Monday, June 20, 2016

The Legacy of Lou Grant

Journalism – real honest-to-God journalism – is dead. I can’t pinpoint an exact time of death, but it’s been on life support since the escalation of the Internet, and about ten years ago finally gave up the ghost. There are still reputable journalists plying their trade, but they do so in opposition to a tsunami of predetermined agendas, arrogance and flat-out incompetence.

Which makes the experience of watching Lou Grant (1977-1982) the best dramatic television series about the profession, a bittersweet experience.

Lou Grant understood the significance of responsible journalism without indulging in self-aggrandizement. The whimsical opening credits sequence, in which the lifespan of a daily newspaper is followed to an ignoble end, lets you know this won’t be a genuflection to the Fourth Estate.

The show also got what made print journalism interesting. It’s not the big “scoops” that win Pulitzers and bring down governments. It’s the research and the legwork that are necessary even for a lifestyle feature that will run on page 24. It’s the running down of dead ends and interviewing people who don’t want to talk to you. It’s working on a story for days and then having something happen that renders it useless.

The show is a procedural, like Dragnet was a procedural. It takes the mundane parts of a glamorized job and makes them compelling. When you watch it you’ll understand how it was once possible for biased and imperfect people, working within a clear chain of command, to produce something that could accurately be called “news.”

We see this system at work in the first episode. Reporter Joe Rossi (everyone’s favorite character unless you had a crush on Billie) exposes a police department sex scandal. Rossi has a strong anti-establishment streak and can barely conceal his delight when he writes it up. Lou knows the story is legit, but orders Rossi to rewrite it so the facts are more prominent than the reporter’s colorfully crafted condemnation. The paper’s publisher, Margaret Pynchon, believes there are already too many negative stories about the police and would rather not run it at all. But she prints the article, because it’s the proper thing to do.

It’s a tribute to the quality of the series that the novelty of building a drama around a sitcom character almost seems like an afterthought.

This is not the grouchy teddy bear Lou Grant from WJM News, who spent his days yelling at Ted Baxter and ducking Sue Ann’s advances. There are occasional references to Lou having moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis, but when he takes the city editor post at the Tribune, he becomes a real newspaperman. And you don’t question it for a moment.

Ed Asner leads a sterling cast; Robert Walden’s Joe Rossi became an archetype for bulldog journalism. Fans so fondly recall Linda Kelsey as reporter Billie Newman that they may have forgotten (as I did) that she replaced Rebecca Balding, who appears in the show’s first three episodes. 

Mason Adams, as Tribune editor Charlie Hume, brings some of the good-natured cynicism inherent to portrayals of journalism since The Front Page in 1931. At a city desk meeting someone brings in a story about a train wreck in Romania with numerous casualties. It is relegated to an interior page, until someone mentions there were two people from Los Angeles on the train. “Now, it’s a tragedy,” says Hume, and it goes on page one.

In another episode, Charlie explains to Billie his hesitation to approve a feature article on the gang problems in East Los Angeles. “The people in West L.A. get nervous when we write about the Chicanos,” he says, “and the Chicanos don’t read the Tribune.” 

As wonderful as Adams is in this, I can’t watch any of his scenes without hearing “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.”

Lou may have left the sitcom world, but Lou Grant can be a very funny show when it’s appropriate. Much of the humor is provided by a photographer nicknamed Animal (Daryl Anderson) and assistant city editor Art Donovan, a dapper horndog played by Jack Bannon.  Bannon happily inherited the comic timing of his mother, TV icon Bea Benaderet.

Nancy Marchand may be better known to TV audiences from The Sopranos, but as Mrs. Pynchon she also brought humor to the series, especially when Lou and Charlie are summoned to her office the way first-graders are ordered to see the principal. 

I just love this show. So did enough viewers to keep it on for five seasons, and it would have continued if CBS had not become fed up with Asner’s politics.

Lou Grant won more than 25 Emmys, as well as Humanitas Prizes and Peabody Awards among other accolades. By any measure this was outstanding television. But I think it plays even better for anyone who worked in journalism – or ever wanted to. 

If the sounds of a typewriter make you more nostalgic than the songs played at your prom, this is the show for you. After a few episodes you’ll long for the days when news came from a newspaper, and not from a million websites and politically charged blogs of dubious intent.

We have access to so much more information now, and that’s good. But when you can’t tell the Onion headlines from those in the New York Times, it seems like we’ve lost something even more precious. In its original run, watching Lou Grant helped the masses to understand what goes into putting together that morning paper that arrived on all of our doorsteps. Today, it plays like a eulogy for a once-proud vocation. 


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  2. Mr. Hofstede, do you think the terms "procedural" and "police procedural" have been overused in recent years when it comes to TV shows? Is it safe to say that "CHiPs," "Starsky & Hutch," and "T.J. Hooker" were police procedurals?

    In any case, film and TV historian Stuart Galbraith IV described "Lou Grant" as "unjustly forgotten" when reviewing a "Quincy, M.E." DVD set in 2014. Mr. Hofstede, do you think Mr. Galbraith was referring to the fact that "Lou Grant" had yet to be released on DVD in the United States at the time?

    BTW, I didn't go to the prom when I was in high school.

    1. Well, Stuart Galbraith IV is at least a TV historian by extension. He is definitely a film historian.

  3. A procedural to me is a show that accurately portrays what a profession is like in the real world. I don't think T. J. Hooker clinging to the hood of a speeding car would qualify. Among police shows, outside of 'Dragnet' the one that comes to mind is 'Hill Street Blues,' though that got a bit quirky sometimes as well.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this! I've only seen a couple of Lou Grant episodes, and I don't remember them particularly well, but this makes me want to revisit the series and give it another chance. (Maybe starting after episode three might help?)

    1. Actually, I thought Rebecca Balding was pretty good! So feel free to start at episode 1. :)