Lou Grant: s03 e05 – Frame-Up


Slimeball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lou Grant: s03 e04 – Charlatan


Cast out by the Church

When your episode title is ‘Charlatan’ and you open with a church service in opulent surroundings, with a well-dressed Minister declaiming above a congregation, it’s not hard to tell where the story is going to go. Nevertheless, the show made its course more complex, and more equivocal than it need do, the result being a thought-provoking episode.

We began with three separate strands, two of which became swiftly intertwined, and a third which seemed irrelevant but which became an important counterpoint to the major story.

The Church was the United Pilgrim’s Crusade, founded and led by Dr Thomas Chamberlain. The Trib’s Religious Affairs writer, Marcus Prescott, was there to conduct a standard profile. Joe Rossi was there because he’d spotted a naked man climbing the Church Tower to display a banner reading ‘God Sees All’. What was it God saw? From the Church’s enthusiasm about their disturbed brother’s privacy, it was clearly something needing investigating, as Rossi automatically assumed. Prescott, the son of a Southern Hellfire preacher, did not see it that way.

Our third strand was a sneaky phonecall to Lou from an Arnold Zinner, soliciting Lou’s support against Prior Restraint, that is, the Law’s intervention to prevent a newspaper publishing something, the very thing the First Amendment prohibits. Of course, from the shifty way he didn’t identify any specifics, we knew what sort of publication Zinnah ran – Grabber magazine, a cross between a pre-National Enquirer cheapie and a low-rent porn monthly, but which happened to have all the names and addresses of all the undercover Narcotics agents in LA (how and why were never explored).

There was a lot of stick over supporting a disgusting rag like that, but Lou held to the principle. Because we all know that it’s the difficult to defend cases that are prosecuted first, because it only takes one case to set a precedent.

This would tie back into the min story in two ways. First, however, a succession of minor matters drew attention to the possibility – to some an evidence-unsupported certainty – that something fishy was going on, that Chamberlain was not as he painted himself, that the United Pilgrim’s Crusade was not a legitimate Church with a genuine doctrine.  Rossi’s convinced this is so. So’s Billie, when she gets brought in on this. Marcus, on the other hand, is far less convinced, considers the evidence too shaky, is blocking the story to the point where Lou takes him off it.

Is he just too (self-)indoctrinated to accept an anti-Church story? Or is he someone who demands a high level of proof because he’s aware of how susceptible people are to anything that appears to tear a minister down? Or is he just not enough of a bastard? Donovan, who sympathises with Prescott, thinks the latter, and it is his encouraging reaction that spurs Marcus back to the story.

There were multiple levels to this. Prescott interviews Agnes Carson (Ruth Silveira), a believer who’d found salvation in Dr Chamberlain, a volunteer who was giving far far too much money to the Church. Lou, Charlie and Mrs Pynchon discuss things with ‘orthodox’ Minister, Dr Bunning. who confesses his suspicions of and distaste for Chamberlain’s church but who implcably opposes stories against them: hurt one religion and you hurt all.

In the end, it’s Prescott who gets the real deal, persuading Smithfield, the naked man, already identified as a fanatic, to give up the print-outs that expose the frauds. Even then, Chamberlain and his business manager Crossley admitted the truth of the facts but not their meaning, heedless  of the figures having gone to the Attorney-General.

No, all of this was Stan’s doing, an attack upon God, by a heathen newspaper, the state, an editor who openly advocated for a pornographer out to destroy their children… Even Agnes Carson told Marcus Prescott he was mistaken, but she was the true Christian amongst them.

And fittingly, the story was left with that ending, no neat little bows of pink ribbon to sign it off, even though all of us, and not merely the cynical, understood where truth lay and that there was no God in God’s Temple. An excellent episode.

Lou Grant: s03 e03 – Slammer


Jury Duty

Most of this week’s episode was set in and around a prison, which gave me pause for reasons I’ll explain momentarily. The set-up is that Rossi has been teaching a Journalism class and inveigles Lou into being a guest speaker: the class is in a Maximum Security Prison and the students have been convicted of a variety of crimes, up to and including murder.

The problem is that, being a Maximum Primetime Series, the programme couldn’t go anything near the reality of a prison, nor the truth of the things that can be done by and to the prisoners. It’s big move to establish the regime’s harshness was a boxing match, being watched on TVs by the inmates, who are really into it, excited, shouting, blowing off steam – until a cruel and saditic guard who was trying to read switched all the sets off before the end.

