrionics, and genuinely moving, two extras in a role not directly related to the story hitting the mark with precision.

This served to lead us to Lisaherself, an adopted girl aged 25 who confesses that, though she loves the parents who brought her up and in particular the mother with whom she lives, she has always wanted to know about her natural mother.

So Rossi, treating this as a journalistic investigation, gets on the case for her, roping in Billie and Donovan, though against the approval of Lou, who plainly thinks no good will come of it.

The episode, without being slow or dull, seemed to run for far longer than its 43 minutes, taking each step, its successes and reversals, slowly and thoroughly. It was never dry, because at the heart of it was the anxious yet hopeful Lisa, fearful and yearning over what she might find.

Such as the fact that she was born in November 1955 (her fictional birthdate exactly ten days after my real one, and what’s so bad about being a Scorpio anyway?) yet her father named on her birth certificate was killed in Korea three years previously.

And there was Roissi, playing an unusual role for him, full of the usual tenacity and drive but tempered by the fact that he was doing this for somebody, a real person, who was a sweet, natural young woman who he liked.

Nevertheless, the show couldn’t resist the expected arc. Lisa – or Alexandra Hart as she was originally named – discovered her mother in the South. Fearful of the shock it might cause someone apparently in ill-health, she wrote first to her newly-discovered older half-sister, Bess Gresham, who welcomed her with open arms, with delight and all the love you could wish for.

But mother Augusta was cold and rejecting. Lisa was a mistake, a child born to a widow. She had only ever wanted to bury that mistake, to exclude it from her life and never be reminded of it again, and she rejected Lisa a second time.

Though disappointed, and fated never to know anything about her natural father, Lisa took things well. She has Bess, whose welcome was heartfelt, and, in the episode’s only relapse into twee, she reasoned that she had found her real mother, Margaret Carruthers.

This was Alley Mills# only appearance. She’d not long since come off a starring role in the unsuccessful but short-lived legal sitcom, The Associates (which I’d almost forgotten and which I’d enjoyed back then) and she would have been ideal for a recurring role, in relation to Rossi. But the show missed the mark on that possibility. Nevertheless, her story was a bright spot in this weak season, and I am grateful to her.

Lou Grant: s04 e11 – Generations

It’s probably time now to admit that season 4 of Lou Grant is not going very well. Whether it’s that the show is merely having a weak season, or whether it’s the case that it has entered terminal decline can only be seen once I’ve completed the re-watch: I’m past the point where the show had disappeared from UK screens.

‘Generations’ was clearly a case of weak writing on a subject that never took shape. This was all about the plight of the elderly in modern society, spread out over three strands. The lead was Charlie Hume’s father, Rupert (Charles Lane), who comes to live with Charlie and Marian after he’s caught shoplifting wallets.

The old man’s not a kleptomaniac, nor is he suffering from something Alzheimeresque, he’s just sharp as a talk (if garrulous and cantakerous) with nothing to do. In the end, he’s sent in to run a potentially successful small business that’s over-committed and facing bankruptcy, and needs a successful trouble-shooter to make it cost-efficient.

The tertiary strand, involving Billie, was Fred Jenkins (Whitman Mayo)  bus driver and also The Florence Jenkins Foundation. Rather than spend his money on his house or himself, Fred makes awards to people who do good things, $100 at a time. He’s unrealistic, but a figure of genuine good, delighting in encouraging good works in memory of his late wife. He even sends an award to Mrs Pynchon for her tree-planting project, which she feels she can’t accept but does so in the face of Jenkins’ obvious and genuine pleasure.

But the other lead is the tragic one, with horrific consequences. This was where there were no comic aspects, and it should have been where the efforts were concentrated, to maximum effect. Lou’s opposite neighbour, the elderly Harvey Shelton (Arthur Space), is being hassled by neighbourhood kids. It’s teasing, pranks, the sort of stuff it’s easy to see as non-malicious, but the problem is that even as we discover it, it’s already reached a level of genuine harrassment. The kids ride their bikes round and round his front garden space, destroy his roses, shout and swoop. It’s already nasty, for all the show tries to pretend it’s mostly high-spiritedness on the kids’ part. And Harvey is vulnerable, a guy in his seventies with a sick wife, who wants nothing more than peace and quiet.

