Lou Grant: s03 e22 – Influence


I mentioned only last week that the aproach of the end of a Lou Grant season has me feeling some form of burn-out, especially if I’m watching a didactic episode: shall we take a break befre continuing. And equally regularly, as if it senses my doubts forty years ahead, the series bounces back with a good, strong, personal episode that refreshes the palate and leaves me set on continuing this rewatch uninterrupted.

‘Influence’ was another of those split stories, the two halves essentially unconnected but both a commentary upon the title in differing degrees, and given enough equal measure as to not be an A-and-B story set-up.

The episode featured the series’ most regular guest in a Guest Star role for the first and only time. Allen Williams has been playing the role of Adam Wilson, straight-laced Finance Editor for ages, and appearing in the opeing credits since the start of season 2, but one half of the story is about him.

Adam, clean-cut, Mr suit-and-tie, is an alcoholic. It’s a surprise, at odds with his persona, but isn’t that so often the case? It’s getting to the point where his marriage is breaking down over it, he’s goofing off, he’s letting down his colleagues, messing up his job, and he’s getting other people to cover for him. The story starts when he starts to bring Lou into his personal circle of deceit, helping him avoid consequences that would tip over his carefully constructed system of ling to himself.

Lou plays along for a while. Rossi, who has been through all this with his own Dad, insists on Lou coming round for dinner with his old man, to learn that covering for Adam is the worst he can do. He has to go into tough love, to force Adam to recognise the worst in himself and manouevre him towards rehab.

It’s a neat little story, made all the more effective by happening to a character we know and, generally, like, instead of some invented on the spot guest with whom we have no familiarity, and the effect is doubled by the small degree to which Adam is affected by his condition: he’s a high-functioning drunk, smooth and capable, but still self-deluding.

The only drawback is that this is 1980. How much, if any, of this will feature in future episodes?

The other half of the story was a much higher-level and, in its own way, story of influence, and also corruption. Mrs Pynchon is tremendously flattered to be invited to join ‘The Circle’, a self-appointed group of influential and very rich businessmen engaged on sweeping projects that not only make money but which improve LA’s infrastructure and the wellbeing of its people. Their current project is a second LA airport, to relieve pressure on LAX and create jobs etc.

The Trib’s already covering that project, in the form of new environmental writer Nick Bowyer (James Whitmore Jr). Bowyer, a forerunner of the UK’s George Monbiot, is against the project for its envirmental impact on unspoiled country. He’s pinting out obvious flaws:  the 60 mile distance from LA, the lack of roads, the imposibility of creating satisfactory transport, the surrounding high mountains…

The Circle doesn’t  like the Trib’s coverage. They want Mrs Pynchon in the tent with them, peeing out, and she, who isalready unhappy with Bowyer’s relentless negativism, is only too happy to support her paper rethinking its approach. It’s the same old story of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions: she’s a perfect fit for the Circle, being Patrician as all get out. So much good can be done once she’s inside the tent. She wants Bowyer fired, she wants an ‘objective’ look at all the good this scheme can and will do.

So Billie gets landed with the task of being objectively for this. But Billie is objective: she uncovers the scandal waiting to explode. Yes, the Circle has donated, free, thousands of acres of land to this project, but it’s retained hundreds of thousands of acres that will be invaluable if the airport goes ahead, whilst the free thousands are worthless withut an airport being built in the first place…

And Margaret Pynchon, however Patrician she may be, is to honest and too much the newspaperwoman, wedded to the facts, to go on.

A tale of two influences, one ultimately used to the painful benefit of another, and one withdrawn, for the equivocal benefit of many. After all, LA still needs another airport, and who’s to say that this might not have been what was needed?

So that leaves two more chances before season 3 ends to influence my thinking on a break. Where will we be, three weeks from today? Still in LA, or…

Lou Grant: s03 e20 – Blackout


Looked at as a demonstration of professional tv writing, this episode of Lou Grant was a textbook example worth studying. The episode takes place on the evening of a City-wide power blackout in LA that, amongst the chaos, violence, looting and the thousand and one problems of completing vital work of every kind, the Trib has its own unbroken record of never missing a day in 64 years printing to preserve.

The episode carefully foreshadowed events by showing the paper operating normally on a slow news day. Lightning flashes blare through the windows, there’s a slight earthquake and a pool on its strength, Charlie’s hired away Marcy Lambert, a consumer affairs writer, from the Long Beach Sun, much t the disgust of its editor, his old friend Reggie Washburn. All very low-key and normal.

Rossi’s got a tip that Supervisor Kirby did not attend a Conference in Denver but inastead diverted himself to Aspen with a female aide, on taxpayers’ money. It’s an Election Year and Rossi’s after the Supervisor. Billie, with Animal, is interviewing this guy who’s founded an early version of a Neighbourhood Watch group, with some barely concealed vigilante tendencies. And Art Donovan and Marcy have taken one look at each other and are simultaneously plotting a course towards the first available bedroom.

There’s no real direction to any of this and none of the stories are as yet substantial enough to backbone an issue, but they are all of them McGuffins, to depict a state of normalcy before the power goes out abruptly.

So the Trib goes into disaster-mode. There’s the black-out itself to consider on a macro-level, and everyone’s out running stories down: Police responses, emergency medical centres, grabbing flashlights and candles, looting. It would be easy to let the set-up stories vanish. They’ve done their job, they are the norm, now vanished.

But the episode isn’t going to do that. Kirby’s a major figure throughout, playing a blinder about responding to the crisis, moving heaven and earth to ameliorate its effects with great efficiency, and all while being needled by Rossi abut how this will play up his re-Election prospects. Sure it will, but at the same time it is tremendous stuff to respond to the crisis.

Marcy does chip in but her main role here is to be the fulcrum over the Trib’s printing issue. It’s traditional in times like these for papers to suspend their rivalries and lend out presses, but the only paper outide the blackout who can do this is, naturally, the Long Beach Sun.

But Reggie, after clearing his throat all over Charlie, invites them down. The problem is, are they needed? There’s a promise that power will be restored at 11.45 which would enable the Trib’s press to handle things, whilst the Sun‘s press can’t handle a start-time after 12. midnight. Wherever there’s a narrow decision window there’s going to be a decision to make.

Rossi ends up meeting Billie’s proud vigilante who we realised was itching to shoot the gun he’s not supposed to be carrying. He’s got a gunshot wound in the calf, from a ‘shoot-out’ with a would-be burglar: a wound in the back of the calf at a downwards trajectory with powder-burns on the pants leg, and how did you get that, Mr hot-shot?

Everything in the set-up is mixed seamlessly into the unrelated  main story. and that narrow window? The Trib’s been keeping a line open to the Sun, as their switchboard is jammed, until an extra puts the phone down at the very wrong moment. No-one can get through to authorise running the press at the Sun. Marcy fulfills her role by getting through on a non-Switchboard private line to Reggie’s office. But Donovan has had to make the crucial call for himself: they’re already rolling.

The publishing record is preserved but Rossi’s story about Kirby is lost completely due to space reasons. Karma balances out Charlie’s hiring of Marcy when Reggie hires away Walker from the Trib. And the lights come on and everyone starts to adjust to being normal.

A very well constructed episode. Not as emotionally visceral or affecting as a Person of Interest, but a good, high quality demonstration of the art of single-episode series writing forty years ago. They had it in those days too.

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 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 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 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 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.