Lou Grant: s05 e02 – Execution


Murderer

The strong start to the final season continued in a diametrically opposite manner with a well-written, well-acted and above all well-thought-out dramatic story that played fair and decent with some strong material.

‘Execution’ began with a flashback to September 1978, making it contemporaneous with ‘Pills’, the opening episode of season 2. Tom Pepper, a Trib reporter, and an unnamed photographer have stopped off at a corner store to buy cerea when a hold-up occurs, two youngsters, one male, one female. When he, naive and uncertain, says her name, she, Kitty Lester (Terri Nunn, she of the band Berlin), orders the four people in the store into the back room, where they are all shot. The killers are quickly caught and they are sentenced to Death. It will be the first execution in California for fourteen years.

We move to the present. three years later. Jimmy Lee died in prison, knifed to death. Kitty’s latest appeal against execution has been denied by California’s Superior Court. All that’s left is the Supreme Court. The story is that Kitty, against the advice of her attorney Jeff Benedict (George Wyner, soon to be a regular on Hill Street Blues) wishes to waive her right of Appeal, and an execution date be set within sixty days.

And that after seeing Joe Rossi at a Press Conference, she wants to talk to him.

Nunn is a genuinely beautiful blonde, small and slight. As Kitty, she acts demurely, thugh not without a certain cynical sense of humour. She makes her position plain: she accepts her guilt and regards her death as the proper penalty, and she does not seek forgiveness. It’s honest, it’s straightforward, but is it true?

That’s the question that underlies everythng that happens. Rossi, despite his initial scepticism, starts to see her as a person, and becomes emotionally involved. Others orbiting Kitty are less convinced: her past behavious militates against her being this sweet, understanding, rounded person. Rossi argues she’s changed, and Nunn has us wondering throughout whether this is true.

To present the opposite pole, we have Lou. Lou pulls Tom Pepper’s file, reads his cuttings, muses sadly about the fact he was just hitting his stride, showing his potential. A good writer lost, maybe a damned-good writer – and as we learn late on, a reporter brought to the Trib by Lou himself – britally murdered, leaving a wife and a son.

Lou’s as much emotionally involved as Rossi. Though the reporter accuses him of wanting revenge, Lou’s mindset tells him that justice will be done if Kitty Lester, who took Tom Pepper’s life, should have her own terminated.

If you’re going to ask me my position on this question then I’ll say that I have never supported the death penalty. Something deep and visceral inside me instinctively opposes it. To put it at its most basic, I don’t trust myself with the power of life or death over anyone so I’m sure as hell not going to trust you with it. This principle has been tested very sorely by multiple things over the past twenty years, things that make you automatically want to see the perpetrator put to death, for why should we suffer such people to walk among us after what they have done. Tested, and stretched, but not yet broken.

The Kitty Lester case becomes a circus, the most disgusting aspect of which is the London Publisher of cheap, tacky cash-in books about deaths and murders, Peter Whitter (played by that distinguished actor, Christopher Cazenove). It’s an early example of what would become a flood of portrayals of Brits as baddies, because Whitter, handsome and smooth and well-spoken, is a slimeball. Not overtly, at least not until he’s signed up everyone connected to the case to exclusive deals and offers an exclusive to the Trib that Mrs Pynchon takes a righteous delight in refusing.

Of course, this means Roissi is cut out, and he getting obsessive about the fair Kitty. And a story ‘leaks’ to a San Francisco paper about the secret love-trysts between the beautiful, blue-eyed convict and the ‘whip-thin’, supersmart journalist.

Once the final plea for a stay, raised by an Anti-Death-Penalty pressure group, is denied and a date for execution is set, Kitty decides to give her final interview to Joe. He understands by now by just how much he has been manipulated, and he has words for her about what has motivated her, an analysis of how she pushes people to do things they hate doing – like asking Joe to be a Witness to her execution – and how she was herself compelled to do things just to prove she wasn’t afraid of doing them, like the murder.

The episode ended in downbeat fashion. We are at San Quentin to see things being set-up, and then we cut to Rossi on a phone, dictating the facts of Kitty Lester’s execution to a copy girl, in flat, professional, factual tones before hanging up. It may well have been Roert Walden’s finest performance.

