My top favorite episodes of Lou Grant:
One day Rossi the lovable egomaniac tells Lou that he could write a great story about anyone he passes on the street, so Lou of course makes him a wager. He gets to pick the person, and Rossi has to write a great story about him or her (or dinner's on Rossi). Lou picks a rather non-descript woman hurrying down the street, and like a bloodhound, Rossi tracks her down. It turns out that she's a nun (in modern dress) who works in a shelter and is involved in several types of programs to feed the hungry. She's a tough cookie that is willing to let Rossi interview her, but she makes him work hard to find out why, with all the surplus of food that we have in this country, so many people all over the world are going hungry. Rossi reveals the whole domino principle behind government subsidies not to grow crops etc., and the show gives us a much-needed perspective on why and how hunger exists. Uta Hagen is the nun, and she's wonderful, playing her as a woman obsessed with saving the world. Rossi wins the bet and Lou has to buy him dinner, but Rossi suddenly sees a midget running down the street with a large suitcase. He tells Lou to give him a rain check, and he runs after the midget. I wish we could have seen that story too!
Automation hits The Tribune, and Margaret (Mrs. Pynchon) must face the reality that there will have to be lay-offs. The show eloquently shows both sides of the issue, siding somewhat with the strikers near the end, when Margaret's cunning adviser promises to bring the union to its knees. Some of the action is a bit dramatic (a long-time employee suffers a heart attack on the picket line), but it's overall a thrilling representation of labor disputes. And it's not without some humor, like when Charlie has to figure out how to paste up the front page on his own (Lou: "What's going on there Charlie? I'm imagining something like a crazy quilt!").
Those who live in L.A. know that any good-sized earthquake is not an end in itself. Power lines and sometimes, whole power stations break down, and the city is left in darkness. That's what happens here. The Trib must face the possibility that for the first time in its history, it may not get out an edition. They're lucky enough to have an ally in Long Beach that is unaffected by the blackout and is willing to let the Trib use its presses, but there is a chance that the power will be back on by midnight so that they won't need the other paper's presses. There's genuine suspense as the midnight hour approaches and no one knows where the Tribune will be printed or if it will even make the deadline. There's fascinating detail of how the newspaper is put out in its final stages, and of course interesting coverage of the earthquake, blackout and ensuing traffic jams. And Rossi provides some humor when he has to leave Donovan's $50 bill with a priest after being kindly confronted about walking off with an armful of candles. There's also a typical Rossi moment when he's reading his notes on the phone to a copy editor, which of course means that he must fill in the punctuation ("There was a man in a coma comma…. That's coma. Comma").
In this episode, Billie investigates the rise of a small Nazi organization in Los Angeles. She decides to focus on the leader, an Aryan-looking young man with fearsome determination. But as she pursues his background, she discovers that the man is actually a Jew. Lou's reaction to this is almost hysterical when his face lights up at the scandal of it all ("Really?? A Jewish Nazi??!"), but after he tells her that to just blatantly print that story would be like Ripley's, he convinces her to dig deeper and find out why and how this could have happened. The psychology behind it is not surprising; it's a classic case of denial brought on by victimization; but the very reality of the growing Nazi movement and the fact that the original Nazi party was no larger than the group featured in this episode, is enough to feed our imagination with real horror. Peter Weller as the Nazi leader is truly compelling in the role, and Brian Dennehy also makes an interesting appearance.
This episode really opened my eyes. It has to do with Third World dumping. Chemicals, drugs and various types of machinery (including medical equipment) that do not pass inspection as being safe in this country are often sold to Third World countries. Everything from dangerous contraceptive devices, to unsafe insecticides, to faulty respirators are sold by companies that don't want to lose all the money they put into making these things. Not only do thousands of people all over the world die from such "deals", some of this even has a boomerang effect on the United States, as many of the countries that use our unsafe, illegal insecticides on their crops, ultimately send the fruits of their crops back to us for us to consume.
An interesting supporting player is brought into this episode. Meschach Taylor plays Marcus Prescott, the never before seen religious editor of The Tribune. He and Rossi are assigned to uncover a possible scandal involving a local church that demands that its members give a huge percentage of their earnings to the church, while the minister lives like a king. Rossi is a lapsed Catholic and cynical of all religion, and Prescott is faithful man of God who loathes those who abuse religion, but who still wants to support those who have faith in making their own choices. It is an interesting look at religious values. In the same episode, Lou has to go to court to defend the editor of a smut magazine who has listed the names and addresses of narcotics agents. It's freedom of the press; another sacred institution that is often abused but still must be defended for the freedom of choice.
