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.