I m no expert on prisons and will never pretend to be. The episode took care to avoid anyone enjoying such a status, especially not the genuinely decent  and would-be liberal Governor. But early in my legal career, when my field included criminal work, I had occasion to visit Manchester’s infamous Strangeways Prison to interview a client. This meant going inside E Wing, the remand Wing. This was the part of the prison that held prisoners waiting Trial, in short, those who were not convicted and who were therefore innocent in the eyes of the Law. From the moment the doors slammed shut behind me, my skin crawled, and I tried to defuse my feelings with a ‘clever’ joke, telling the guard who was leading us to the interview room that I wouldn’t feel comfortable until I got out, or else I looked down there and saw Ronnie Barker cheating at dominoes. Defensive or what?

So the episode could not give us even a fraction of that atmosphere, nor did it make any attempt to, which undermined everything it was trying to achieve.

The prisoners were taking a Journalism class but had no paper to print their stories in. When Lou took it to the Governor, he got a paper but then had to restrain the convicts over their urge to print the truth about what goes on. Lou was drawing the disincion between the truth as what can be proven and the truth as what they knew was the truth, and which one could be printed, though the convicts went behind his back, tried to print their story alleging one of their fellow students had been murdered by a gang inside, caused a near-riot, a lockdown and withdrawal of their project.

Of curse, Lou then goes into bat for them, blurring the reality with some Defence Attorney style sophistry that persuaded the Governor to allow them another go, giving the episode the required happy ending annd liberal conciousnesses their sop.

How you react to an episode like this depend on your pre-judgements about criminals. It was made plain that this prison was not about rehabilitation but about punishment. The inmates’ ‘leader’, JD (Kene Holiday), was presented as passionate, articulate and frustrated at the lack of outlets for the truth, conscious of the State’s right to punish, but chafing at the small cruelties meant to make prisoners feel humiliated or dehumanised.

But the episode, in a neat reversal of the usual Rossie/Billie roles, covered its bases by having Billie interview JD’s victim, pointing out that the criminal can serve his time and go free, but the victim cannot.

There was a sub-plot, a B-story about Mrs Pynchon undertaking Jury Duty, leaving Charlie Hume in charge at the paper, that folded into the A-story at the very last, Lou’s final departure from the Prison crossing the arrival of the dude convicted by the proprietoress’s Jury. But overall, despite its good intentions, and despite its cautious determination not to make the prisoners into absolute heroes, the episode failed from the start because it could not be nasty, grimy or sufficiently frightening enough to anyone with even the most peripheral experience.

Lou Grant: s03 e02 – Expose


A good woman doomed

Due to the nature of the story that introduced Lou Grant season 3 last week, it wasn’t really possible to bring in the new credits and theme music this year, without making an even more awkward segue than usual, but I can lead with that for this episode as the subject played a part in setting up the story.

Between seasons, the LA Trib has undergone an upgrade. Out have gone the typewriters, in have come the first computers, although they’re more likely to be word-processors, and not everyone is taking to them easily. As a consequence, the credit sequence has been completely reshot, with everybody playing the same role but from different angles, and different takes (all except Dennis ‘Animal’ Price, who has been given a more serious introduction, developing films in the dark room instead of goofing around with flashes). And the theme music has been reearranged to closer to the season 1 sound, elimination most but not quite all of that annoying guitar overlay.

I can bring this up because this upgrade helped spur one of the two stories this week that seemed to be of no relevance to each other, and which mde it hard to get an angle on which way the episode was going.

First in appearance was Rossi’s pursuit of Bonita Worth (Louise Troy), a very effective and down-to-earth County Supervisor with a substantial future ahead of her. Mrs Worth was straight-talking, a successful businesswoman, honest and open, in short a public asset. Rossi, constitutionally incapable of believing a public official can be all of those things, is worrying away looking for something that plainly didn’t exist. So Billie was brought in to interview Bonita, and produce a genuinely admiring piece. But in a cleverly unforced irony it was Billie who found Bonia’s achilles heel, her husband Mark (William Schallert).

Mark Worth ended up being the story, costing Bonita Worth her public career. Mark was a lush, a business failure, a racist and a fool. He was an albatross whose exposure in public and a drunk, and as openly unfaithful to his wife, left her te impossible choice of abandoning him and showing wifely disloyalty (a powerful thing, forty years ago) or abandoning her career. No wins either way: Bonita fell on her sword and resigned. A good public servant was lost.