And nobody does anything abut it. It’s reached the level of persecution but the show wants to have its cake and eat it too by having everyone act as if it’s completely innocuous. You can see the story arc from San Francisco.

It starts with the accident: Harvey puts on a spray to water the garden just as some of the kids cycle by, and soaks them. They, of course, see it as deliberate and decide to retaliate, at night, just as Harvey’s learned his sick wife has slipped into a coma. They ride round the house, shouting and screaming, knock things over, break a window, stick a loud transistor through the hole, yell at him. It’s too much for Harvey to bear, he’s overwhelmed and who wouldn’t be at that age, but he has a gun, for protection, and he fires it blindly through the window, to scare them off. But he hits one of the kids, a good kid as represented throughout the episode, and kills him.

And it means very little. It has no impact at all, in part because the show, in demonstrating the escalated behaviour of the kids that drives Harvey to this frightened extreme, has already gone past the point where intervention should and would have taken place, and where the kids’ stupid and vicious behaviour, moivated only by Harvey being a ‘grouch’, robbed at least one viewer of sympathy for the 14 year old life cut short. I don’t like deliberately inflicted terror, especially when practiced against someone elderly: I’m getting to be that way myself.

Incidentally, the role of Mike, the kid who gets killed, was a first television credit for Matthew Broderick, the future Ferris Bueller.

It’s a minor point though I’ll mention it anyway. The appearance of Rupert Hume contradicts the show’s continuity, Charlie having mentioned, two seasons back, that his father was dead at the age of 86: Rupert is 76 and very much alive.


Lou Grant: s04 e10 – Boomerang

After last week’s serious and concentrated effort, there was another fallback on Lou Grant, a neatly constructed but somehow blurred effort on a crusading subject that needed to spice itself up with an intertwined theme that stood out just a little bit too much as irrigation of a dry subject.

The episode’s title came over as misleading, given the subject matter, and it was explained only at the end. A more appropriate title would have been ‘dumping’, but whereas we in Britain regard this as a fairly innocuous word, I was surprised to learn, several years ago, that in America it was a direct and immediate connotation with shit.

Our topic for today was the concerning one of American companies producing such things as pesticides, medicines and birth control devices that fail to meet requisite standards, being banned in the USA but then being exported to Third World countries where the danger to people is of far less concern than the recovery of the profit.

Our lead-in was melodramatic, a middle-aged man being rushed into hospital in a Central American country with a close-up on a respirator. The man is the Trib’s veteran foreign affairs correspondent, Hedley Freeman and he dies of a heart attack because the respirator failed. It is a defective product made by an LA company, banned in America.

It was an important story on a socio-liberal scale, and even more so in an age that was only rapidly learning to be cynical, and it rapidly put out tendrils to demonstrate that such behaviour was pretty common, though not universal. There were interviews that showed the companies glossing over their actions by claiming they were serving the greater good, such as combatting overpopulation, some of it coming over as zealous, some of it as self-serving. The American Government was drawn into the cycle, ordering goods it wouldn’t allow to be used on its own people, to ‘assist’ other countries.

But this was a documentary subject that couldn’t afford a human element to exemplify the importance of the topic without either narrowing the focus or minimising the effect, so it was overlaid with an in-house human element in the form of Sydney Kovac, guest star Michael Constantine.

Kovac is a guest columnist, a veteran reporter, a successful book writer and a contemporary of Lou, who isn’t quite as pleased to see him as you might think, which is a sovereign clue that wearen’t meant to treat him as a goody. Kovac likes the dumping story. He practically takes it over, driving it forward, usurping Lou’s prerogative as City Editor and directing a hyper-enthused Rossi and Billie, together with other reporters, in hot pursuit.

