Lou Grant: s05 e07 – Drifters

From the title, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this episode. What I got was unexpected but also astonishingly good. This was down to a willingness to forget practically all the structure of the series and its characters – Mrs Pynchon doesn’t appear, Billie only appears fifteen minutes in, Rossi has two very short cameos – in favour of letting an extraordinary guest star dominate the episode and run you through every emotion under the sun, including one very tough-minded and shocking incident just before the end.

That guest was W.K. Stratton, as Scott Hume, Charlie’s nephew. He was unknown to me but when I checked his record in imdb, it turns out he’s been in lots of series I’ve watched, including Hill Street Blues, Tales of the Gold Monkey and Quantum Leap. Stratton is tall and sort of shapeless with, in this episode, a nondescript pudding bowl haircut. Scott Hume is what we would once have called ‘a troubled young man’: Stratton told us that just by standing there in the City Room.

Scott’s thirty. He suffers from depression and anxiety. He’s seeing psychiatrists, intermittently, on mood-elevating medication that he rejects taking. From the first moment he appears, without any extravagance in action or words, he projects an absence, a separation from the world.

Scott has no job. He has no abilities. He is unable to focus on anything for long. He has unrealistic expectations, like being a writer, like the never-seen Chrissy loving him when she’s married with two children. Scott can’t cope with it, with anything.

Charlie knows of Scott’s background, up to and including the ‘nervous breakdown’ of two years previously. For much of the episode he internally blames his older brother Steve (James Callahan) for Scott’s state, even as he concedes his own issues with son Tommy, whose choice of a different life in season 1 is only alluded to. Charlie himself will learn, from the psychiatrist, Dr Sorensen (Tom Akins) that he cannot blame himself for Tommy any more than he can credit himself – not that he does – for Joannie being terrific, and that a parent’s self-blame can be a burden to the child as well.

This is to prepare us for the finale. But before we come to that astonishing moment, I’ll reference the completely opposite B story that, despite being comic and lightweight and altogether out of proportion, was strangely complementary. It kept the paper bubbling in the background as Billie is assigned the story of Ziggy the bear who escaped from a zoo and stayed on the loose for days until the Trib’s hired tracker brought him in. Yes, no comparison, but it allowed several very funny lines along the way, and acted as a counterpoint to the completely non-humourous story of Scott. Lou, of course, straddles both stories, encouraging Billie whilst getting steadily more peeved with Charlie for putting the running of the paper second to his nephew and his bother.

As led into the ending. Scott, panicked, deluded in his belief Chrissy would set it all right, unable to cope with stress, with pressure, with living, ends up on Chrissy’s porch in the middle of the night, shivering in a t-shirt, outwardly courteous in not wanting to disturb her at that hour, but nonetheless afraid of and unable to handle another failure.

Charlie and Steve arrive, and the latter goes to sit with his ruination of a son, and in aquiet, level voice he tells Scott that they have both been looking for a magic wand, one thing to fix it all, Scott with his imagined Chrissy, Steve some miracle cure for his son that will put everything right. It will not happen. and Steve tells Scott that there will always be a room for him at home, no conditions, but unless Scott is doing thebest he can to help himself, there will be nothing between father and son and they will be strangers. Steve has decided that he can do no more and that in order to save himself he must abandon Scott. Charlie will drive him to the airport now.

It’s hard, it could even be stigmatised as ‘tough love’, but it is honest and without the sentimentality that I would usually expect from Lou Grant. The oly note of hope the episode allows, and Stratton’s portrayal has killed even this but we need a glimmer of sunlight, is that Scott asks if he could be taken to Dr Sorenson on the way.

A most extraordinary episode, inexplicably rated below the average on imdb. Forty years later, I’m still arguing with the crowd. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lou Grant: s04 e04- Sting

I’m at a loss to decide whether my general lack of interest in this week’s Lou Grant is down to me and feeling incredibly dull,or to the story being slight at the best, and uninvolving.

The plot attempts to be complex but is actually very simple.Fed-up of a two-hour freeway drive to work each day, Charlie Hume moves himself and his wife Marion into an apartment in town that’s 15 minutes away by bus and rents his house out to a ‘Mr and Mrs Thatcher’. The Thatchers make extensive changes, have visitors all of the time and generally act suspiciously.

Instead of being crooks, they turn out to be Law Enforcement. Charlie’s house has been fitted out with elaborate, concealed but comprehensive surveillance and is being used to offer bribes to City Councillors and Zoning Commissioners to vote a certain way over prestigious undeveloped land.

There’s a degree of confusion over the truth of this, necessary only to extending the story to last 46 minutes and doing little to puzzle the audience over what to actually believe (or, in at least one case, interest the audience enough to care all that much), but ‘Thatcher’ is not ‘Thatcher’, nor is he ‘Dylan’, as he claims to be when he shows the upset Charlie and Lou what they’ve done to keep Charlie from voiding the Lease, he’s actually Collins of the State’s Attorney-general’s Office, not LAPD as he let them assume.