So, was Kitty Lester sincere? Or was she trying to manipulate her way to ome advantage that failed? She went to the Gas Chamber, just as she wished, when there were chances she ciould have taken to stop the process. But these were chances she would have had to take. She became a huge story for wanting to die. Was that to stimulate a late rescue, a commutation of her sentence, through the activities of others that she could then ‘resent’, an attempt that failed. Terri Nunn didn’t let you decide and neither did the writers. A good story.

All i can say for certain is that Nunn should never have gone back to Berlin. And i don’t mean that just because I can’t stand ‘Take my breath away’.

Lou Grant: s05 e01 – Wedding


When you make up your mind…

As one series enters its fifth and final season, so does another. The circumstances are very different: Lou Grant was renewed for a full season of 24 episodes with the same prospect as always of renewal the following summer as it had always had: as long as it remained sufficiently commercial. When cancellation came, it would be argued by some that that was the only reason the show didn’t get a season 6. It would be argued by others, including Edward Asner, that this was far from the cause.

But we’ll look at that in a bit more detail at the other end of the season. For today, we’ll celebrate a strong opening episode that concerned itself with personal stories to which the underlying newspaper business was once again suitable McGuffins, and the show benefitted from that.

Remember Ted McCovey (Cliff Potts)? He was Billie’s boyfriend, Baseball catcher turned scout in season 4. We haven’t seem him since because he’s always on the road, but he and Billie have been having a whale of a time when their schedules coincided. Ted’s back in town now and wants to see Billie, he has something to say to her. Unfortunately, her new story, about the Smog Board and how it is conducting the business of protecting Los Angeles from its perma-smog, gets in the way and she can only stay about five minutes. Ted would rather wait for a more propitious moment but Billie insists he says what he has to say. Which is, Will You Marry Me?

Billie’s in shock. Of course she’s in shock, we wouldn’t have a story without it. Much of the episode is taken up with her working out how much sense marriage works. She’s been married before, and not just to her job, she hadn’t really bargained on marriage at his point in her life (that’s the job coming in again) she’s immediately uncomfortable around Ted and especially his baseball pals who are crude and rough and very masculine in their frame of mind.

Of course we know she’s going to end up acepting him, it’s right there in the episode title, not to mention inherent in the show’s ethos. In the meantime, the show has an underplayed B story that really deserved a little more air-time, along a parallel line.

This is Lou’s youngest daughter, Janie (Barbara Dirickson), in town on business, setting up a meal with her Dad but real nervous and awkward with it, as is Lou. It comes out at dinner, Janie determined to be honest with her Dad. It comes down to the job – as Janie knows, she being an editor and writer herself, albeit on a trade paper – and how it constantly pulled Lou away from family events. And Janie is more estranged from her father thaan her other sisters because she was affected most, as Lou’s professional life got more intense.

Lou’s both accepting of his failure and defensive about it. It’s a conditon of the job, nothing more, nothing less, and whether it ought to be is not going to be discussed, especially when it’s playing into Billie’s fears about a permanent set up with Ted, and doubly especially when you know it’s going to bugger things up for an ending.

So it goes. The Smog Board story, which is actually a substantial issue in its own right, treated seriously and given multiple angles is finished two hours ahead of deadline on the day before Billie and Ted’s wedding, only for the computer system to crash and dump everything. Billie has to rewrite until 3.00am, Lou has to reorganise the paper and let Janie down by cancelling his flight to Chicago where all three daughters are meeting up.

But there are happy endings. Billie and Ted marry. Mrs Pynchon makes a late appearance, acknowledging her stroke by limping, slowly, on a cane. And when Rossi drivesLou home, there are three gorgeous young women waiting on his step for him, Janie and her sisters, switching to LA for a soppy, sentimental ending.

I liked it. It was as light as a well-cooked Victoria Sponge Cake, but life is entitled to variety and light is sometimes good. The final season starts. We’ll be here until February with it.

Lou Grant: s04 e20 – Stroke


The last episode of Lou Grant‘s fourth season was not merely by far and away its best, but one of the strongest ever in the programme’s 114 episode run. ‘Stroke’ focussed upon Nancy Marchand as Margaret Pynchon, the patrician proprietor of the Los Angeles Tribune, as well as guest-starring her real-life husband, Paul Sparer as Doctor Walter Goren.

