Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Joys of LOU GRANT, Seasons 1 and 2, Now on DVD

I've said before that Lou Grant, the TV series starring Edward Asner a gruff city editor at a big-city newspaper, is one of my all-time favorite shows. Other series of that vintage (1977 to 1982) have been available as DVDs for absolute ever, but it's just now that we're getting the first few seasons of Lou. My friend Jon Alan Conrad and I have talked about Lou and our love for it many times over the years. To celebrate the arrival of the DVDs of seasons 1 and 2, Jon has written this piece about the phenomenon that was Lou Grant. Thanks, Jon!

Edward Asner as Lou Grant
It's an unpredictable phenomenon, which TV series become immortal and which don't. When broadcast historians recall the period surrounding 1980 (leaving aside possible objects of personal affection like The Rockford Files or Little House on the Prairie), they're likely to sum up the main developments in hour-long drama at that time as the heyday of the prime-time soap (Dallas, followed by Knots Landing, Dynasty and Falcon Crest), and then in 1981 the new wave of more complex serialized dramas (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law) that set the style for hour-long drama since.

But somewhere in there starting in 1977, we had Lou Grant for five years, old-style stand-alone episodes with new-style complexity of character. Nobody seems to talk about it now, and that’s not right. If it gets mentioned at all, it’s as an improbable drama spinoff from a sitcom (the just-concluded Mary Tyler Moore Show), with Edward Asner winning Emmys for playing Lou Grant on two different series in different formats. And absolutely, hurray for Ed Asner. It's a delight to see him modulate from the crazy world of WJM-TV in Minneapolis to a return to Lou's newspaper roots as city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune. But a great deal about the series was memorable, and it's thrilling that Shout! Factory is making it available, at long last, on DVD.

Season 1 appeared in May, and Season 2 was issued in August, with Season 3 to come in November. And I've been having the time of my life revisiting it. Lou Grant was blessed with creators of impeccable pedigree: James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who gave us The Mary Tyler Moore Show, plus Gene Reynolds, co-creator of the series M*A*S*H. Of course, such names don’t guarantee the quality of the product (we can all think of times when promising elements certainly didn't pay off), but this time, it worked out brilliantly.

They imagined a rich premise, they engaged a superb batch of writers (Leon Tokatyan, Seth Freeman, Michele Greene, Steve Kline, April Smith, David Lloyd, Bud Freeman, and Gary David Goldberg among the most frequent contributors) and directors (Alexander Singer, Roger Young, Burt Brinckerhoff, and co-creator Gene Reynolds at the top of the list). And most of all, one of the great ensemble casts: new hire Lou supervises talented young reporters Joe Rossi (Robert Walden) and Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey), has Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) as his assistant city editor, has photographer Dennis "Animal" Price (Daryl Anderson) on call, answers to managing editor Charlie Hume (Mason Adams), and often finds himself at odds with publisher Margaret Pynchon (Nancy Marchand). Around them buzz a mass of other Trib employees whom we get to know for brief moments as needed. And of course a city around them, both those involved in the stories the Trib reports and pure bystanders (especially as Lou learns to handle living in L.A.).

Season 1 takes a few episodes to find itself; many new series do, after all, and the challenge was all the more acute in this case, figuring out how broadly Asner should play Lou, how much he should dominate the stories, how news and personal lives should be balanced. There’s even an off-note in the casting that gets corrected four episodes in (Rebecca Balding as reporter Carla Mardigian, acting in a one-note cutie-pie mode, simply never is encountered again once Billie Newman shows up). But once it hits its stride — one delight after another.

I should immediately qualify that by saying that, although most capsule descriptions of Lou Grant single out its tackling of contemporary issues for praise, I often found this aspect less compelling than its subtle handling of personal drama, and on re-viewing I not only still feel that way but find that issue-handling has become the most dated element of the show. Decades of grittier, more searching dramas have made us much more familiar with urban gang warfare (tackled in the episode "Barrio"), spousal abuse ("Housewarming"), teen pregnancy ("Romance"), urban homelessness ("Skids"). And we have also become accustomed to more nuanced dramatization of such stories than the earnest explanations and (inevitably) introductory levels of insight we get here.

