Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Underrated TV (Not) on DVD #13: Lou Grant

TV week, day 3:
Series: Lou Grant
Years: 1977-1982, five seasons, 114 hour-long episodes
Creators: James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Gene Reynolds, Leon Tokatyan
Stars: Edward Asner, Robert Walden, Mason Adams, Nancy Marchand

The Concept: After getting unceremoniously fired by on the last episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, Lou Grant realizes that he’s “a 50 year old man with $280 in his bank account”. He moves to LA and goes back to the newpaper biz , managing the city desk at the Los Angeles Tribune.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was a hit at the time, but it’s largely forgotten today. It was followed up and overshadowed by two even-better MTM shows about crumbling city institutions, “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere”.

Sample Episode: 1.1 Cophouse
Writer: Leon Tokatyan
The Story: Lou lands in hot water right away—a hotshot young reporter accuses the paper’s longtime cophouse reporter of thinking like a cop, covering up scandals instead of exposing them. Lou finds himself caught uncomfortably between the crusty old guard and surly Watergate-inspired rookies.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This first season had my favorite opening sequence of any TV show ever. It’s a beautiful little short film about the futility of all human endeavors. I’m sure it got a big laugh, but then the creators had the mighty task of getting people to care about birdcage lining, week after week.

    (double-click to watch it bigger on YouTube)
  2. This was part of a bizarre ‘70s trend of hour-long dramas that got spun-off from half-hour comedies. In this case, it made sense. When you’ve got a great actor like Asner, why not give him some real meat to chew on?
  3. Lou reluctantly hands the cophouse beat over to an aggressive young reporter named Rossi but soon tears him a new one for over-editorializing. Their battles became the central conflict of the show. Like any writer, the reporters are forced to see that the only way to win anybody over to their point of view is to be scrupulously fair. Even after all those years, Lou still hated spunk.
  4. After Lou gives his reporters hell, he has to turn around and fight bitterly to actually get their stories into the paper, which is never certain. The editorial meetings are always a fascinating look into the competing agendas that try to drag important news down the memory hole.
  5. An quick glance at the episode titles will tell you what the danger zone was for this show: it was addicted to “issues”. When it was smartly done, as it usually was, it was brave and daring and smart, but the weaker episodes play like afterschool specials. As Lou himself realizes, advocacy writing is the hardest kind to do well.

How Available Is It?: This is probably the best TV show left that’s still not on DVD in any way, shape or form. It is on Hulu though…

But Don’t Take My Word For It:

1 comment:

christinembird said...

My favorite line from the show:

When one of the reporters complains about his assignment, Lou tells him "That's why they call it work."

A reason for the show's neglect:

After Ed Asner stood up to the networks, his show was quickly cancelled, even though it was doing well in the ratings. I am not surprised that the show is no longer available. Asner is still being punished.