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.)
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).
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.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.)
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.