You could look at Mark and find him a complete idiot, even despicable in some lights, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But Schallert took on a difficult role and, with the aid of some inspired scripting, rose to the challenge of making you see him in a different light. A clearly bombed Worth invades the Trib’s budget meeting to insult and carp at the way he has been made a public fool. It’s simultaneously embarrassing and painful, for Worth is a failure at all things, unable to do more than mouth empty threats, but worse, he is aware of this, and his bluster falls apart under his understanding of his own ineffectiveness, rage at the unfairness of being made a laughing stock in the Press and the unfirness of being unable to do anything aboout it. He ends in tears at his own humiliation, asking the question, “Why me? What did I ever do to you to pick on me?”

And the answer is the painful truth that everything written about him is true, but he is only news for how he may, and does, drag down the career of the woman he’s married to, a woman in a position of authority. The sexism inherent in this is alluded to but not rubbed in our faces, and could indeed have done with being a bit more openly expressed.

All this would have its parallel, in completely different form in the other half of the episode, which took a very long time to show its hand. It began with an argument between Lou and Mike Norvette (Richard Berstoff) over a line that wasn’t acceptable. Norvette was an asshole, seeing Lou as dictatorial, conservative, an obstacle to reporters like him, rewriting the rules, sticking opinions in unburdened by real facts. Lou was threatened by the every existence of Norvette, overturning every hidebound precept of his life and career.

So, when Mrs Pynchon was forced to trim staff to get the loan needed for all this new technology, Norvette was let go. He took it well. No, he didn’t, actually: the Norvettes of this world do not take anything like this as anything but personal, which it was in a way. Lou didn’t like him, but he fired him for not being a good enough reporter.

Which Norvette proved by immediately joined Pacific Magazine, a trashy, sensationlist magazine. We already knew about Pacific Magazine through the attractive, vivacious Barbara Benedict (Julie Cob), who thought Lou was ‘cute’, and had lunch with him, all attention and big eyes. The set-up led you to believe she was after a job at the Trib: it was a job alright but not the one you thought it was. The lovely Barbara was Rossi’s heavy date, she was having a meal with Donovan, had had a coffee with Charlie.

And everyone had talked, including Billie to Norvette, telling the stories you tell, the funny ones you share with colleagues. Except that the episode finally came into clear focus when everyone joined the dots of Barbara’s attentions and realised that Pacific Magazine was building up an expose on the Trib. When it arrived, everyone was in denial about saying what was quoted of them, and it took Animal too point out that they had said what they said, not as shaped here, in cold print. But the words were the same.

It took Mrs Pynchon to draw the two stories together. The hatchet job Pacific Magazine had done on the Trib was not far enough removed from what theTrib and others had done on Mark Worth. Lou and Charlie disagreed, and this viewer did too, but also saw the side of the coin that Mrs Pynchon was seeing: what was done to Mark Worth, hoever true, was going to bring down Bonita Worth, whose only crime was to have fallen in love with and married a weak man, years ago, and stayed loyal to him.

No, her crime was to be a woman in authority, and the show let you see that for yourself. It’s still not different enough forty years on. It would not take much adaptation to put that side of the episode into production in 2019. A superior episode with very strong guest performances.

Lou Grant: s03 e01 – Cop


New credits

Despite my doubts, in the back half of season 2, I’ve decided to press on into season 3 with Lou Grant, thanks to some strong late season stories that countered the effect of the more didactic, bleeding heart liberal episodes that turned me off. Naturally, my reward was an opening episode that bordered strongly on the didactic.

The episode title was both misleading and inevitable. Yes, it was about a Cop, patrol car officer Dave Tynan (a very good guest appearance from Joe Penny, matched by an equally important role by Edward Winter as his partner, Robert Dennehy). But Tynan, good cop as he was, was only important in regard to what else he was, which was gay.

The episode started and finished with drama: a man is beaten to death in a house across the street from Lou, who becomes personally invested in the case, especially when one of the Homicide detectives calls in a beat cop to consult. This unfolds into a story that illustrates the plight of the gay person in 1969 Los Angeles. The victim was gay, though his wife had no idea (a brief cameo by Mariclare Costello, full of confusion and ignorance and a touching, loving concern for why her husband had been so unhppy but had never opened up to her about it). His killer was his male lover. A bar that was firebombed was a gay bar.