The central story was simple. Mrs Pynchon waslooking to expand by purchasing ‘Lively Arts’ magazine, a San Francisco based company that she had exciting plans for. She’s stressed about it, it’s a lot of money, a lot of running around, a lot of travelling. She’s lively and active in the opening sequence, full of enthusiasm, a little disorganised. There’s a non-telegraphed telling moment when, out of sight of Charlie and Lou, she cannot find her pills and instead pours a small slug into her orange juice.

Back from San Francisco, she is found unconscious in her office. She has had a stroke, a serious one.

Sparer plays the Doctor who guides her through this. Charlie and Lou and everyoe else shuffle around to accommodate her absence, everyone down to Rossi moving up one place, Rossi to temporary Assistant City Editor.

Billie’s accommodated by being assigned to a story about campus girls posing naked for an upmarket skin magazine and the consequences this has on both personal and First Amendment levels, but that really is trivial in comparison.

Because this is Nancy Marchand’s show. She’s always played her part to perfection but truthfully she’s not been asked to do much. Mrs Pynchon is Queen of the Hill, a fair-minded, principled woman who usually sees the right side of things. If anything, she’s been too much of a paragon, too good to be true. Marchand was great but the role, though enjoyable, was limited.

But in this episode she was astounding, playing her way through hopelessness, frustration, helplessness, self-loathing and in the end the determination to regain everything of herself that she could, returning to the paper in the final scene to the evident delight of everybody: on a stick, in a leg-brace, still struggling with her words, but upright and intent on being all her old self, to the point that eyers became suspiciously moist.

The campus story could have been a decent B story to another episode, something less compelling, something that alowed it a little more play. But there was too much to the min story, including the ever present threat of Mrs Pynchon’s nephew Fred Hill (Alan Fudge, who had two other appearances in the show, as different characters, neither of them Fred on his previous appearance). Fred and his brother aren’t happy with the minimal income the Trib delivers and he really doesn’t like the idea of buying this magazine. Given the chance, he’ll close the newspaper and sell. It takes the almost strong-arming of Mrs Pynchon’s lawyer, who has Power of Attorney, to get the sale through and beat Fred back.

I’ve long wanted to see this story. Back in the early Eighties, i’m convinced that ITV did not take up either of the last two seasons of Lou Grant. I was well aware of the controversy over the show’s cancellation, and once saw a brief clip of the emptied out newsroom which I’d assumed came from this episode. It didn’t. The scene doesn’t seem to fit the synopsis for the final episode so I just have to wait and see where it comes in. Let’s hope season 5 representsan upturn.

Lou Grant: s04 e19 – Depression


As we roll towards the end of season 4, we’re finishing on a couple of really strong stories. Both halves of the penutimate episode were glued together by our title character but were otherwise separate, but both were personal and affecting stories, well-written, full of nuance and subtle. So what if one of them was left unfinished in the show’s signature manner, this was genuinely  story whose nature would have been betrayed by a wrap-up-in-45-minutes ending.

The primary story, which provided the episode with its title, focussed upon irregular guest star Peter Hobbs, playing veteran reporter, George Driscoll, the Trib’s man on the Police beat (fourth and final appearance). It starts with Driscoll getting into a shouting match with Rossi over the timing of new information that requires Rossi to re-write his piece. Driscoll’s angry and abrasive. It looks like he’s building up to fall off the wagon again. Sure enough, next we hear of him, he’s in the hospital. But he’s behind a Do Not Disturb sign when Lou calls. No, he’s not drying out again. George Driscoll had attempted to commit suicide.

For all the man’s flaws, Lou has vast sympathy for him, as a veteran, as a fellow old reporter, as someone whose thoughts and writing he understands. Puzzled, upset, Lou starts to investigate why Driscoll might have done this.

I don’t want to recite the details. They’re carefully thought-through, they add up to the life of a bright, talented, ambitious man who didn’t get to where he ought to go, who never progressed beyond a certain point, through small flaws, psychological issues imposed by an ‘old school’ father who crippled his son by his refusal to care about him. Reverses hit harder, the future he was fit for didn’t come about. The family life that was damaged, the wife who, it is all but stated, is carrying on an affair, the bright, clever, purposeful daughter estranged. The stuff of ordinary lives that eventually becomes unbearable when you feel that you are living behind glass walls that bar you from others, this I know.