Lou doesn’t like it. Some of it is personal: he, not Kovac is the editor, but a lot of it is not having all the tenable facts, and he winds up being sent to Coventry over his insistence his reporters do all their assignments, not just this fun one. Kovac keeps wanting to go with it, now, but Lou demands a proper job.

And a very proper job is done and ready to print. Except that Kovac isn’t just guest columning at the Trib, and he steals the story and gets it into print, with non-credit for Rossi and Billie, before the Trib can. That’s our human drama, confected to make the medicine go down, and it’s just not worthy of it. Kovac turns out to be a slimeball, all ends up, just as he was signalled to be.

As for ‘Boomerang’, it falls to Mrs Pynchon to coin it, unable to drink coffee whose beans, grown overseas, may carry the residue of the deadly pesticides banned in the USA. America dumps its poison on Third World countries and, just like the boomerang, it comes back to the hand, in the form of imports. A cycle, a self-destructive cycle.

With this episode, I’m exactly half way through season 4. It’s clearly a weak season as the past several episodes have shown. I’m way beyond any point I watched to first time round, and the big question is, slump or decline? Either way, I’ve come this far so I’ll continue to the end, which means another 34 weeks, but I suspect that the show has probably passed its peak. I’ll have a conclusion on this in another eight month’s time.

Lou Grant: s04 e09 – Rape

Lynne Moody

With a subject like that, this week’s Lou Grant HAD to be good, and not just good enough. After watching the episode, with a hypercritical mind after the last three failures, I was perhaps too detached but on balance the show managed to end on the right side of the line.

The central character was new reporter Sharon McNeil, played to perfection by Lynne Moody. Sharon’s a confident, intelligent, attractive black woman, working a story alongside Joe Rossi, not merely holding her own but balancing him out nicely, and liking him too. The story, investigating an alleged slush fund run by a fast food burger company, is a vehicle: it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s handled seriously and runs through the episode, and is intelligently used to frame the main story.

Rossi drops Sharon off at her apartment, to get her laundry in and then go on to the paper. She doesn’t get there: she’s attacked in her apartment by a creepy guy armed with a big knife, slapped around the face, her wrists tied together behind her. The intruder is played by Jonathan Banks, a familiar face (he’s already had two previous Lou Grant appearances and I’d see him again in Hill Street Blues). Banks is a specialist in playing villains and creepy bastards, and here he’s on edge from the start, slightly creepy, slightly disfunctional, someone not quite on the same plane as everyone else. He’s there to rob, perhaps he’s an addict, that’s not mentioned but it’s inferable from his slight spaceiness.

Sharon’s terrified but she stays calm, at least on the surface, tries to talk to him, act sensible, persuade him to leave without hurting her. Gradually, there being insufficient things worth robbing, the intruder slides towards rape. Sharon says it first, a subtle point later pixcked up upon by the Police, one of them acting as if that’s a mitigating factor in the intruder’s favour: you see, she put the idea in his head…

This goes on for over half the episode, intercut with things going as normal at the paper. The intruder has Sharon once, then again, with instructions to her to act like she’s enjoying it this time, a sick-making point that further emphasised that rape is not about sex but about power: I’m going to fuck you and not only can you do nothing to stop me but even as you’re hating every second of it, you will pretend to me that you’re loving it…

And when he’s gone, Sharon immediately locks every door, eveey window, and turns on the shower. Then she comes into work and everybody’s chewing her out for being late and not communicating. It takes Rossi, Rossi the self-centred sod, the ego-on-legs, the guy who’s interested in the story and nothing else, but who likes and respects Sharon, to be gentle enough to have her unburden herself to him.

And immediately he is the most immense support of all, gentle, kind, instinctively understanding the boundary between closeness and distance. The writing is sufficiently intelligent to open up about him being in part driven by guilt: he was with her only minutes earlier, he didn’t go inside with her, he knew she was coming in, he didn’t chase up her absence. All of it borrowed guilt, the instinctive impulse, paternalistic and chauvinistic in its way, that if only I’d done something, I could have prevented this.