This is one of several themed shows dealing with how newspapers often put more coverage on 'entertaining" news stories than stories of a more depressing nature. Rossi covers an amusing story about a wealthy elderly woman who beat off some burglars with her golf clubs, while Billie is anguished to find that her story of a poor black woman who was unable to defend herself from an assailant, is buried in the back pages. Her story deals with the murder of the woman (which the police will probably never solve, although great pains were used to stalk down the attempted burglars of the elderly white woman), and the plight of the woman's young daughter who has run away. This is a very personal look at a big issue, and one that is handled with real dignity.
Various perspectives are shown regarding the shootings of both a black youth in the ghetto who had many criminal leanings, and a popular, caring white policeman. The show brilliantly covered the efforts of some white people, including some police officers who are trying to make a difference, and the plight of black families that are losing their sons to violence. Hundreds of people show up for the black youth's funeral but we discover it is not in his honor that they are attending, but in honor of his mother. For she did the best she could do in trying to raise her son up right, and she'd already lost other children to violence or crime. Rossi covers the story of the shootings with a black reporter, and racial tensions mount when their perspectives clash.
A rare look at migrant farm workers. Rossi goes north to cover what looks to be a major labor dispute, and as usual, we get to see all sides of the issues. Most people are unaware of who picks the food they eat or the conditions in which they live. This show offers us a good illustration. It also shows us the plight of the small farmer who struggles from year to year to keep his farm going.
This is one of the very rare occasions where the plight of the elderly has really been handled with class. On one end of the spectrum we have the plight of those who stay in retirement homes. The lack of care and treatment they receive is shocking, and this episode shows it all! On the other end of the spectrum we see what it's like for an elderly widower who is retired and feels that he is of no use to society. The way society just uses people up and dispenses with them is effectively illustrated. There is a subtle but effective scene near the end when we see Lou asking the elderly man that he's befriended if he can jog ahead of him because the man's pace is too slow. He says 'sure" but later as Lou is jogging and he meets up with a young woman, she asks him if she can jog ahead of him because HIS pace is too slow! A good illustration that the issues covered in this episode is just around the corner for all of us.
The issue of subterfuge is brought to focus here. Some really disgusting goop has been found in the water and in the ground and walls of many homes in a secluded area. It appears that someone has been dumping toxic waste in a nearby stream but there doesn't seem to be any place that makes such a substance nearby. So Billie goes to work undercover for a company that makes that kind of waste many miles away. She gradually uncovers how the company is dumping their waste, but in the meantime, she has won the friendship and confidences of the people she works for. They're all very nice people and she feels guilty for lying to them about her real identity. She gets her story in the end, but not without hurting a lot of people. It was worth it, but the morality of such undercover work is closely examined.
An intimate look at the plight of illegal immigrant workers is examined. A Latino waitress that Lou and Billie have befriended has been deported in an immigration raid, and they try to track down her children, who seem to have run away from home (they know that immigration will be after them too). That leads them (and us) to the underworld that is what makes this country run. From the factories to the fields, most of the people who make our clothes and pick our food are illegal immigrants. We see them at work at the factories, where if one is too slow or ineffective, they will be replaced immediately by someone who is waiting in the wings. And we see them on the border as they make their way across it, facing the possibilities of being robbed or stranded by the "coyotes" (couriers), or being picked up by the immigration police. Like the recent film Traffic, the show also shows us the futility of even trying to police the situation.
The plight of other immigrants is featured here. It seems likely that this show was inspired by the real life story of Sidney Sheinberg and Dipth Pran, the American journalist and his Cambodian photojournalist friend who were featured in The Killing Fields. Here the photojournalist is a Vietnamese man who Animal knew during the war. His ways seem odd and even irresponsible to The Tribune staff. But they don't know that his family, like many other Vietnamese families, is being squeezed by a kind of Vietnamese mafia. We are shown the pressures that he and his family must face, day in and day out, between the racketeers and occasional hostilities by Americans. This show is really a rare glimpse of what has become an invisible culture in America.
This is a sentimental favorite because it brings the character of Flo Meredith, who played Mary Richards' renegade aunt on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, back to life. And it's in the perfect setting. Although a reunion between Flo and Lou (who were almost engaged on the MTM show) would have been nice, Flo is featured in her element; and the person she is featured with is Billie. They are on the campaign trail of a senator, all across the state of California. They re part of a press crew that also features the wonderful John Hillerman. All of them are old veterans who think they've seen and heard it all. They've become cynical and lazy, and they believe that anyone with less experience than themselves is a sorry greenhorn who's yet to see the light of day. So one can imagine their rapport with Billie! But this show is a wonderful portrayal of the old time veterans with all their pomp and grandeur and numerous shortcomings.
This was Nancy Marchand's finest hour, which is saying a lot! The pressures of running The Tribune and keeping it from being sold under her by greedy relatives are slowly getting to Margaret, until she suffers a major stroke. She's left partially paralyzed and almost totally devoid of the ability to speak. It's truly devastating to see someone who had so much brilliance and strength of character suffer so, but she slowly recovers, while Lou and Charlie try to make the right decisions in her place.