It was a story that had no ending, no promise of a bright future. The closest it came to that was a reconciliation with the daughter, Amanda, in a scene that demonstrated just how bloody good Hobbs was, lay on his side in a hospital bed, shielding himself with shame and embarrassment, to be such in front of a daughter you want never to see you like this. Hobbs said nothing, until the end, when he gave in, but in body and face he was amazing.

So it ended the only way it could, in a beginning. Could amanda’s rediscovered love for her father help rebuild him? Could a final separation from mother Elizabeth be part of the answer, an answer? Not for us to know. But we wished the poor bugger well.

Inevitably, that story overshadowed its parallel, though that too was well-presented and given near equal time. Mrs Pybchon, growing envious of friends who have time to travel abroad, decides to create a new post, that of Executive Editor, someone to create the Trib’s future, help it grow, extend itself and set its own direction. naturally, she turns to her right-hand-man, Charlie Hume… to find a candidate.

This looks like being a guy called Hank Dougherty (James Sloyan), young, bright, forward looking, impressive. But what of Charlie himself? Good old easy-going Charlie, he who smooths out all paths. Charlie is bitterly hurt at not even being thought of, and whilst he puts his energies into securing Mrs Pynchon’s wishes, encouraging and approving of Dougherty, underneath he’s the proverbial smouldering volcano.

Lou sees this. Well, everyone sees this, or at least feels the effects of Charlie’s growing temper, but only Lou knows where it’s coming from, no matter how much Charie denies anything’s wrong.

This one at least could have a more-or-less ending. Lou sits in on the final meeting with Dougherty, studies his designs. All is well, everyone approves, it looks like a done deal, but Lou provokes Charie into an outburst, abut how resentful he is at being passed over, about Dougherty’s ideas being good but the same as one’s he’s proposed before, about change has to be managed gradually, not dumped in the readers’ laps all in one go, about how he’s been doing the job for years without the title and if Mrs Pynchon doesn’t make him Executive Editor, she’ll need a new Managing Editor.

It’s splendidly splenetic, not to mention cathartic, and confusing for poor Mrs Pynchon, who probably won’t get her holidays abroad after all. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

Good stuff for once and what promises to be a strong season finale to follow. Coming up in seven…

Lou Grant: s04 e18 – Violence


Crusher

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.

Wishy-washy.

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 e15 – Venice


One of these people will provide the clue

It’s reached the point where I no longer expect to see intelligent, well-written and acted and moving epoisodes of Lou Grant anymore, which is precisely why I found this episode to be such a surprise.

There were two strands to it, one of them negligible and uninteresting. this was the one about someone having obtained possession of a list of salaries at the Trib and threatening to publish it unless he got paid $1,000. An uproar is expected but fails to materialise, the culprit is uninteresting and so is the story.

Of far more moment was the larger story that for once centred upon the Trib’s comic relief photographer, Dennis ‘Animal’ Price. It began on a Sunday afternoon at Venice, California, a beach resort full of sand, sea, shoreline and plenty of relaxed, feelgood, let-yourself-go. Animal is wandering around, taking photos for a Sunday feature. It all looked good, a not-quite hedonistic energy, the feel of people free to just enjoy themselves.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance. An attractive young woman has drowned, an apparent suicide, the overkill of pills and drowning. Animal takes photos, but also has his curiosity lit up. Who was this woman? What did she do? Why did someone so pretty, so good a worker, so friendly a person that everyone praised and mourned kill herself? Did she kill herself?

Animal wants to know, to understand. From the moment he discovers Lesley Ellison was a keen photograher and, despite her reservations about herself, a talented one, his eagerness becomes not just obsession but more. Animal has fallen in love with a dead girl, wishing he had met her in life and might have averted this.