Lou Grant being Lou Grant, it had to have it’s liberal viewpoint, here represented by Rossi, angry over the whole concept of Police entrapment. It’s a valid point: on the one hand, Law enforcement believes these people are dirty and willing to go on the take, and are setting out to get hard evidence of that, on the other these people have only committed bribes because Law enforcement has offered them the money. Would the crime exist if the ‘Police’ hadn’t sought it out?

You’re not going to get answers here, and it’s infuriating to have a question like that, which is a serious issue in a modern society, being raised in such a wishy-washy fashion, with one simplistic argument on each side and withdrawing with a determination to to reach a conclusion.

The show does try to hint at where its instincts lie but in an oblique manner that doesn’t begin to work. at the top of the episode, Rossi is sent out to Hollywood Boulevard after a sighting of a missing woman. Trying to get information, he speaks to a long-legged, blonde-haired, short-dressed woman who’s actually an undercover Policewoman. So he’s sensitive to the appearance of malfeasance that might not actually be malfeasance, but rather be unfortunate circummstances.

Which is then echoed, ineffectually, at the bottom of the episode when Rossi interviews the soon-to-be-indicted Councilman Garvey, who presents his intended defence as his having heard of corruption and been conducting his own investigation, taking the money to help iidentify who is behind this. It’s ineffectual because we see Rossi fall into the sting innocently, but Garvey only comes up with this excuse after he’s denied things utterly, and John Considine plays him as shifty.

Speaking of actors, Thatcher was played by Larry Linville. I very rarely recognise guest stars’ in the credits but Larry Linville played Major Frank Burns in the early series of M*A*S*H*, so it was nice to see him again.

So, no, not for me this time. And I think it was the episode that’s at fault, not the blogger.

Lou Grant: s03 e14 – Brushfire

The first Lou Grant episode of the Nineteen Eighties (broadcast on 7 January) was an unusual amalgam of elements, lacking the show’s usual ‘agenda’-based storytelling. It started at night, in the heat, the dry Southern California summer, the Santa Anna winds drying things out and a fire reported in a canyon that expands rapidly and almost uncontrollably until seven fires are burning, home are being evacuated and burned down, people are losing everything, 2,000 acres alight. In view of the current Australian fires, this became an oddly topical story.

Into this scenario, of panic and desperation, the show introduced several elements, the major aspects of which was the coverage of the ever-developing fires. Rossi and Animal on the scene, Billie doing re-writes at the paper despite her father Paul Newman being in Town to see her (cue for a few jokes there), Lou and Donovan managing calls and a substantial role for Mrs Pynchon for once, caught in the middle of things at her niece’s riding school, rescuing a forgotten horse and pitching in as a volunteer with that uncmplaining sense of duty that’s much derided but nonetheless heartfelt.

Also in the middle of this was Charlie Hume and his wife Marion. Their marriage is in difficulties, they’ve been growing apart since the kids moved out, Marion wants a job, to feel independent, Charlie’s crusty enough to resent that: they’re selling the house, they’re separating, they will end up getting a divorce.

But the house they’re selling is in a canyon, and the fire spreads. Charlie panics, grabs a bundle of stuff to take with them and flee. This includes one specific dress of Marion’s. They’re supposed to evacuate but Charlie’s gone nuts, refuses to give up the house, dowses the roof continually with water. Marion won’t leave without him.

It’s a sharp contrast to a guy named Bergman that Animal meets, who’s lost his home, though thankfully not his partner. Bergman’s sanguine about the house: it’s only a house after all. But like Animal he’s a photographer, and he has lost a lifetime’s negatives, irreplacable photos, irrecioverable memories. Yet he bounces back, borrowing a camera from Animal, gifted several rolls of film. Bergman can start again with just the clothes on his back.

Charlie can’t or won’t. Adam Wilson loses his house to the fires but Charlie fights to keep his and succeeds. He and Marion are full of adrenalin at the outcome, too many good things happened in that house, Charlie says, to not fight for it. The metaphor is obvious but not plastered in your face, and Marion is more impressed by the dress Charlie chose to save, because he always thought she looked great in it.

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche, the stress that pushes a failing couple back into each other’s arms, the adrenalin solution. Forty years later, a series like Lou Grant would make that into an ongoing strand, explored over several weeks, to see if there’s a lasting effect. Forty years ago, a happy endng was taken for granted, and for once why not?

The episode was at its weakest in hinting at a firebug as the cause of the disaster, but redeemed itself with a neat twist. Animal has been quick on the scene to several fires recently and the Fire Department suspect him. They’ve been following him for the last sixty days. Animal knows – he may look and act goofy but young Mr Price is no fool – and has taken several shots of his shadow. Except that his Fire Department shadow is played by Tony Perez, who I remember for a substantial recurring role in Hill Street Blues, and this is a completely different guy: Animal has been snapping the firebug.

A good, professional, well-made episode that highlighted the paper’s working in a time of developing news, and which used its other themes wisely and not too obtrusively. This is why i like Lou Grant. Edward Asner’s a large part of it too.


Lou Grant: 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.