Yet from Rossi it doesn’t come over as either of these things. It’s the concern of a friend who, yes, was close enough to have diverted it if he’d just done one thing marginally different. But the show had already foreshadowed this: Sharon had said a man was calling for her very shortly and the intruder had just said he would kill him.

The aftermath was handled neatly. Sharon didn’t want to be defined by having been raped, was carrying on as normal, putting it behind her, whilst evidently on the edge of cracking up. Everyone’s sympathy, their walking on eggshells around her, was making it worse.

This was further emphasised by the tertiary story, in which Art Donovan is seeing female tennis player Carol (Linda Carlson). Carol’s being a bit less eager abut going off for a cabin weekend with our in-house lothario, and this turns out to be because she too has been raped. There’s a scene with Mrs Pynchon expressing anger at this epidemic of rapes and the Trib’s inadequate coverage of the problem where she’s shaking in anger and once again we infer a personal element.

Carol though was raped two years ago and still isn’t over it. And once Art knows, he starts treating her differently. She accuses him of seeing her as tainted, but he explains that he’s having to second-guess himself over touching her or holding her because he doesn’t know if he’s helping and comforting or forcing himself on her in a way that disgusts her. Even so, he still falls into the trap of seeming to blame her for ‘asking for it’, which in context – and bearing in mind the diminished sensitivity to rape even now, let alone forty years ago – demonstrated very economically that even the good guys can be fucking thick.

Sharon’s going to snap, it’s just a question of when, and it comes when some middle-aged, smug, mildly creepy executive takes her arm unasked, and she screams at him.

It’s not catharsis, but it is the beginning of the healing. In a powerful scene that could, in lesser hands, have nose-dived into being didactic, Sharon explains what this has done to her, laying bare the fears of every woman, brought up to believe that their sexuality is a delight and a gift, to be shared with those for whom she cares, but now seeing that it, and them, and everything they are or want to be is at the mercy of a man, any man, who decides he will take it and will force it from her. It’s powerful in itself and more so as delivered by Moody, and I find it hard to believe that this was written by a male writer, not a woman.

There is no real end to this story because the programme has too much respect for the subject to suggest it can be wrapped up in 46 minutes. Sharon takes leave of absence to return to her mother in Kansas City and we get a surrogate ending from Carol, suggesting Art take her away for a cabin weekend: another stage in her journey back from what happened to her, and one we hope will be successful.

I think, after thinking about the episode at length, that I should revise my opinion and say that this WAS good. The writing covered an immense amount of ground without ever once seeming impersonal or didactic, and it was plotted with great economy. Everything that needed to be said was said naturally, without anyone hammering you over the head or being preachy, and the performances were pitched perfectly, especially that of Lynne Moody. It may only be once, but she will appear again, in season 5, and I look forward to it.

Lou Grant: s04 e06 – Libel

Irena Ferris. Better her than anything from the episode.

I cannot believe how bad this episode was. In fact, in my eyes it doesn’t even qualify as an episode, given its structure as the first half of a two-part story which then never produced its second part. The story just vanishes up itself on a procedural point and stops abruptly with every plate left spinning in mid-air.

The episode is about exposing the National Enquirer for what it is, namely a supermarket scandal sheet devoted to exaggeration, distortion and lies to sell sensationalist stories about the rich and famous. Does this sound in any way familiar? Of course it does (it even has the cheek at one point to suggest the blame belongs to Britain).

The point of the story is that this is 1980, and the National Spectator (as the paper in the episode is named, as minimalist cover) is the only paper doing this, and very successful it is. We enter the story via popular and successful married couple tennis star Eddie Daniels (James van Patten) and fashion model Monica Daniels (Irena Ferris, a genuinely gorgeous woman with the most modern look I’ve yet seen in the whole series). Monica discovers a front-page banner headline story claiming the baby she’s carrying is not Eddie’s but rather that of a photographer, one of many with whom she’s sleeping around. The stress and upset leads to a car accident in which she loses the baby. Sent to interview Eddie, Billie Newman is berated by him just for being a reporter.