The episode was a sympathetic, gentle exploration of loss, as everyone missed Lesley like crazy. The baglady to whom he always spoke, asking after her welfare, the grieving but possessive father who blamed her death on her being here among these ‘freaks’ instead of being home in Chicago where she ‘belonged’, the gang leader who respected her and was ready to deal with someone who may have killed her (Trinidad Silva in a performance that could have been a rehearsal for Jesus Martinez in Hill Street Blues) and the sister who opened the door to an answer as to why Lesley’s suicide was not such a surprise, revealing a psychological history of loss and fear of rejection that I could empathise with.

Throughout, and especially when Animal had developed the last reel of film from Lesley’s camera, I feared the episode would blow it by coming up with a killer after all, but it held straight and true. These last photos, from the afternoon she killed herself, led to the revelation that Lesley, after a lifetime of failures with men, had believed herself in love with her childhood best friend, Carol. Carol’s response had been the final rejection, the one that left only one door out.

So it was all explained, no mystery, just a portrait of an unhappy woman who had lost her mother far too young and left with a father incapable of dealing with her loss, who grew up twisted into a pattern that led directly to her death. It explained but didn’t satisfy. And the show’s most poignant feature was the skillfully underplayed sense it left you that if Animal had met her a month before, it might all have been different, withut that suggestion seeming like sentimental slop.

Sometimes it really is about the right person.

Lou Grant: s04 e14 – Survival


Sometimes, the worst thing you can do with an old favourite television series is to watch it again. Whilst much of the first three seasons of Lou Grant were enjoyable at worst, not to mention being a historio/sociological treasure in terms of what was in our heads forty years ago, the fourth season has seen an uncommon collapse in quality. Not even good stories are making it.

‘Survival’ is a prime example of something that combined two strong elements in a more integrated fashion than usual yet managed through a failure of basic story-telling structure to come up with a tortuous mess.

Part of this was down to trying to cram in more elements than the running time could comfortably hold, plus an undistinguished guest cast, the most prominent of which was comic relief that so dominated that part of the episode as to diminish its seriousness whilst remaining utterly detachable.

The other guest was the notable actor, Ed Harris, who’s already appeared twice in the series as other characters, here playing Ralph Cooper, a survivalist with two children he’s already trained to be paranoid beyond belief, like him and nearly as determined to shoot to kill, but turning in a steely performance with few human aspects.

Let me try to suumarise the story to show what I mean. We begin at Donovan’s house, out in the hills in Tapanga, where Rossi is enjoying a euphoric jacuzzi with two fit birds on the eve of Donovan’s two week vacation in Hawaii. Rossi’s so mellowed out (mellow! ye gods, that’s going back) he takes a wrong turn onto Ralph Cooper’s land where he’s threatened with being shot both by Cooper but also his twelve-year old son.

Rossi starts getting interested in survivalism. He attends a lecture by an apocalytic economist, predicting recession, depression, shortages, looting etc., predicated on a possible fall of the Finnish marker. Cooper is also present. Later he gives his paranoid explanation, based on every man for himself and trusting no-one but himself. The man is plain and straightforward and not fanatical in himself, but he’s a flaming looney. We don’t need subsequent history to tell us of that.

A more responsible but still selfish viewpoint with relevance to the stock-piling panic that lit up the opening of the coronavirus panic is presented by a previously unseen but undoubtedly sober and staid black member of the Trib’s staff.

Whilst this is building, enter Wild Bill. This is our comic relief, played by Keene Curtis. Bill’s the weather expert at the Trib, a man with his own eccentric approach to the weather and what it will do, completely contrasting with the National Weather Bureau, not to mention an inexhaustible fund of stories about his war histor(ies), the dangerous stuff he’s done and several mutually exclusive active childhoods. In short, he’s a bullshitter, and he keeps popping up like a rash throughout the episode.

But, as you already know, he’s right about the storm(s). Accompanied by many spectacular shots of stock footage (either that or the show functioned incredibly through a fortuitous series of LA storms that would make Seathwaite-in-Borrowdale look like the middle of the Sahara desert), the show builds itself frantically on so many disaster stories. Billie’s hardly in it this week, subbing for Donovan as assistant City Editor and having her own micro-story in the form of a clash with the night editor, Linda, over printing a disaster relief phone number that’s clearly a contriveance to give Linda Kelsey something to do.

