Lou Grant: s04 e16 – Campesinos

One of many sides

Once again I’m in the position of being an unintentional contrarian in my opinions about a television episode. According to imdb‘s ratings, this episode is the lowest rated in season 4, one of only two to be given a rating under 7. Yet whilst the story was often confused, and was predictable in one major aspect, I thought it better than that, especially as, for once, the series’ reluctance to provide distinct outcomes was fitting: this was a story that would never end.

The story was about labour relations, in a time when, even in America, workers had a lot more going for them than they do now. Immigrant workers, Mexican, are employed in picking celery in California’s Central Valley. It’s wht it always is: back-breaking work, ten hours in the field under a blazing sun, or in pouring rain, for minimum wage, and that’s just for the ones who get to work: the rest starve.

There’s been a strike for six months, and the growers are getting illegals in to do the job for even less. The owners don’t care about the workers, they see them as free of responsibility. The owners hold the land, they work it and manage it, they are invested in it. They don’t have the freedom to move on and do something else whenever they feel like it. Besides, the owners don’t want to be told how to run their business, forced to hire workers they don’t consider sufficiently skilled or fast enough.

It’s an arguable case, but it contains a wilful blindness as to the real lives of the workers, their need for a living wage, their need for security. Oddly enough, the show allows the owners to make their viewpoint explicit but doesn’t give the same to the Union. I suppose it’s because their case is bindingly obvious: you take one look at the conditions under which they work and immediately support their need to be treated decently and fairly.

But what’s this all got to do with the Trib? It starts with Union organiser Tommy Hernandez (James Victor), former football star and school contemporary with Joe Rossi, roping him in to the story with the hook of former worker’s activist, the Reverend Hugh Holstrom (Jeff Corey) coming out of retirement after 18 years to rejoin the fight.

Though Lou is more interested in the Tommy Hernandez story than the strike, Hernandez uses Rossi’s presence (and that of a dozen other reporters also on the same ‘exclusive’), to advance his cause. The Reverend breaks the picket to try to address the illegals, bring them round to the cause (they cannot: without work they will starve) and is arrested. A rumour he’s had a heart attack in the Sheriff’s station causes a mini-riot in which Rossi is caught up and gets him jailed.

This forces Lou to take the overall story more seriously, sending a team to Ortega: Animal, Billie, Spanish-speaking Rubin Castillo (Emilio Delgado) and Donovan, whose beat this was fifteen years earlier. We’ve not seen much of Billie recently because Linda Kelsey had broken her left wrist, arm in slings and slimline plaster cast and she’s officially acknowledged to be on the Reserved Injured List herein. Continuity-wise, it’s a throwback to Billie’s injury during episode 13, ‘Strike’.

As the show develops, the strike is given a more personal edge by an unconvincing detail. One of the owners, Paul Geyer (William Lucking, Gandy Dancer in Tales of the Gold Monkey), is a former friend of Tommy and a team-mate who worked well with them. Geyer tries to negotiate separately with Tommy, but Tommy won’t budge, leading Geyer to conclude there’s a personal element to this, that Tommy is focussed on beating Geyer, not on his members interests. They’d be better off without you, he tells Tommy.

Straightway, you knew what was to follow. The frustrated pickets, whipped up by Tommy, break their lines and enter the fields. Tommy racesafter them, as much as you can in a celery field, urging them to go back. The guard with a rifle fires three shots, everybody turns round and retreats but one man has been hit: it’s Tommy and he’s dead. The show makes a hash of this scene, with the violence off camera, but it was all so predictable.

As was the outcome. without Tommy, the strike was settled, the Union compromised, the purveyor of Unintended Manslaughter got the traditional slap on the wrist and everything went back to normal, until the next time. The illegals were collected in a truck and went somewhere else.

It was a deliberately downbeat ending, recognising that here was a scenario that would repeat and repeat uintil the heat-death of the Universe. It was an episode ito which you could read any political position your own prejudices endorsed and in which, if your mind was open enough, see the opposite side and the practical reality of the world in that it was those of us who buy celery (I don’t) and want it cheap force conditions, compromises and even deaths on those at the other end of the production chain. And it did all these not to be wishy-washy neutral but to show us that this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Could it have done it better? Oh, certainly. Two seasons ago this topic would have produced a tighter, sharper, more concentrated episode to say and show all these things, but it still got its intentions straight, and it deserved a bit more respect from its audiene. There are higher rated episodes this season that aren’t half as good as this, albeit flawed story.

Deep Space Nine: s05 e11: The Darkness and the Light

Old friends

Though this is apparently a highly regarded episode among those responsible for Deep Space Nine, for its dark, and in some ways ambiguous tone, once again I found myself less impressed than others, for the very reasons that the show is supposed to be so successful.

