Wednesday, July 13, 2016

“Oh, Mr. Graaaaannnt…”


In the fall of 1977, television viewers were clued in as to what became of former WJM-TV news director Lou Grant (Edward Asner), a memorable character from the Emmy Award-winning sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Sacked from his Minneapolis gig due to the station’s low ratings, Lou made his way to the City of Angels, where, thanks to his old pal Charlie Hume (Mason Adams), he was hired to be city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune—a paper published by the patrician Margaret Pynchon (Nancy Marchand).  After a brief period of adjustment, boob tube fans were relieved to learn that Grant was going to make it after all.  (Yeah, I couldn’t resist.) 

Lou Grant was a critically-acclaimed dramatic series that aired on CBS-TV from 1977 to 1982, winning not only thirteen Emmy Awards (with Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series trophies going to star Asner in 1978 and 1980) but such prestigious recognition as a Peabody and two Humanitas Awards.  It’s been acknowledged by television scholars far wiser than I that Lou Grant remains the only fictional character to have leading roles on both a popular comedy and dramatic series.  Created by Mary Tyler Moore co-creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns (with an assist from Gene Reynolds), Lou Grant earned a reputation for courageously tackling controversial social issues weekly—essentially functioning as a modern-day The Defenders.

I always had a special affinity for Lou Grant.  The series ran during the time I was in high school, and at one time I had ambitions of going into journalism as a career—I was the feature editor for our school paper in my junior year, and co-editor in my senior.  It didn’t take too long for me to realize that I lacked the necessary inquisitiveness to be a proper journalist…but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the profession.  I love good journalism (and movies and TV shows on the subject), and those people inside my immediate social media circle are aware that I have a bottomless reservoir of disdain for how it’s practiced today (with much broadcast media obsessed more with ratings and stroking the establishment than fulfilling its duty to inform the public).

The news that Shout! Factory was releasing Lou Grant’s inaugural season to DVD in May of this year was most welcomed in the House of Yesteryear; my memories of the show are foggy ones (despite my devotion to it during its original airing), and the last time I tackled reruns was when they aired on GoodLife TV (or as I used to refer to it, “the channel where old TV shows go to die”).  That was when Comcast carried it in Savannah, and we left The State of Chatham back in 2008.  (A cable station that’s used as many aliases as the former GoodLife—it’s gone by The Nostalgia Channel, American Life, and its latest, Youtoo America—makes me concerned that someone is on the run from creditors.)  The buzz for Grant’s first season on disc must have been tres positive, because Shout! announced that Season Two would be around the corner in August even before Season One hit the stores.

So after judiciously shopping around for a good price for Lou Grant: The Complete Season (I’ve also got Season Two on pre-order), the set arrived and I spent a weekend soaking in nostalgia (not Palmolive).  How does the show hold up?  Well, my fondness for the series is going to color my appraisal with a generous application of the bias crayon…but I still believe it to be one of TV’s finest dramatic shows.  (Really…whenever you see that putty tat at the end of the closing credits, you may rest assured you chose wisely.)  Granted (sorry about that), it took the program a while to find a solid footing; I discovered that in revisiting those episodes some of them activated my wince reflex.

The best example is an entry entitled “Housewarming,” which features an amazing performance by Rhoda’s Julie Kavner as a battered wife.  Her heartbreaking tale is paired with a Plot B, in which a Tribune reporter (played by Edward Winter, a.k.a. “Colonel Flagg” on M*A*S*H) is also guilty of spousal abuse, and at one point during the action makes creepy sexual advances to fellow Trib employee Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey).  Billie is able to convince Kavner’s character to kick her hub to the curb (a courageous decision, since the woman has kids to take care of and not much experience in the work arena) but Winter’s character’s fate is that he is assigned a story on spousal abuse.  It really does leave a bad taste in your mouth, though I can certainly see the side of the argument that the issue was kind of in its infancy, coming-to-light wise.