But even such episodes can surprise with an unexpectedly sophisticated outlook. And much of the time, the show finds an individual way into a story — particularly when one of the Trib staff gets personally involved, as they increasingly do. Sometimes the central mystery of an episode remains unresolved, as the reporters file their stories as best they can and move on to others. In the end, more than anything else it's the high quality of the acting and writing that makes this series so memorable. Mr. Asner himself has already been mentioned; fans of the show will also have vivid memories of Robert Walden's abrasive Rossi, Linda Kelsey's increasingly confident Billie, Mason Adams's mingling of risk-averse dithering with no-nonsense authority, Jack Bannon's snappy wit, and perhaps most of all Nancy Marchand's gradual development of Margaret Pynchon (with writing/direction support, of course) from a fluffy socialite dilettante into a memorably rounded and strong depiction of a newspaper publisher.

Another pleasure is the parade of not-yet-famous faces (or sometimes once-famous ones) turning up in guest roles: Peter Weller as a neo-Nazi with a surprise in his past ("Nazis"); Barnard Hughes in an Emmy-winning appearance as a cantankerous judge ("Judge"); future TV and film director Thomas Carter as a copy boy ("Physical"); Dee Wallace as a sex worker ("Hooker"); pre-Cheers Nicholas Colasanto as an underworld figure ("Mob"); Geraldine Fitzgerald as Donovan’s mother ("Dying"); Jack Gilford as a superfluous retiree (“Home”); Michael Warren as an intern with his eye on transitioning into television work ("Marathon"); Andrew Duggan as a once-prosperous doctor who’s now a self-described bum ("Skids"). (You’ve no doubt noticed the one-word episode titles used throughout the series, emulating the "slugs" that reporters use to tag in-production articles.)

Other memorable Season 1 episodes not yet mentioned include "Henhouse," in which Billie is introduced as a writer for the arts-and-leisure section whose work so impresses Lou that he invites her into the city room (where she stays for the remainder of the five seasons); "Aftershock," in which Lou is shaken by his first experience of an L.A. earthquake (Charlie, unimpressed, smirks "We all have to lose it sometime, Lou"); "Scoop," a more comedic outing focused on the battle for exclusive coverage, with Reni Santoni as a rival reporter made to believe that Billie and Rossi are secretly dating; "Hero," in which Billie and Art become close, then break up (but an alert viewer will notice extra unspoken warmth between them thereafter); "Renewal," with Robert Earl Jones as a man whose apartment, whose walls he has filled with painted memories from his life, faces demolition; and "Poison," which takes Rossi out of town to deal with longtime friends, now engaged, one of them in danger.

In Season 2, some standouts are "Murder," about the constant bias as to whose stories get front-page placement; "Babies," with our two reporters pretending to be a married couple anxious to adopt; "Conflict," about the challenges of journalism when one has a personal interest in the subject (and a classic Mrs.-Pynchon-ism: "Rock or hard place, Mr. Hume; which am I?"); and "Hit," with a memorable appearance by the great Allyn Ann McLerie as a woman whose son was the victim of a hit-and-run killing years before.

Ahead lies Season 3, with such gems as "Witness," in which Billie gets police protection but can’t stand her assigned cop; "Andrew," a two-parter about Art’s mentally disturbed cousin (Art did seem to get all the family troubles, didn’t he?); "Blackout," with the Trib trying to get an issue out despite a power outage; "Brushfire" (just what it sounds like); and especially "Hollywood," one of the all-time great hours of TV — a noirish look into the past, with suitably bluesy music, a cast of old-timers, and hard-boiled narration by Lou.

And after that, let’s hope, Seasons 4 and 5, if we all do our part and buy these DVD sets now!

— Jon Alan Conrad

You'll find Seasons 1 and 2 on sale at Shout! Factory as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, with Season 3 available for pre-order.

2 comments:

  1. We watched "Vet," the January 1979 episode about Vietnam veterans and the shameful lack of attention to their problems or needs, and I was struck by how much the show had matured between "Renewal," in January of 78, and this episode. They're both about difficult problems and how, in some ways, they aren't fixable, but "Renewal" (an episode I loved the first time around and remembered very fondly) had a neat and tidy resolution where everyone seemed happy and ok, while "Vet" was much more ambiguous and cynical about trying to make things better, even for just one guy. It was fun to pick out people I knew in "Vet" that I didn't remember seeing in a LOU GRANT episode, like Joe Spano and Charlie Robinson. Joe Spano was handsome and young and not crying, so that was a plus!

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  2. That's a great example of how the show developed, and as you say, two episodes with broadly similar jumping-off points and quite different execution. And yes, I noticed Joe Spano (and Charlie Robinson) this time too!

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