For most of its length, ‘The Darkness and the Light’ was an impressively taut one-off episode, a simple, almost simplistic thriller elevated by an excellent and intense performance at the heart of it by Nana Visitor, who hasn’t really been at the heart of things for a long time, thanks to her and Major Kira’s pregnancy.

Someone is killing the former members of Kira’s Resistance Group. Each killing is technologically advanced and surgical: only the intended victims are killed, no ‘collateral damage’. Each is accompanied by a short message in electronically distorted tones saying “that’s one”, “that’s two” etc., which Nog’s sensitive lobes identify as being recordings of Kira herself.

The Major is two to three weeks from giving birth (she gives both figures during the episode, though the longer one is to her captor so may be an exaggeration to try to buy time rather than an inconsistency), and not sleeping well, especially as the Bajoran herbs she’s taking to aid with the pregnancy are counteracting the sedatives. The loss of her friends is driving her into a frenzy as he can’t do anything about it.She even tries to get her old buddies Furel and Lupaza (the former played by William Lucking, who I’ve not long since encountered in Tales of the Gold Monkey) to leave it to the authorities rather than go off and kill the bastard, although they are promptly killed (offstage).

This last killing is the final straw. In the infirmary, laid low by grief, Kira removes her ear-jewellery, cradles it in her hands as she talks of her first mission for the Resistance, aged 13, and how Lupaza made her jewellery for her from metal from the skimmer she’d blasted. It’s a scene of peculiar intensity that lifted the otherwise straightforward plot to a higher level, amplified by how the steely determined Major than uses personal emergency codes to teleport into Odo’s office, steal and erase his list of suspects, and head off in a runabout all the more effective.

Unfortunately, and for me in particular, the episode collapses in on itself from that moment. Kira perfunctorily dismisses the first three names on the list and finds number four, Silaran Prin, to be the killer, ‘first time out’. It chops the legs out from under the credibility of the story on procedural grounds, especially as the Major is promptly stunned and restrained.

Prin’s the killer alright, and his dialogue about what he’s doing and why is supposed to be both poetic and loopy, but unfortunately only gets as far as loopy. It’s a confused and confusing series of contradictions on the theme of the opposition between darkness and light, meant to carry within it a degree of profundity but instead achieving meaninglessness. It’s wildly out of place with the utterly professional majority of the story, trying to wrap up an act of simple revenge in a philosophical construction.

Prin, you see, was badly disfigured in a Resistance raid led by Kira. But he was a non-combatant, a servant: he ironed shirts. And she, unheeding of consequences, was callously injured as ‘collateral damage’. Contrast this with his noble procedure of ensuring only the ‘guilty’ are killed. She is the darness, he is the light.

The episode reasserts itself for one golden moment as Kira eschews the cliche of admitting she done wrong, it was awful, I’m so sorry but we had to be extreme, in favour of a flat out accusation of Prin as an invader, an occupier, a despoiler of her planet no matter what he did, and good on you, Nerys, and bugger moral ambiguity.

But then it collapsed back on its quasi-poesy, with more darkness versus light as Prin prepares to distinguish between the two states by giving Kira an impromptu laser caesarian to spare ‘her’ baby. It’s all getting a little frantic here, as the cavalry isn’t even breasting the horizon but, as my once friend Linda told me, many years ago, escape is better than rescue. Kira fakes Prin out by asking for a sedative, pretending it’s worked, then kicking him in the Cardassian nuts and burning a hole in his chest with a phaser.

Which she then proceeds too spoil, when the cavalry teleports in, by going all poetic herself and musing that you can’t have darkness without light (Tritism 101) and how innocence is just an excuse for the guilty which, with the greatest of all possible respect, is simply bullshit and meaningless.

An ending that reeked of over-inflated ambition incapable of coherence that spoiled an otherwise well-formed and well-performed thriller. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e08 – Honor thy Brother

I remember Tales of the Gold Monkey more for its set-up and atmosphere rather than its specific stories, but ‘Honor thy Brother’ is one of only a couple of exceptions (the one in which Bonne Chance Louie is put on trial for something I don’t recall is the other).

I recognised it immediately from the open, and its foreshadowing scenes, and confirmed my recollection from the opening scene, another flashback to Jake’s (bogus) time in the Flying Tigers. This was a dogfight scene: Jake, cigar firmly clenched in teeth, was stooging around on patrol when he was ambushed by two ‘Zekes’, Japanese Zeros (another deliberate error: these were never used against the AVG). The planes are piloted by two brothers, the younger on his first mission. Jake shoots both planes down though, unknowingly, the elder brother survives, and, by rite of hontu nagiri (sp?) determines to kill Jake in revenge.

Back at the base, everyone’s playing it cool around Jake, until Gandy Dancer (a welcome if brief return for  William Lucking) starts a celebration that mainly consists of pouring beer over Jake’s head. His two Zekes take him to five ‘kills’ and he joins Gandy as an ‘Ace’.