A few other episodes I’m not too crazy about are “Hoax” (Lou and Joe Rossi [Robert Walden] are conned by an old friend of Lou’s [Eugene Roche] into a wild goose chase involving a missing millionaire), “Henhouse” (Lou shows his sexist side when he feuds with the woman [Claudette Nevins] who oversees the paper’s “Lifestyle” section), and “Scoop” (Lou is reluctant to pursue a promising lead dug up by Billie after being burned twice by dicey stories covered by Joe).  “Scoop” allows Rossi to continue working at the Tribune despite his two f**k-ups…and yet, later on, a college student working as a stringer/intern in “Physical” is given the heave-ho after pulling an inappropriate prank in a news article.  Joe really must have been a great reporter to have Lou looking out for him (well, in the same episode we learn he’s in the running for a Pulitzer for his reporting); my mother used to derisively refer to me as “Rossi” while I attended high school because I was a bit obnoxious and full of myself like my namesake.

Rossi does figure in the some of the best episodes of Lou Grant’s premiere season.  “Psych-Out” (the episode features the story for which Joe gets his Pulitzer nom) finds Rossi going undercover as a patient in an asylum to investigate questionable practices after Lou chews him out for “phoning in” his stories.  This one nicely balances out the grimness with a little dark humor; towards the end, when Lou and some of the other members of the Trib staff track down Joe’s whereabouts he’s higher than a kite on medication…and a query is made as to whether they can take some of it to go.

I’m also a big fan of “Poison,” in which a friend of Joe’s (Guy Boyd) has information that a nuclear power plant in a small town is playing fast and loose with regulations and jeopardizing the safety of not only its workers but the townspeople as well.  Joe’s pal is killed in a hit-and-run accident, and there’s an amazing moment when Rossi—portrayed as a bit of an asshole despite his journalistic talents—breaks down in grief on the phone while conversing with Lou.  (Having grown up in a one-industry town, I also identified with the locals in “Poison” who are reticent to talk to Joe, not wanting to rock the boat.)

Many of my favorite first season episodes feature nice guest star turns.  I really like “Judge,” which features Barnard Hughes as the titular character—a magistrate who appears to have outlived his usefulness on the bench (the issue is whether his erratic behavior jeopardizes his rulings).  He jails Lou on contempt charges, and the reaction of his co-workers once he’s sprung is uproariously funny.  I also enjoyed “Sports”; TDOY fave John Randolph is a veteran sports columnist who spikes a young reporter’s (David Ackroyd) exposé on an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations by a local college coach (Keene Curtis).  “Spies” is a seriocomic tale of the discovery that there’s a CIA operative working on the Tribune undercover (a practice not uncommon on real newspapers at that time)—only no one knows who it is.  I liked this one because character actor Michael Strong (whom I have seen in many things, but his performance as a hood who rules a tiny burg in The Fugitive episode “A Clean and Quiet Town” always stands out in my mind) plays the spook who tips Lou off as to what’s going on in the newsroom.

In addition to great writing, Lou Grant boasted of one of TV’s finest ensemble casts.  I knew of Mason Adams’ old-time radio history (he was the titular hero of Pepper Young’s Family, and “Atom Man” on The Adventures of Superman…but you can hear him in many other vintage broadcasts as well [Suspense, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, etc.]) and as the pitchman for Smucker’s (every time I see him or listen to his voice I get a craving for a PB&J) but he was pitch-perfect as the Tribune’s managing editor.  Adams’ Hume is a solid family man, and gets nice showcases in “Airliner” (Charlie’s daughter [Laurette Spang] is flying back from Paris when her plane experiences trouble) and “Sect” (his son [David Hunt Stafford] becomes a Hare Krishna).

My ClassicFlix compadre Rick Brooks asked me to make special mention of his favorite character, assistant city editor Art Donovan (Jack Bannon).  I remember reading a TV Guide article once on Bannon, where it was revealed that he was the son of Bea Benaderet and Jim Bannon, both OTR veterans.  (I was very impressed by this.)  Donovan always reminded me of a guy I went to high school with who was quick with a wisecrack (he didn’t dress as stylishly as Art, probably because we were still in high school).  The beauty of the Donovan character is that although he was primarily there for comic relief, he had a human side (shown to nice effect in “Airliner,” when he worries about the woman he’s currently dating…though not her grotesque son, played by a no-longer cute Robbie “Cousin Oliver” Rist) that was nicely developed in later episodes.  (I’m glad the Billie-Art romance was nipped in the bud early on, though—that kind of weirded me out.)

