Lou Grant: s05 22 – Beachhead

The enthusiasm is all but gone and shapeless episodes like this, with very little sense of conviction to them, don’t help:  this is dead man walking stuff.

There’s three stories going on here, two of which in different ways exemplifying the episode title, the third next to invisible. Going for his early morning jog down near the beach, Lou sees a surfer nearly mow down a swimming kid. The surfers are a bunch of fanatics decorated over with SS signs that stand for ‘Surf Soldiers’. They have nothing to do with Nazis, the gang are too empty-headed for that. They’re just very possessive of ‘their’ beach space, with which I was mildly sympathetic: there’s a case for arguing that when an environment is particularly suited to a specific activity that it should be reserved for that and not disrupted by general stuff that can be done anywhere.

That’s not an argument that gets a hearing here. Lou’s not convinced it’s worth that much space but Charlie wants to jump all over it, the result being chaos and a riot as the story provokes tensions, rivalries with another gang, extreme hassle for Lou and tension between him and Charlie.

The other beachhead involves Billie and Ted, Cliff Potts making his last appearance in the series. They’ve just bought a house in a nice suburban environment and on their first night they’re interrupted by a small-minded neighbour wanting them to sign a petition against the house two doors down that’s introducing lunatics and dangerous madmen into the neighbourhood. In reality, it’s a halfway house for young men from emotionally disturbed backgrounds, discharged from mental hospitals, being gradually reintroduced into the community and into looking after themselves.

Billie’s sympathetic – she’s a cast member on Lou Grant isn’t she? – but Ted, who’s protective of his wife and unable to escape feeling guilty about being on the road so often, is more hostile until he visits the place to see for himself and is completely converted, mainly because they love his baseball stories.

The third story may have a foreshadowing element to it, I’ll know in two weeks time. The Denver Record has folded, dropping a lot of good reporters on the market. Lou’s enthusiastic, and so’s Charlie, offstage, until Mrs Pynchon hits him over increasing overheads: no new hires. Lou spends the episode fielding calls from reporters that he can’t take on until the end when Mrs Pynchon interrupts his argument with Charlie to tell them they were right and she was wrong: she’d tried to sign a very highly-regarded columnist only to be too late, she’d already been picked up. She wanted to tell Lou and Charlie how much she relies upon them and their instincts, and what a good team they make.

So. Not much in any of it, and certainly no conviction in either programme makers or this corner of the audience. Dead men walking.

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 e08 – Catch

He’ll be back

Lou Grant‘s fourth season is proving to be a difficult one, this latest episode being the third in a row to have problems. There was a decent, entertaining and personal story in there, but it got lost amid a confusion of purpose and the shackles of a secondary story whose principal note was paranoia (justified paranoia, it seemed) that was entirely uncomplimentary.

The main story started off suggesting the series’ usual approach to societal stories, though its apparent peg was hardly earth-shattering. The tenants of a well-maintained, stylish apartment building are protesting its conversion into a condominium that no-one could afford: dry as dust and far too technical a story, especially for British eyes and ears.

But this is our McGuffin, quickly set-up and pretty much to be abandoned since it’s prpose is to ring together Billie Newman, reporter, and Ted McCovey (Cliff Potts, excellent and friendly), third string baseball catcher.

The way it worked was that Billie’s investigating the company that’s forcning through the condo conversion, being stonewalled, discovering its major investors to be baseball players, three massive stars and Ted, the only one she can approach. And Ted is likeable from the off, an intelligent man with a finely-tuned sense of his real status as a ball-player, someone who’s been in love with the sport all his life, aware he’s got maybe a season left.

Billie, despite all her ignorance of and indifference to, the sport (it’s so slow…) falls for the obviously honest and open-hearted Ted, who’s gotten into the rapidly-receding condo story because his pals cut him in and he trusted them implicitly, because they were his pals. Ted was someone who placed a high value upon friendship and trust: when he retires, an old schoolpal will cut him in as a partner in his appliance store, no contract, just a word of trust.

You couldn’t help but like Ted. Billie certainly did. She tried to back out of the story but did so so half-heartedly, Lou wouldn’t let her. And the expected happened: the story drove a wedge between them, the relationship dead before it was born.

Except that Ted then rang Billie to correct a mistake in her story. As of two minutes ago, he’s no longer a Major League Baseball player, he’s been let go. Ted’s in obvious shock and though Billie immediately goes to see him, she just compounds things, trying to get him to consider another job in baseball. Yes, she’s aware of his love for the game, but Ted’s in shock, he’s set on a clean break, and her well-meaning efforts are only making it worse. One great line that could apply to any sport: ‘for fourteen years they’ve treated me like a child and now they tell me I’m an old man’. Strike two.

There was a nice little touch added. Billie once had a brief affair with Art Donovan, who’s looking at her again with that look in his eyes. Billie tells her troubles to Art, who points out she has plenty of friends out there: he’s the last one she should be unloading herself to.

Then, in a lovely little moment, Ted turns up in the City Room. He wants Billie’s opinion, her approval, which will come pre-loaded, making this a moment of connection, the last hurdle to cross before they become the couple they’re going to be. He’s been offered a job as a scout. The pay’s lousy, the driving’s murderous, he’ll have no time for himself, the chance of coaching might not come for years. And she says it sounds terrific and they kiss.

This is the story that could have made this into a good episode, if it hadn’t been bogged down in the McGuffin that gave the story a blurred feel for so much of its length and was left so conspicuously hanging.

I’ve excluded mention of the B story because it was so conspicuously unsuited to pair with Billie’s romance, but this was Rossi’s story, along with Adam Wilson and a guest appearance from Robert Hirshfield as the Trib’s IT manager, just a year before becoming a regular in Hill Street Blues. Rossi’s paranoid about the paper’s VTU’s (i.e., their word processors/computers). Unreliability, the medical risk, all the things people were concerned about forty years ago, before we let the personal computer in all its myriad forms into our lives and hearts.

It’s paranoia writ large, of a kind that would have been more effective then, but it’s allied to a security issue. Adam loses all his notes on a major story because he’d stored them all in the computer and they vanished. It turns out that a company working for the Trib in respect of their IT is also the holding company for the one about which Adam was writing. Having breached the Trib’s security to get Adam’s access code, they hacked the system and deleted the notes.

So, there you go. It is hard to recapture the atmosphere of 1980, especially when I’ve had a PC or a laptop of my own for nearly thirty years by now, which diffused the strength of the story, if it really had any to begin with. But primarly it was an intrusion into the episode, a contrast too deep to ever cohere, which contributed largely to the eoisode’s inadequacies.

Looking ahead, next week’s episode has a very serious theme, as the title alone will establish. I will be hyper-critical of that if they blow it for a fourth week in succession.