Cut to a year later, in the Maravellas, and Jake’s seeing a Japanese bomber that the Tigers nick-name a ‘Betty’ for the third time, only he’s the only one who sees it and no-one believes him, not even Jack. This leads us into an oddly disjointed story that doesn’t feel as if it hangs together, and yet was still perfectly enjoyable.

A bunch of German sailors are getting drunk in the bar and planning to put to shame Mapuhe’s exceedingly pretty daughter (not that she seems to be objecting). Mapuhe, a Polynesian patriarch and an obvious wheeler-dealer, explains to Corky that he needs 100 francs to mend his net: no net, no fish, no food. A horribly embarrassed Corky lends him the money to spare the poor child the ordeal (yeah, right), incurring the ire of the boorish, square-headed Kraut. There’s just one complication: the sailor has got Jack’s eye.

Jake’s entirely reasonable attempts to peacably negotiate for the purchase of the eye lead to the inevitable: a massive brawl that demolishes the bar, and for which Louie blames him, even though Jake didn’t start it. Sarah’s prepared to believe he was responsible, even as she applies the iodine, and to get very stroppy until she hears about the ‘Betty’ – until Jake explains he’s talking about bombers, whereupon the spy in Sarah rises to the fore.

Meanwhile, Jake has stolen back his eye which Jake refuses to fit until it’s been sterilised, putting the dog into an even bigger huff than usual.

Meanwhile, someone’s setting traps to kill Jake – a cobra in his bedroom, a crossbow in the woods – except that they’re gimmicked to fail whilst demonstrating how easily they could have succeeded.

Meanwhile, again (you can see what I mean about disjointed), Corky has discovered that his 100 francs loan to Mapuhe has been accepted in payment for Mapuhe’s daughter’s hand (and all the rest of her) in marriage. Only it’s not the pretty one, it’s the eldest daughter, and wouldn’t you know it? She’s the fat one, who’s constantly eating, constantly giggling and constantly wailing every second that Corky expresses less than perfect enthusiasm for giving her lots and lots of babies (mind you, she’s got child-bearing hips).

Last week, I discussed the show’s flaws, and this is another one. It’s a demeaning cultural stereotype, both of the Polynesian primitives and the the fat girl no-one in their right mind would want to marry, let alone, you know, well, yeuch. There’s no justifying it, even if it is characteristic of the Saturday Morning Cinema experience.

So Jake, whilst being pursued to his death, has to get Corky out of a hole again (you know, you have a filthy mind at times). By a curious coincidence, Mapuhe’s island of Keneroo happens to be practically next door to the Japanese island of Torihado, where there’s a secret airbase of fighter planes, everybody knows that. Sarah’s along for the ride, having reported everything to Washington (except Jake’s name…).

And then everything comes awkwardly together as Mapuhe happily accepts Tafara back, except there’s a guy in a Japanese pilot’s uniform waiting, with a white headband decorated with the Rising Sun on his forehead, and guys with machetes up around Corky and Sarah’s necks, because Kenji, who has been pursuing honju nagiri, has arranged all this, including Corky’s ‘marriage’ to draw Jake to the island (see how it all fits together now?). They must duel to the death.

Jake has choice of weapons. Thinking he’s clever, he selects fighter planes. Kenji however is clever. He knew what Jake would choose and has already familiarised himself with how to slip past the Torihado security and steal two Zekes…

Despite the overall silliness, and the unconvincing way this has been built up, it’s all been good fun so far, but I remember the dogfight being perfunctory and Jake winning far too quickly and far too easily, and so it was. Kenji crash dives into the ocean, Jake bales out with parachute but no lifejacket. Of course, a rescue could be made, if only Mapuhe had something of value to make it worth the risk. And who’s eye is an emerald…?

So we’re back to square one (no notion of exactly how Jake and co managed to get away from there without any consequences for stealing and destroying two Imperial Japanese Airforce fighter planes with nobody suffering any loss of face). Jack has got his patch back on, Mapuhe’s rowed off, Washington is very pleased with their Agent Sarah Stickney White and still ignorant of the name of Jake Cutter. And they’d still like pictures…

It’s an interesting example of how a show made up of pieces that don’t fit alongside each other, and in one case are extremely insulting, can nevertheless be enjoyable, though the brevity of the ending after all that build up is disappointing. Nostalgia to some extent, and the show’s unselfconscious commitment to delivering a fun experience disarms a lot of the valid criticism, but I would like something a bit stronger next week.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e04 – Legends are Forever

Never kill off a great guest star

This week’s episode was a great, gleeful collection of cliche and thrill that fit in surprisingly well with my recent contention over opinions as to the Sixties Batman  TV show. As I’ve already said, there’s nothing of any great depth to Tales of the Gold Monkey, it’s about fun and simplicity, bundled together into the recognition that the early films and serials it echoes were cheap and naive, but Monkey is in tune with its subject matter, and at heart sides with it.