In the middle of this, Donovan phones in from Waikiki to rub in to his colleagues that whilst they’re being pissed upon mightily, he’s in the sun, in shorts and in the midst of bikini-ed babes. There’s a cheap tone to this that will be repaid in even cheaper fashion at the end.

This at least has a story-telling function. Donovan asks Lou to go up to his house and spread two rolls of plastic sheeting on the hill behind it to stop a mud-slide (I confess to not knowing how that would work but then I don’t live in California). Rossi drives him.

It’s pouring down and, the moment they arrive, everything fails: gas, electric, telephone, car, simultaneously. Lou and Rossi are trapped and no-one knows where they are. No-one misses them at the paper, where Billie and Animal go out on another contrived scene in which the failure of a copy boy to go to the right rendezvous is shoe-horned in.

Lou and Rossi get drunk. Rossi wants to bond. He talks self-defensively about his egotistical persona which he says he developed deliberately, but which has left him lonely and, in times of drunkenness, wanting to be liked.

Meanwhile, at Cooper’s place, his daughter is worried about a mud-slide. No worries, says every man for himself Dad, I’ll just go over to Mr Donovan’s place and steal the plastic sheeting off his porch and use it myself. He doesn’t actually use the word stealing, but ‘borrowing’: he’ll give them back though by then they might be a touch second-hand.

He also warns the kiids not to let anyone in, no matter what they say to trick them, your basic gun-in-the-first-act, albeit arriving very late.

Cooper turns up in the rain and nicks the first roll. When Lou and Rossi protest the theft, he pulls a gun on them and has them put the second sheet in as well. Armed robbery, lovely ideal. Then, as he drives away, he overturns his truck in what looked to be a very deliberate fashion, busting his leg. Of course Lou and Rossi try to help him. There’s a radio at Cooper’s cabin and Rossi says he’ll head there to summon help.

Meanwhile back at the paper, and you’ll just have to imagine how many times Wild Bill has popped up by now because I’m not going back and counting, Lou’s been missing, incommunicado, for ages. Linda, the interfering bitch, mentions seeing him going off with Rossi,who has been missing for the same length of time though no-one has noticed. And Donovan rings up for another gloat, and to deliver the plot-point of identifying where Lou’s been.

So help, in the form of a TV news-gathering helicopter, is sent on its way. Meanwhile, Rossi arrives at Cooper to be confronted by Cooper Junior and his loaded rifle. Rossi’s not interested in childish games and we’re wondering exactly how badly he’s going to be shot (according to his training in the early part of the episode, the kid will fire five shots and if he fails to hit anything vital, Joe’ll bleed out anyway).

However, I’m not taking into account fourteen-year old daughter who, being female, is not addicted to violence. She’s concerned about Daddy (bad move, kid, didn’t he tell you not to care about anyone else but yourself?) and distracts Junior long enough for Rossi to dash in,force the rifle up so that it’s shot goes nowhere, then to violently hurl it into the very wet forest. Resistance collapses instantly.

So, all’s well that ends well. Ralph Cooper gets an object lesson in trust and co-operation that we know damned well he will consider for about a quarter of a second before rejecting utterly, and to the show’s credit it doesn’t even try to suggest for that same quarter of a second that he – or Junior – will learn a damned thing.

Finally, the rains start to ease, and, as payback, Lou phones Donovan in Hawaii to tell him, with barely suppressed delight, that he hopes his Assistant City Editor has been keeping his insurance up because his house at 1,001 is now down somewhere nearer 950… It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but it’s dirty and nasty and out of proportion to the extent of Donovan’s gloating. A nasty taste is left in the mouth.

And, having delivered itself of this turgid combination of points, clogged up by Wild Bill, enter Adam Wilson, the economics wizz, to report that the Finnish marker has fallen, leading to concerns about the Dutch guilder, and the inevitable knock-on effect on the American economy, shortages etc., all in a monologue that fades to black and the credits, in a sneaky-clever way of bringing the story round to the beginning and suggesting the survivalists might have a point after all…

In its way, that’s a definitive point about an episode that had no clear idea in its mind of what it wanted to say and not only fell between all stools in doing so, dodged the most serious moment and gave far too much time in an already crowded script to a self-important blowhard who kept everyone else from having room to breathe. Not good.

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.