Lou liked Tynan, got on with him, put the pieces together to work out Tynan himself was gay. The episode didn’t telegraph it, giving no obvious clues, but the logic of the drama demanded this situation as anyone could tell.

Tynan was in the closet with a vengence. Sexually inert, alert at any moment to the risk of exposing himself, unable to trust any cop to be decent over the knowledge, his was no life to envy. The show mainly left the description of what it was like to Tynan without depicting prejudice against him in action, which weakened the case but would have fundamentally destroyed the ending.

Instead, and here was where Winter came in, that his partner Dennehy worked it out for himself and promptly requested a transfer, because gays shouldn’t be cops because they’re all emotionlly unstable, and how can you trust one if you have to have one of them watching your back.

Which set up the expected violent ending. Tynan and Dennehy corner the killer who gets Dennehy’s gun and the drop on him, Tynan saves his life by shooting the killer, at the cost of a bullet to the upper chest, thus causing a complete volte-face on the part of Dennehy. Dennehy admits he was wrong and is ready to back Dave coming out of the closet

But Dave’s not ready. It’s got to still be a secret. He kows better than Dennehywhat the reaction will be, or maybe he’s just too untrusting, even after Dennehy’s conversion. Today, Tynan would just come out and everyone would be understanding, but this is not today, this is forty years ago. I work alongside people who are openly gay and nobody gives a damn but this is not how it was in 1979, and despite leaning a bit too heavily on its liberal agenda, Lou Grant gives us a very apposite reminder of what it was like wihin my own lifetime.

And what it is still like in too many parts of the world, and too many parts of America, yes, and Britain, even now. Dave Tynan stayed in the closet, his sexuality closely guarded, and both Lou and Rossi, the only ones who know, agree that it’s not relevant to the story. Yeah. Journalism 1979. Unreal today.

Lou Grant: s02 e24 – Romance


Babies

Nowadays, season finales are big things, conclusive affairs or cliffhangers, ending on unfinished business meant to occupy the mind of the audience and draw them back for next season. In 1979, this was a long way from not so. Seasons were whole and entire, in the same way that episodes were whole and entire, self-contained, with minimal or no effect on what happened next week, or last week, or next year.

So I wasn’t expecting that much from LouGrant‘s second season finale, and in the sense I’m talking about, I was not disappointed, but it was nice to see the season end on a very strong episode that felt as if it contained a lot more than it’s actual 46 minute length.

The title was ‘Romance’ and it was all about love, or rather relationships, but not from any romantic angle we’d distinguish with the name. In fact, we had a triple header, two stories for the paper, carved up for Rossi and Billie, and one for Lou himself.

Rossi was on the palimony story, not that the P-word was mentioned. Rockstar Aaron Bly, worth an estimated $8,000,000 had broken up with his girlfriend of four years, Cheryl, who was claiming 50% of his fortune on the basis she had given up her ice-skater career for him, and had supported him in every way. This led to a discussion amongst male members of the Trib in which a few neanderthal attitudes were on parade. Apparently, if a woman lives with a man without a marriage certificate, the only thing she contributes is sex, and has anyone had sex worth $4,000,000? The only thing you can do is remind yourself that this is 1979, which doesn’t make it palatable, but makes it understandable.

Cheryl was played by Devon Ericson, who must have had ice-skating training as she was seen at the rink, performing very creditably and chirpily confident. And in an unprecedented move, she was showing her legs. This stood out against the dress code of the series in which every female is covered from neck to toe to fingertip. There is no skin showing, not even a forearm: if Linda Kelsey isn’t in lacks, she’s in a near ankle-length skirt, over boots. It gets increasingly noticeable as the weeks go by.

Anyway, Cheryl and Aaron are merely the overt cynicism. Cheryl’s case gets settled out of Court, by an agreement to marry. There’s no suggestion that there’s any real love involved.

This was the lightweight strand. In the middle was Lou himself, perfectly happy in his relationship with Policewoman Susan Sherman (Frances Lee McCain). Until, that is, she suggested living together. From the very moment she brought that up, things were on a downhill slope. Lou solicits minimal advice, starts a fight over Susan answering his phone and inadvertently betraying her existence to one of his daughters (which she and we immediately understood was only so violent because of her suggestion, an early and inevitable indication that things were not going to work out hunky-dory) and ultimately turns her offer down, on the somewhat confusing grounds that living together makes it too easy to split up if things get rough. He tentatively brings up marriage, but Susan says too soon. It’s all light, and cheerful, and everyone agreeing in an adult manner, but I saw a relationship killed in an instant. It’ll walk around for a bit, but it’s dead already.