That’s the entree, though Eddie also crops up later, provoked into giving the Spectator a sensationalist photo. From here, Lou Grant decides to do a piece on the Spectator as a disgrace to the entire newspaper business.

The story was oddly dull, or perhaps that was just because nothing in it shocked or surprised the way it was hoped to do in 1980. Even then, the Spectator was not the (massively successful) outlier that the programme clearly hoped it was, but the forerunner as newspapers in general were dragged – completely willingly – into its wake until that is the norm these days, even among the so-called quality press.

The story spent a lot of time pursuing its target and exposing to the unsuspecting audience the tactics. There was a warning line early on when Joe Rossi interviewed the Publisher, George Lester (Alan Oppenheimer), a waistcoated, sleek, smooth, confident man who was clearly far cleverer than anyone on the Trib. Lester’s eager to show off his paper’s humanitarian awards for re-uniting families, exposing health scandals, but the moment Rossi starts creeping up on the scandals he’s accused of having come with pre-conceived notions, intent only on a hatchet job, and the interview is over. The funny thing is, Lester is spot on.

I’ll mention the British angle briefly. This is ex-Spectator editor Claude Whitcomb, who you know is British because he’s called Claude, he’s played by Bernard Fox (who once played Dr Bombay on Bewitched) with a fruity voice, Whitcomb’s an import from the London Daily MirrorThe Sun would have been a better example though the Mirror, which I used to get in my pre-Guardian days, wasn’t off the mark – and cheerfully outlined the tactics the tabloids used to get their stories, including lies. Fox also got to drape his arm across Linda Kelsey’s shoulders for an unconscionably long time without her kicking him in the nuts which was a bit of a character-breaking detail. Whitcomb even contrasted the Mirror and it’s fun appeal to a tired worker in the evening with the serious and off-putting stories of the ‘Manchester Guardian‘ which was a seriously outdated reference to the roots the paper had long since abandoned even then. Ok, that wasn’t all that brief a mention.

All of this is set-up for the immediate response of the Spectator, which is to sue the Trib for $60,000,000 for malicious intent and irreperable harm to reputation (manifesting itself in increased cirulation, hah!). The rest of the half-episode was all about the legal aspects of handling such a serious case, culminating in Lou exploding in deposition and refusing to answer questions about his state of mind, his doubts, etc., when editing the story.

It was a matter of principle, a refusal to let outsiders into his head, on behalf of editors everywhere. It would cripple journalism. It even had Adam Wilson second-guessing and self-censoring himself. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a legal defence. Lou ended up being fined $100 a day until he agreed to answer these questions, and the paper not paying for him.

So, after five days and $500 he couldn’t afford, Lou backed down, told the paper’s legal representative that he’d testify, but under protest, slammed down the phone and it was fade-out, closing theme music, end of episode and an immense feeling of being cheated. I checked: the story does not continue next week.

All the issues the story raised, and in particular a lawsuit that could close the Trib for good if it were won, not to mention confirm that the bad guys win (as indeed they have done in real life), vanished like that, never to be resolved or mentioned again.

Whatever possessed the show to imagine that this was in any way a satisfactory story, I have no idea. The best I can think of is that it was planned as a two-parter but the National Enquirer got wind of it and threatened, the perfect irony, a massive libel suit if the second half, in which they got chopped down, was made. That would explain an episode that, on any kind of artistic or even professional level, is incomplete, badly-structured and just plain inadequate.

Seriously, if anyone’s following this series and watching the episodes for themselves on YouTube, don’t bother with this one.

