Lou Grant: s02 e15 – Scam

White collar criminal

Maybe it was just the day on which I watched this, but for me this was one of those episodes of Lou Grant that has just not weathered the intervening years well. It was both earnest and dry, and its subject, which might have been expository in 1978, is too well worn now to be the kind of crusade the show was about. Though you can hardly say it’s not got a contemporary element to it.

The show’s initial hook was that Lou was being taken out for a meal by his son-in-law to whom, in the early years of marriage to his daughter Lou had helped out financially to the tune of over $5,000. The man had done good and, over Lou’s protestations, wanted to repay him, with interest, threefold: $15,000.

Lots of people had advice for Lou on what to do with this windfall, with Charlie insistent on introducing Lou to his financial adviser, a real wizard named David Milburn (guest star John Considine). Next up was Dr Jack Barnes, one of ultimately over 70 doctors accusing Milburn of being a crook and a scammer.

Finacial stuff is inherently dry, and Milburn was just that little bit too obvious a slimeball to be interesting. It was all one PONZI scheme, but the body of the show revolved around Charlie digging in his heels, refusing to accept Milburn could possibly be a crook, and only being convinced when the man did a runner.

Then it was self-recrimination time, which was the only part of the episode where the show escaped its didactic edge. Charlie’s lost practically everything he’s worked for over thirty years and is blaming himself left, right and centre. he’s feeling itall the more because his wife Marion (Pegy McCay playing her usual, sensible supporting role) won’t blame him. He wants to make himself feel better by having her call him all the names he’s calling himself, but she won’t give him the satisfaction, not out of some sadistic sense of game-playing and punishment, but becaus she is a wifewho loves her husband and is genuinely glad to still have him. It’s an altogether human moment in an episode that, try as it might, can’t escape from its theme.

Milburn’s smug self-satisfaction is hardly dented when the Judge goes against the prevailing trend of wrist-slapping and gives him ten years, nor when he tries to pull the smarm to Charlie over how this is all a horrible mistake and he will make restitution. The show is better when Charlie tell’s Milburn he doesn’t want to know what Charlie’s thinking than in Charlie’s overly quick recovery of his normal, easy-going temperament. What the episode needed was more sense of human drama than the adopting of convenient roles it offered.

As for Lou’s money, that was offered up in a quasi-comedic close, showing Lou had bought a baseball team – a Little League team and a pretty inept one, very Charlie Brown-ish – and gotten very worried about th cost of rreplacing lost balls at $2.50 a pop.

Like I say, on another day, I might have been more sympathetic overall. This just wasn’t the best episode to watch this week.

Lou Grant: s02 e11 – Conflict

It wasn’t immediately easy to see where the conflict of the title was coming from as this latest episode of Lou Grant seemed to be going in at least four directions all at once. There was Billie’s effort to start a campaign against having the trees in her street cut down to enable road-widening, Mrs¬† Pynchon wanting to have an in-house staff member reporting on the paper’s faults and failings, Lou’s friendship wth the basketball team owner denying he’s moving the Stars from LA to San Jose, Lou starting an invstigation into the chief fundraiser of Mrs Pynchon’s personal charity and Marion Hulme loving her new paid job assisting a local politician. Where’s the focus in that?

Eventually, as I should have foreseen, everything coalesced around the Trib’s new ‘Watchdog’, with all the other elements of the story feeding into that in their individual way. Whoever got the Watchdog role would end up having no friends left, so Lou cynially chose the guy who had none to begin with, Joe Rossi.

This was so much a mistake. Rossi seized upon the opportunity to bombard everyone with criticisms. In essence, he was trying to remake every writer and editor on the Trib in his own image, without the least understanding  of what he was doing.

Worse still, Mrs Pynchon was invested enough to promise him a column opposite Editorial, with a free hand, to publish all his criticisms in front of the readers. This was the episode’s only major goof, bending character logic to the arc of the story. Where Rossi, a genuinely good reporter, would track down everything that needed to be known to produce a balanced story, Rossi the watchdog abandoned any effort at enquiry to produce surface-based, impressionistic stories without the context in which they existed, without even asking those attackedfor their side of the story. The Managing Editor whose wife is paid to work for a politician (Charlie). The Editor who’s sitting on a story for a friend (Lou). The reporter who’s using her paper to exercise political clout (Billie). The finance editor with an extensive stock portfolio (Adam Wilson, recurring character, who has one share only in each company to assist his reporting by getting access as a shareholder that a reporter won’t have).

It all looks rife with conflict, but Rossi’s cartoon fire-stoking overlooks every single real-life aspect of it, and brings the paper’s fury down on his head (there is a pool on when he’ll get punched out, who’ll do it and how serious the injury will be: good odds to be had on Billie but Lou’s already taken).

On the other side of the coin, the issue is approached with a little more seriousness in two areas. Lou has to confess that Rossi was right in his instance: his friend did lie to him and play him and Lou fell for it: the Stars are going to San Jose. And whilst Mrs Pynchon is absolutely furious at Lou for going after the charity her father started, for crippling its efforts and depriving its recipients of aid, she has to acknowledge that the story was true and appropriate, and that by going behind her back, Lou has avoided putting her in conflict.

In a way, the most powerful moment of the story, in a low-key but painful closer, related to Charlie and Marion. Marion’s been a wife and mother all her life, a typical woman of her era, adjusting herself to her husband and her children. She started volunteering, and her job is no more than a formal recognition of her role, and the thrill and self-respect of a wage-cheque each week, however small it is. Her joy in what she’s doing, her sense of a self that’s owned by her only, is palpable. When she’s told she has to quit, she refuses.