The meat of the story, kick-started by the opening scene of a baby left unattended in a car whilst her 16 year old mother went to her birthday party, went to Billie, delving into the weird and wonderful world of teenage pregnncy. This was seen through Wendy (Terri Nunn), a 15 year old schoolgirl determined to get pregnant.

Wendy was, in her quiet way, a horror story. Neglected emotionally at home, at odds with her mother who, in a fleeting scene that established that she was a  teenage mother who didn’t know what to do, Wendy planned to get a baby because a baby let her quit school, get her own place, break away from her mother and, most of all, gave her something that would love her, because lord knows she hadn’t had that at home. That the baby would be a life that she would be responsible for when she seemingly didn’t have an ounce of responsibilty in her, wasn’t part of Wendy’s plan (it would not be wrong to call it a scheme), and any attempt by the concerned Billie to get this over to her was met with angry resistance. A cycle was self-perpetuating.

The episodeand the seeason ended on that melancholy note. Wendy was preganant. She’d got everything she wanted. She was carefree. She was a 15 year old girl with a room, a bed, a table and cute babythings to accessorise her dream of whn the baby came. When Billie left, the camera stayed with Wendy, straightening things,already with nothing to do. Like a kid, she squatted on the floor to play with baby-bootees. You had to hope, and you feared there was none. A powerful moment.

A few weeks ago, after a run of particularly polemic episodes, I considered taking a break at this point, but a strong end to the season has restored my faith. I’ve started so I’ll finish, as we used to say. Be here next week when I start on season 3.

 

 

Lou Grant: s02 e23 – Skids


Performance of the Week

For a moment there, I envisaged another episode full of ‘worthiness’: Problem of the Week, the homeless, the bums. But in one scene, played by a guest star who I know I used to watch in one American series or other, the name of which refuses to leap out at me from imdb, the episode leaped past the didactic and established itself as a compelling piece of television.

The peg upon which the episode was built was, in the end, a McGuffin. A Skid Row denizen is found dead, strangled. Lou remembers an identical case a week before: in fact there have been five, counting this. Lou details Rosssi to follow up on the story, despitee Rossi’s obvious reluctance, and even more obvious distaste that we new would step fromsomething personal.

Indeed it was. Rossi’s father, Carmine (Al Ruscio), once a great family man, until the booze got on top of him, until he became an alcoholic. Now we know why Rossi won’t even drink a single beer. Rossi can barely stand to be in the same room as him.

But Carmine’s not the man who made this work. That was Andrew Duggan, who was Doc. Doc was a Detriot surgeon and a former friend of Lou, who cannot believe someone he has known has been reduced to this. Doc tries to avoid Lou, but when the latter tracks him down, the scene in which Doc explains himself, the pressure that led to his drinking and ultimately his giving up, the future that became the search for the next drink, and his candid acceptance of that, and that it was all he could handle, performed with rough openness by Duggan and his refusal to blame anyone but himself was one of the steeliest moments the series has depicted. There was and would be no happy endings, no rescues. From this scene it was clear that the episode accepted its obligation not to be soft, not to be unreal.

Doc was one of three bums to feature, Billie, who was otherwise curiously distant from the episode, speaks to Dirty Donna (Victoria Gregg), a street lady and a crazy, complete with aluminum foil inside her hat to shield her from the voices. Rossi, who got closer to Doc than he’d expected, learned to try harder with his Pop, who wasn’t so clean of the booze as he was pretending, which was the show’s one nod to its usual soft ending.

But Doc. There was a moment when the show toyed with the terrible cliche of having him be the strangler’s last victim, the man we’d seen at the start of the show trailing him, which would have undone all good. But the tough-mindedness prevailed. Lou got a call, the one we expected, from the Minister, to tell him Doc was dead: exposure, pneumonia, natural causes. Adam, overhearing the call, assumes this is another victim of the Strangler, but when Lou puts him right, nods and says it’s still six victims: this one doesn’t count. And Lou repeats, with pain but without emphasis, “Didn’t count.”

One day maybe, I’ll remember where I know Andrew Duggan’s name and his square jaw from. He was never a star actor, a regular in a series, except for a two-season early-Seventies series called Lancer, a western, but I’m convinced I never saw that. But here he showed his quality, as a man who had broken, but who was completely honest about himself and refusing to whine, and he made himself memorable by that.