There are so many wonderful moments in the episodes on this set, particularly those involving the starchy Margaret Pynchon: I like the small talk she makes with staff photographer Dennis “Animal” Price (Daryl Anderson) at Lou’s get-together in “Housewarming” (Animal is clearly “herbed” up, and loving everyone who crosses his path), and the nice bit when she gives Lou an emotional hug after he undergoes thyroid surgery in the season closer, “Physical.”  At the center of it all is Ed Asner, who masterfully made the Grant character a living, breathing individual; the inaugural episode, “Cophouse,” allowed him to transition from the sitcommy version of Lou to the more realistic Grant of this long-running series (truly one of the best pilot episodes in TV history).

I’m counting the days, hours, minutes, and seconds before Season Two arrives in the mailbox outside Rancho Yesteryear.

18 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Well, there Was that other CBS franchise of sorts, with M*A*S*H donating the character Trapper John to his own series (and Pernell Roberts taking on the role)...I'd say that had to qualify on the same level, even with a different actor in place...

We'll leave aside the degree to which DRAGNET 1968 was an unintentional comedy.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Todd rushed in, Paul Drake-like, with last-minute evidence:

Well, there Was that other CBS franchise of sorts, with M*A*S*H donating the character Trapper John to his own series (and Pernell Roberts taking on the role)...I'd say that had to qualify on the same level, even with a different actor in place...

An excellent point. This is probably why I no longer hang out with those TV scholars after work, by the way.

Rick Brooks said...

Great review, Ivan. I didn't really see the show much until it hit whatever GoodLife was called at the time, and then it became a favorite. My impression was always that the show was portrayed as some bastion of liberalism, and the Lou Grant character a liberal icon (I guess much of this due to Ed Asner's off-camera politics), which is why it was so odd to see how the Grant character actually behaved.

You mention his retrograde views on women in the "Henhouse" episode. I remember other instances of him being stubborn, insensitive, even kind of a jerk, but that makes him a more interesting character and not the saint I assumed he would be.

Another episode that stands out today is "Reckless," a fifth-season story about drunk driving. It's not that the show comes out "in favor of" drunk driving, but the attitudes in the episode are still remarkable. I suppose in some circles these kinds of attitudes date the series, but I respect the fact that "Lou Grant" addressed all these issues even if sometimes they seem a little off kilter by today's standards. With this, "The Defenders," and even "The Eleventh Hour,", this is a pretty good time for social drama on DVD.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Rick cleared his throat to speak:

You mention his retrograde views on women in the "Henhouse" episode. I remember other instances of him being stubborn, insensitive, even kind of a jerk, but that makes him a more interesting character and not the saint I assumed he would be.

This is spot-on. It's what made "Lou Grant" a fascinating character, and kudos to the show's scribes for their fearlessness in showing him warts and all.

With this, "The Defenders," and even "The Eleventh Hour,", this is a pretty good time for social drama on DVD.

You already answered my question about reviewing The Defenders (shame on you, Shout! Factory for being stingy with the screeners) but is our boss at CF going to let you tackle The Eleventh Hour? (I have it in my queue, but it will be a while.)

hobbyfan said...

So why is the same CBS ad posted twice in a row at the end of the review?

Anyway, I regret never seeing the show because it was on at a later time than the Mary Tyler Moore Show had been, and I was going to bed early on school nights......

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

hobbyfan broke the stillness of the blog:

So why is the same CBS ad posted twice in a row at the end of the review?

No doubt due to the fact that it wasn't showing up in my broswer. Honest to my grandma, I wouldn't have known about it if you hadn't pointed it out to me (I couldn't see it in Firefox). (I had originally inserted it into the article, but I got rid of it through the Microsoft browser.)

Terence Towles Canote said...

I haven't seen Lou Grant since it first aired, but I remember I enjoyed it immensely. Looking back it seemed to be ahead of the curve in more ways than one. I remember it was one of the first times I ever saw sexual harassment addressed on a TV show! Anyway, I often wonder about the show Lou Grant's relationship to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I seem to remember in the early days there were occasional references to Lou's time at WJM-TV. Now I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that later on references to WJM just disappeared and it seemed as if Lou had worked at the Los Angeles Tribune for decades. I guess I'll have to get the DVDs to see if my memory isn't failing me!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Terry had A Shroud of Thoughts:

I seem to remember in the early days there were occasional references to Lou's time at WJM-TV. Now I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that later on references to WJM just disappeared and it seemed as if Lou had worked at the Los Angeles Tribune for decades.