Charlie is put in an invidious position. Mrs Pynchon makes it clear the situation cannot continue: if Marion will not leave her job, then Charlie will have to leave his. The closer features an angry Charlie, internalising things in bitter, ironic, self-condemnatory terms, and Marion explaing the importance to her of what she does after decades of self-abnegation… but agreeing to quit, because she loves Charlie (and he her), but she’s going to get another job.

It was impressively written, and even better performed by Mason Adams and Peggy McCay, indicating their personal commitment to each other. Yes, it still ended up with the little woman giving way and going back to the home, in the short term at least, which was only to beexpected in 1978, though that doesn’t relieve it from criticism. And personal is not the same as important, as Terry Pratchett once put in the voice of Captain Carrot.

The personal element was also used to blur the episode’s other main flaw, which was that it didn’t have an ending to the watchdog tale. Rossi goes back into reporting, and for the detached man who has no conflict whatsoever there is the exquisite revenge of being given multiple membership of everything you could get membership for, short of the Ku Klux Klan (the Shaun Cassidy Fan Club ran that close though). But the Watchdog idea was now dead. It had been used to illustrate a point, and could now lapse without actually being killed. Only the critical, week-by-week blogger would be so ungentlemany as to notice.

Lou Grant: s01 e18 – Sect

For once, this was a personal, character-driven episode of Lou Grant, albeit one centred on a difficult topic that the show handled fairly in its typical style.

The story started with a couple of disparate elements, though it showed its hand rather early as to which would be the main thread. There was Billie, forced to work with veteran, and stiff-necked writer Mel Cavanaugh on the Education beat, there was Mrs Pynchon demanding the paper appoint a new Religion editor without having to go the length of a Papal Conclave, and there was Charlie Hume, whose picture appears in Encyclopedia Brittanica against mild-mannered, kicking off in anger and frustration about practically everything. Even to Mrs Pynchon. Which of these is an episode long story?

The bug up Charlie’s butt is his son, Tommy, or rather Visnu Das (David Hunt Stafford). Tommy used to be your typical California kid, doing nothing, obsessed with his motorcycle, with the girl from Illinois. Now he’s joined the Hare Krushna sect. He’s shaved his head, adopted another name, wears saffron robes and chants in the street. He’s given up all his possessions and his fleshly urges. There is a difference of opinion over whether the Hare Krishnas accept donations, or just plain beg. And it’s doing Charlie’s head in.

What the programme is about is the question of whether Tommy genuinely believes in what, in 1978, was considered a fringe/outre ‘religion’, or whether he has been brainwashed by a cult, and is saying only what he is programmed to say. To Charlie, it’s obviously the latter. He just doesn’t understand what Tommy sees: all he can see are the robes, the ‘begging’, the filth, poverty and squalor (none of which the show depicts, suggesting that at least the last two of these are in Charlie’s head only).

Tommy, or Visnu Das, a name that represents Tommy’s love for Krishna and his desire to serve him, is calm, steady and happy. He tries to explain himself to his parents, or rather his mother since his father’s ears are closed tight, though all he can produce is happy-clappy platitudes, albeit sincere platitudes. The show would have been substantially stronger for having had the time to show Tommy as he used to be and what brught him to Krishna, but that’s being unreasonably demanding of impossibilities.

Charlie remained steamed up. Everyone around him was being fair to Tommy and to Hare Krishna (the one imdb review praises the show for the fairest depiction of the sect), which only fuels Charlie’s paranoia.

So he turns to de-programming. This was the moment I started to worry about where the show might go, though I should have known better. First we had a couple of parents who had had their daughter snatched from a cult (carefully distinguished to be not Hare Krishna), and who wanted to help others. This was cleverly handled: they did the talking, she sat between them, silent as they congratulated themselves on ‘saving’ her, or infantilising her which was what it looked to me. When the girl spoke up for herself, it was to echo Mummy and Daddy. She was happy to be doing something worthwhile now. She was studying Real Estate.

But this led to the seriously grubby part of the story, bringing in the actual deprogrammers. Tommy was to be lured to Lou’s apartment, alone, and there be brainwashed out of his beliefs. The elements of the deprogramming were elucidated by Lou, who didn’t like the deprogrammers from the start. As the details of restraint, imprisonment, intimidation etc., built up, Charlie began to get visibly nervous. The turning point, the moment the show opted for the mandatory happy ending, was when Tommy came alone. ‘He believed me,’ Charlie muttered, his conscience and his previously overridden love for his son kicking in, all at once. Whilst Lou got rid of the bad guys, Charlie walked in the rain, trying for the first time to understand his son, and accept that what felt like, what was a complete rejection of everything Charlie’s life represented might be a necessity for Visnu Das.

And the show neatly ended on Charlie’s use of the words Lou had intended but never got to use on his daughters, who never messed up and never got any ofthe Talks he’d planned: you’re still my son. Which is enough, and more than enough.

As for those other story strands, they were used as a lightweight counterpart to the main story, comic relief and something for Billie, Rossi and Donovan to do in small doses. And this was a win for Lou too: after Cavanaugh, a poor and hidebound writer too tied to his pals at the Education Board, played on Lou’s heart strings to avoid being fired, Lou came up with a brilliant idea to sink all ships: he made Cavanaugh the new Religion editor, and the guy promptly quit!

A deftly written story that was weakened by not having time to show Tommy’s back story rather that have us assume it, but strengthened by playing out with characters we knew and trusted. The danger of expanding the first part was of turning the story into a telemovie, so maybe we got the best of it afterall.