[Originally published in The Weekly, November 30, 1977]
He’s stacking frozen dinners in his shopping cart when he notices an attractive woman, fortyish, coming in out of the blank L.A. sun. She turns down another aisle; he decides he has to go to that part of the market too. She can’t quite reach a box on the top shelf; he gets it for her, gives an amiable no-sweat smile, cannily steers his cart elsewhere.
A minute later, he’s back beside her at the produce section. She smiles politely. He grabs an avocado and beams, “These are really great here!”
Her smile gets a little strained as she glances around the commonplace market: “Here?”
He’s losing the moment. “The only trouble is, there’s too much for one person. No matter what ya do, that other half is gonna turn black”—his cowpie grin spreads wider in desperation—”and rotten“—things aren’t going quite the way he hoped—”and slimy!” She’s gone.
As anyone of taste and discernment must know, Lou Grant lost his job at the end of last TV season when he and Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter—everybody except Ted Baxter—got fired from the news department at WJM-TV, Minneapolis. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s unorthodox way of writing finis to itself after seven years as one of the most successful comedy series in the annals of the medium.
The MTM team wanted to quit while the show was still at top form—an admirable ambition, but one that threatened to leave a number of fine character actors at loose ends, and at least one splendidly ripened (far from rotten or slimy) character in syndicated limbo.
For Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, more than any other cast regular, had markedly evolved throughout MTM‘s run. He got older, fatter, balder, less bluntly totalitarian as boss of the newsroom, more nuanced in his eccentricities. His marriage tottered, collapsed; he got divorced, managed to attend his ex-wife’s second wedding. He even survived getting laid by Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker. He became more expansive in his emotions—without, be it firmly insisted, forsaking his irascibility, his mildly sadistic sense of humor, his inveterate delight in discovering that his Goody Two-Shoes associate producer and leading lady was capable of petty human failings.
The guy was worth reprieving, and Lou Grant testifies to his resiliency. To move from producer of a local television news show to managing editor of a Los Angeles paper may be no career wrench, but in other respects Lou has taken a considerable leap: From the cozy ensemble environment of a half-hour sitcom series to the lead in an hourlong show. From the bright, three-walled, studio-set topography of the WJM newsroom and Mary’s apartment to a broken-field, three-dimensional world washed by the changeable light of day. From the generically safe precincts of a comedy series filmed before a live, appreciative audience, to a laugh-trackless, movie-style narrative that refuses to label itself as comedy, drama, or even comedy-drama.
From the first, the proportions of the show have been fascinating. Here’s this program with at least seven ongoing principal characters, plus a sizable number of coeditors, department heads, security guards, et al. who recognizably turn up again and again as the flow of life and business at the Los Angeles Tribune demands. All these people had to be introduced, set in motion as characters at the same time everyone but new arrival Lou Grant had to appear well-established in what they do. Tricky problem. For the most part, it had been resolved before half the premiere episode was over.
Then there’s the matter of episodes. A series is a series, it continues from week to week, yet each installment has to be built around some plot nexus or (the M*A*S*H syndrome) several tenuously parallel but not necessarily one-to-one minisituations that can be played off in the vicinity of one another until showtime has been filled.
Lou Grant‘s copious supply of regulars admits of the second approach readily enough. What’s especially satisfying is that, even with a single-hook script, the program has yet to succumb to that series bane of bringing a guest star and his story to the fore while the house cast becomes so much furniture to make him comfortable.
Lou Grant has never shifted its primary focus from the people who inhabit it, and there is always time for character-enhancing digressions like Lou’s trip to the market. Yet—consistent with its naturalistic filming, and quite unlike MTM—the show has managed to make every episode an anecdote about the newsgathering game that has drawn these people together. The newsgathering game, not the news: it’s significant that the weakest episode to date—something concerning an American neo-Nazi who was born a Jew—was the one whose ostensible subject matter was too bizarre to permit the customarily adroit balancing act with the story and the story-about-the-story.
Aside from Lou himself, the most intriguing cast regulars are a pair—and sometimes, reluctantly, a team—of young reporters played by Robert Walden and Linda Kelsey. Joe Rossi (Walden) is ill-mannered, presumptuous, and only about three-quarters as streetsmart as he thinks he is, which is still pretty smart; he looks rather like a coarse-featured Howdy Doody. Lou devotes most of their interactions to kicking his wise ass—with covert fondness, of course, because the guy can be a good reporter when he manages to stop visualizing his name on a Pulitzer scroll, and he is not unlike a junior version of the managing ed. himself.
Both of them have a hard time getting used to the fact that Billie Newman (Kelsey), a boyish-shaped redhead with a face out of Meet Me in St. Louis, spends most of her off-work hours moving from one intense, thoughtful, guiltless sexual liaison to another. The off-work hours are few, and Billie’s dedication to her job has cost her more than one lover. The life adjustments have been registered indirectly, in passing, never thrust forward to become Topic A of an episode. Neither has anything but Billie’s performance of her job and her conspicuous wholeness of being been necessary to make the liberationist point.
Proportion, always that nice sense of proportion. Very wisely, I think, neither “Animal” (Daryl Anderson), the scruffy staff photographer just young enough to have missed the counterculture, nor Donovan (Jack Bannon), the Ivy League stud at the desk to Lou’s right, has been called upon to carry a significant part of any episode, although their presences have come to feel more comfortable and less market-researched as time goes by. Someone has also wisely decided that Nancy Marchand, as the Katharine Graham–type publisher upstairs with her glasses on a chain and a pekinese in the out basket, is too heavy-artillery to write into more than every second or third installment; but she drops her iron hand on Grant’s shoulder with fine style.
She needn’t be around all the time because editor Charlie Hume (Mason Adams) never forgets to wonder whether Mrs. Pynchon would approve of the story Lou wants to put on page one. I’d watched three Lou Grants before I placed Adams’s likably bland voice as that of a series of soup commercials. The subliminal connection is exactly right for the sort of fellow who would go to the wall with you, except that he promised his mother he’d lead a long and successful life. But Hume, like the other folks at Lou Grant, spills out of his die-cut outline every now and then: sometimes he strikes his forthright pose and the anticipated “—with reservations” just doesn’t come.
I understand none of the new TV shows has been a big hit, and I’m half-afraid that Lou Grant is too low-key and generically rangy to win a vast following. People don’t seem to be talking about it. Still, it’s survived the early cancellations, and Ed Asner’s new co-players are well on the way to establishing the sort of credible camaraderie that helped make MTM an institution. Personally, I haven’t missed a Tuesday yet—and I haven’t done that for a TV show since the first year Gunsmoke was on.
Copyright © 1977 by Richard T. Jameson