Lou Grant: s04 e05 – Goop

Guest star

Let’s face it, you’re on an uphill struggle trying to sell an episode with the title of ‘Goop’, and the more so with a light-hearted – here being a word that means trying to be funny but not being – open about a bubble of earth appearing overnight in the backyard of a property in a smell-ridden town called Sackett. As a twist, we had word processor lettering crossing the screen representing the story writing itself.

Nevertheless, there was a serious story to be had from this unfortunate scenario.As well as the bubble, and the all-pervading stink (reminding me of the day my family and I visited Halifax, when there was some sort of massive sewer problem), there was a tarry, black goop seeping through someone’s basement wall. When analysed, it was shown to contain the highly toxic substance, C84, a petrochemical by-product responsible for brain-tumours, birth defects and cancer.

The nearest possible source of this was Diller Chamicals, in Alta Mira, but tht was more than 100 miles away. And according to their Press Officer, to Rossi, they had a neutralising plant on site, and complied diligently with industry Regulations.

But then there’s the truck found abandoned on the highway, full of drums of pure C84, one of which was leaking (hence the abandonment). And the ones pouring the goop directly into streams a hundred miles from Alta Mira. No, the show didn’t allow doubt as to Diller’s guilt to creep into the mind.

Where it made its mistake was in conflating this straightforward story with another issue, that of misrepresentation. To get the story, Billie applies for and gets a job at Diller, in the office. She does it under her real name, and with the LA Tribune as her previous employer, but nevertheless there is much earnest argument about the ethics of getting a story – any story – by deception.

As a side issue, it was not of itself a bad move. Lou’s all in favour. Charlie Hume has concerns about the issue in principal, and Mrs Pyynchon is dead set against it and wants Billie recalling, but is persuaded otherwise by Charlie’s insistence that these matters have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and this story is too important to be ignored.

Billie, naturally, gets the story. Rossie confronts the Press Officer, who blusters weakly that the public want the luxuries that the petrochemical industries bring, that the Press is trying to harrass the industry out of existence, but doesn’t deny the charge, a fact duly noted in the word processor screen type.

But Billie is conscience-stricken throughout. Everyoine at Diller’s so nice to her. They like her, and she likes them. It makes her feel rotten, fooling them like this. and the episode loses its head and shoves the issue of toxic waste threatening people, land, livestock and birds into the corner to symbolise this in the form of work programme student Teri Wilk (Dominique Dunne), a sweet-faced, quasi-confident young woman, who likes Billie immensely, confides in her her interest in a truck-driving hunk and, you couldn’t have guessed this, has a downer on reporters.

Teri’s devastated by Billie’s betrayal. Her uncle might lose his job, her would be boyfriend drove the truck that Rossi and Animal follow and report on, and she is deeply wounded by being used, by Billie pretending to like her to get her story. she can’t accept that Billie did like her, does like her, and somewhat obtusely hopes to stay friends.

And that’s precisely where the episode veered off course, by making Billie’s relationship with Teri the focus, instead of the more important toxic waste story. It was a failure of moral imagination on the show’s part.

Overall, the issue of misrepresentation was one of those matters that pointed up the gulf between 1980 and 2020. There was, as I said, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over Billie going overcover, gentile protestations that the ‘deception’ had to be made explicit in the story, proclamations that doing so automatically made the reporter the focus of the story, not the fact. Yeah, I know, the irony, right?

Forty years later, nobody would blink. I certainly didn’t. To me it’s obvious: when the story is as important as this, going undercover to get it as not merely acceptable but practically mandatory, and to have it discussed as virtually a greater moral wrong than fly-tipping poison was eye-rolling.

One other point. I’ve only mentioned Dominique Dunne among this week’s guest stars because she was central to the story and the other guests were interchangeable. There was something familiar about the name, but it was not what I expected to see when I googled her. Ms Dunne appeared as a significant guest star in an episode of Hill Street Blues, broadcast two years to the month after this appearance in Lou Grant. It was her final appearance and it was posthumous: two weeks earlier she had been killed by an abusive boyfriend. The bruises in Hill Street were not make-up.

Sometimes the real stories are worse than the fictions.