There’s cliche a-plenty this week, not least in the adventure brought by guest star Gandy Dancer, played by William Lucking. Gandy’s introduced in a medium long flashback to a year earlier, over China. He’s an older, looser, loucher version of Jake, the big-hearted Texan (actually, he’s from Pennsylvania), forever warbling ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ on his mouth organ, a grifter and a likable con artist whose biggest cons are all on himself.

It’s immediately clear that he and Jake have knocked about a lot, and that Gandy can pull the wool over Jake’s eyes, no matter how wary he gets. They’re flying booze, under cloud cover, to a Chinese warlord, a mission that Gandy has suckered Jake into flying in the belief they’re under orders, when he’s used Jake’s clean-cut reputation to suggest this to the General…

Because there’s a legend out there, of gold and riches, and Gandy’s a sucker for legends and treasure. Believes ’em all, implicitly, chases ’em all, looking for that score, sucking the unsuspecting, and even the suspecting who can be misled, into his wake. Which, in this instance is persuading Jake to jump, with Jack, when they’re being shot at by Japanese Zeros, leaving good ol’ boy Gandy to fly on into the cloud…

Cut back to ‘now’, in 1938, and Jake returns from a solo, transporting nuns, to find Gandy’s turned up on Bora Gora. The old partnership is back, the boys are reunited, and Jake has only one greeting for his old buddy: I’m gonna kill you! Cue a glorious, destructive barfight, knocking over tables, chairs, smashing bottles and glasses, jumping over the piano, all set to the background of the imperturbable Bonne Chance Louie tidily totting up the cost of the damage (920 francs, to be precise).

It appears Gandy is there on a mission of mercy, at the behest of the tall, coal-black skinned Mr Umopwa, bringing quinine for a lost tribe of transplanted Watusi Africans on a remote, formerly volcanic island, who are suffering from malaria. Everyone believes Gandy except Jake, who refuses to get involved. Next shot: the Goose in flight and Jack giving up the co-pilot’s seat. t to allow Gandy to chat with Jake.

There’s no Sara this week, which is a shame, but her place is taking by the unflappable Louie, as the French magistrate, which allows further development of Louie’s past. In true ‘Flashman’ style, Louie it seems has been everywhere that was everywhere to the drama world of 1938. To last week’s reference to Devil’s Island., we now add George Mallory’s Everest expedition of 1924, not to mention Beau Geste’s Fort Zinderneuf.

There’s another romantic literary reference coming up before long, but first we have the Goose putting down on a rather small lake, we have mysterious natives hiding in the jungle, and we have a glorious suspension bridge over a precipitous gorge with the statutory waterfall in the background – oh, this show knows its iconography – and we have blowpipes and poison darts, one of wich strikes Gandy in the shoulder…

And we know where this is set to go.

The tribe and the malaria are, to Jake’s  surprise, true, and Umopwa turns into a dignified king, but Gandy turns out to be Gandy, as we knew all along he would. Gandy’s read ‘King Solomon’s Mine’ and believe’s it’s true, that Haggard based it on real legends, and that the treasure was moved from Africa to an island across a great sea…

And Gandy’s tired. Perhaps it’s just the poison talking, but he’s had enough.  There’s a little girl back home, a motherless child called Molly, back in Pennsylvania, a daughter he’s not seen since she was two: five years, and it’s time she had a father. One score, one last adventure for Gandy so we can give Molly the life she should have.

It’s just never going to happen. Jake can scare the threatening Bogras off the island by terrifying them with the Goose, he can save the Watusi, but nothing can save Gandy Dancer, and Jake’s parting gift to his old sparring partner is a vision of lies, of the treasure Gandy believes in, recounted as a litany of gold and diamonds that Jake has ‘seen’ and can attest that Gandy was right, after all…

It’s sentimental, but it’s very effective, and affecting. Not that it does little Molly any good, though everyone, Louie himself, agrees to chip in money for the orphaned girl. And a grateful Umopwa has given Jake a bonus, a little bag… which turns out to be full of raw, uncut diamonds. Molly Dancer’s going to be rich. And Corky has the last word, or rather question: “Jake, you don’t think…?”

I loved this. I don’t say I remember, though the name of Gandy Dancer stuck in my head over thirty five years, and I recognised him immediately I saw William Lucking, and that he died in this episode, though he does make one further appearance later on, briefly, in another flashback. Lucking, with his innocent shiftiness, made an ideal Gandy and a more rounded cliche than he need have been. And the series takes me back, to 1981, and who I was and where I was, and was it Thursday nights, on BBC1 at about 7.35pm?

Roll on the next one.