I can't address the second part of this because I simply can't recall...but I do know there were a number of references to his former WJM-TV career in the early seasons of the show. For example, the "Christmas" episode finds Lou unable to deal with the fact that it rarely snows in L.A., which made me chuckle.

Andrew Leal said...

A local station ran "Lou Grant" when I was younger, probably between fourteen and sixteen or so, but it came on before "The Odd Couple," in a morning slot. So catchy theme over end credits aside, I know what I chose during summer and holidays.

"Homecoming" has a slight plus with the characters themselves not really sure how to handle the material (Rossi is actually more sensitive about this than Donovan), at least compared to the one BARNEY MILLER episode I will never rewatch, "Rape" (ugh; they get credit sort of for addressing spousal rape, but in a half hour sitcom format, which ends with the wife going back to the husband and treated as a *happy* ending, well...) So a certain "I've seen this handled worse" sometimes comes to mind.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Grover insisted on being heard above the throng:

A local station ran "Lou Grant" when I was younger, probably between fourteen and sixteen or so, but it came on before "The Odd Couple," in a morning slot. So catchy theme over end credits aside, I know what I chose during summer and holidays.

Well, I certainly won't fault you for spending time with felix and Oscar.

Your mention of opening credits reminds me that I should have made a brief mention of the opening sequence on Lou Grant...inarguably one of TV's most creative.

Scott said...

I also haven't seen Lou Grant since it first aired in prime time, but one moment from the pilot has stuck in my memory (and Ivan, please correct me if this is just something my imagination somehow cooked up in the intervening four decades) when Lou, reluctant to take the job offered him by Mr. Smuckers, points to the newsroom and says something like "I don't know what half those machines out there do." And that was 20 years before the internet. I've often wondered since what the hell he was so afraid of. A fax machine?

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Scott's curiosity was piqued:

Lou, reluctant to take the job offered him by Mr. Smuckers, points to the newsroom and says something like "I don't know what half those machines out there do." And that was 20 years before the internet. I've often wondered since what the hell he was so afraid of. A fax machine?

Grant does make the comment...but in a later episode (I don't think it's in the same one) someone makes reference to the fact that they use machines similar to VDTs (video display terminal) at newspapers now. Now...why they didn't have machines similar to those at WJM-TV during Lou's tenure is question I am ill-equipped to answer.

Scott said...

Exactly what I was wondering, although Murray did write Ted's scripts on an IBM Selectric.

Anonymous said...

Jack Bannon is credited as "dialogue coach" on many episodes of Petticoat Junction.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Who was that Mysterious Anonymous Stranger?

Jack Bannon is credited as "dialogue coach" on many episodes of Petticoat Junction.

Fibber McGee & Molly creator Don Quinn also got credit as "script consultant" on the early seasons of Junction, probably because one of Paul Henning's earliest writing gigs was working for Quinn. Henning wouldn't allow his name to be put on any of the Fib & Molly scripts though in hindsight he wished he had acquiesced.

Anonymous said...

From Ivan:
"Grant does make the comment...but in a later episode (I don't think it's in the same one) someone makes reference to the fact that they use machines similar to VDTs (video display terminal) at newspapers now."

You nailed it, Ivan. The terminals were used for computerized typesetting which started to blossom in the late '70s and put all the Linotype operators out of work.

Barry

rnigma said...

I enjoyed this series when it first aired. One of the best newspaper dramas on TV.
I recall an episode where Joe Rossi was reporting on a female inmate soon to be executed, and ended up falling in love with her. She was played by Terri Nunn, lead singer of Berlin ("Take My Breath Away").

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

migma broke the silence:

I recall an episode where Joe Rossi was reporting on a female inmate soon to be executed, and ended up falling in love with her. She was played by Terri Nunn, lead singer of Berlin ("Take My Breath Away").

I have a vague recollection of this one -- but it's from Season 5, so I'll have to wait a bit for a re-acquaintance. Nunn is in a second season episode (which I received a month back), "Romance," that I'll have to check out.