All the Lou Grant episode titles are one-worders, though they are often somewhat oblique in their reference to the subject of the episode. ‘Gambling’ is flat and prosaic, and so, unfortunately, was the episode.
That starting point is the Turner-Landis Proposition, a California State Government proposal to legalise gambling, not merely in the form of betting on the horses, but also casinos, the proceeds of the tax to go to Education. Ok, decent topic, lot of meat in there (though as there seemed to already be a well-established betting industry, including the Trib’s ‘in-house’ bookie, for playing sports, there was a subtlety to the question that, not being an American in 1979, I’m completely missing).
What crippled the episode from the beginning was its refusal to take a stance. It should have been a straightforward Gambling is Bad to have a moral centre (Gambling is Good, or Gambling is Neither One Thing Nor Another doesn’t make for a story). Instead, it thoroughly confused the issue by splitting the episode between Mort Farber and Mac McIvor.
Mort was the story’s gem. An elderly man, played by Charles Lane, a lifelong track follower who spent every day of his life studying horses, their trainers, owners and vets, Mort is the expert of experts. He’s also gruff, irascible and completely unconcerned about whatever other people think. He’s befriended by Lou after he gets into Lou’s car to snatch a ride towards the racetrack, not only as an expert on the gambling question, but as a guy you just had to like.
And you liked Mort. He had devoted himself to one area of study, he was eccentric but clued-up and whilst you had to admit he was an addict, he was an addict who was in control, who would not bet for the sake of betting, but only on his own, highly accurate perceptions.
At the end, bedridden with near-pneumonia, Mort gets Lou to place a total of $1,500 at his direction on the unfancied Vespi, a 40-1 shot, who goes on to win. Only afterwards does Mort reveal the scam he’d recognised; Vespi was a different horse, a worldbeater, running under the wrong name.
Yes, Mort was smart, he was memorable and he was a winner, so any anti-gambling viewpoint was down in flames. Nevertheless, that’s what the show tried to dom, and spectacularly failed at, with Mac.
Mac, played by Michael Shannon, is a financial reporter at the Trib. More importantly, he’s holding hands with Billie Newman. Mac comes from a rich family, though in his case the spigot has been turned off. He’s the gambler with the problem, the opposite of Mort, because Mac loses. What happens to people who lose more than they have to pay was hinted at but in vague terms that left the audience filling in a pretty substantial gap.
So Mac goes and borrows $2,000 from Billie, on a sob-story about his mother needing money for an urgent operation. She’s not certain about it until Rossi advises her not to and then she hands him a cheque (sigh: complete silliness). Then Charlie inadvertently lets slip about Mac’s family, Billie feels let down and, even though Mac repayshalf the loan dead on time, she breaks up with him and is sad, and so are we because the ‘twist’ in this tale makes gambling look bad because it’s made poor, sweet Billie nearly cry, instead of something a lot more solid.
Cue closing ‘ironic’ gag. Animal has no interest in gambling, completely lacks the urge, is utterly confused by it, but now he’s bet on to football teams and won $25, and is going to invest half his winnings on another two games: “This is fun,” he twees whilst Lou and Billie share ironic looks and the bell goes to end this formless mish-mash.
Lack of conviction dogs the entire episode. Where is that immaculate liberal stance? A bit of polemic was what was missing and the result is dullness. Try again next week.