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Lou Grant: The Making of TV's Top Newspaper Drama (Television and Popular Culture) Paperback – January 1, 1996
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The Lou Grant show ran from 1977 to 1982 and became the most popular newspaper drama ever broadcast on television. Journalists at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune strove to question authority while covering issues as thoroughly as possible. Daniel chronicles character development, plots (often reflecting real news of the day, from Vietnam vets and inner-city school violence to political corruption and homosexuality, although abortion and school busing were avoided), and censorship issues, coming from the CBS Program Practices department. Daniel provides plot summaries for all 114 episodes and delves into several of the 23 newspaper dramas that premiered (though most failed) during the three decades prior to this award-winning Mary Tyler Moore production. For five seasons, Lou Grant and his colleagues delivered a weekly dose of dramatic realism; this book serves as an indispensable tool for appreciating its impact on the newspaper genre and television drama as a whole. Jennifer Henderson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From the Back Cover
The Book describes the bitter controversy that erupted in 1982 when lead actor Edward Asner came under fire for his political beliefs regarding American involvement in El Salvador.
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Author Douglass Daniel does a fine job of setting the show in context: first by briefly examining the various TV shows dealing with journalism, and then by looking at the series as it was developed. From there he offers an in-depth analysis of its three seasons, looking at every episode in varying degrees. While he's clearly a fan of the series, he's quick to note when certain points are either glossed over or unrealistic; at the same time, he reminds us that this was a TV series, and a certain allowance must be made for dramatic licence.
Did the series have a liberal viewpoint? Well, of course it did, in that it followed Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and other notable examples of crusading journalism by just a few years. The investigative reporter was one of the heroes of the day; and just as in real life, there was plenty of corruption & mendacity to be found in the halls of power -- political, corporate, religious, etc. Sadly, that hasn't changed. But the series wasn't so much about Grand Statements as it was about very human stories. The issues were illuminated in terms of their impact on individuals. In any case, when the issues covered at that time are looked at now, some 30+ years later, it becomes clear that the so-called "liberal bias" was actually nothing more than accuracy & fact.
Which leads us to the question of whether the series was canceled because of its & Ed Asner's politics. Daniel believes this may have been a factor, but he's wise enough not to make a flat statement. TV is a profit-driven medium, Reagan had just been elected, and much of the country was making a cultural shift to a simple conservatism that didn't want difficult questions asked. Happy illusions are always preferable to disturbing reality for too many people, and any TV series that asks viewers to think about that reality has a tough time staying on the air. In a way, it was in the same vein as quality TV from the early 1960s -- "Route 66" -- "Naked City" -- "The Defenders" -- "East Side/West Side" -- "Mister Novak" -- and so many other sensitive, insightful shows.
Finally, though, Daniel is attempting to assess the series from an artistic viewpoint. Did it forego easy cliches & feel-good pabulum in favor of delving beneath the surface, presenting complex problems that sometimes had no clear solutions? Was it well-written & well-acted? Did it leave the viewer with food for thought as well as entertaining them? His conclusion -- and mine! -- is that it did all those things, and very much so. All the more reason for it to be made available on DVD, even though episodes are available via streaming -- which can always be cut off.
For anyone who enjoyed "Lou Grant" & quality TV in general, this is the book for you, providing both history & critical analysis, as well as reminding us of a series that deserved to run longer -- most highly recommended!
The book starts fine, with the history of journalists on fictional television. But even in the first chapter the author can't quite get it right. He lists what he claims are all the TV series about journalists through 1977, yet there are a number that are excluded. There is no mention of The Doris Day Show, Shirley's World, My World & Welcome to It, That Girl (probably the other longest-running series with a reporter with a weekly starring role), and even Superman. These are mostly comedies, so maybe he doesn't like that genre--or maybe he didn't want to include magazine reporters as journalists (which most of those others were). Yet he certainly included series that had wire service reporters that don't work for a newspaper, so these others needed to be included. Also, why did he stop at 1977 and not include more recent series (since the book was published in 1994!). From the start the book is incomplete and biased.
The author acts as a cheerleader for the program instead of objectively seeing the flaws in it. The simple premises of the series is so unbelievable that it's hard to swallow, that a failed TV newsman from a low-rated station in a city like Minneapolis would somehow return to print journalism as the city editor in Los Angeles. Lou Grant's character also changed from the sitcom to the drama--and the producers failed to make a credible transition. At the time it may have seemed creative to try it, but looking back Grant lacked the charm that he had on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Some of the things the author praises the series for are the very things that make it look outdated today. The author goes overboard in emphasizing the cutting-edge nature of episodes, such as undercover journalists who lied to get a story or an editor's son becoming a member of Hare Krishna. But the way the stories were handled were extremely liberal and even politically incorrect (journalists should not be lying, the Krishna's were shown to be good in order to get their cooperation for the episode, etc.).
Numerous directors were used for the series and Daniel seems shocked by the fact that TV is not a director's medium, but a producer's medium (it always has been that way, yet he makes it seem like it was just peculiar to that time period). He says the producers wanted different directors so there would be different visual perspectives of the series--yet that again is one of the show's weakest elements, with oddball camera angles and no sense of visual cohesiveness from week to week.
Namely, Douglass Daniel doesn't provide an objective view of the strengths and weaknesses of Lou Grant. Instead he makes everything that the show did sound groundbreaking and positive. While it's true that the industry rewarded the series with Emmys, that only means that inside Hollywood they preferred the Lou Grant-style drama over the higher-rated prime time soap operas of that time period.
There is a somewhat interesting chapter on CBS's censorship department because the author was given access to many of the censor's notes on scripts. It, like everything else in this book, goes on too long and tries to push it's liberal agenda, but it's a fairly unique chapter for a television book.
The author also uses a chapter to discuss the charges that Lou Grant was cancelled after five years due to star Ed Asner's off-the-deep-end liberal politics. This is such a canard that it's hard to believe that people took the charges seriously, but there is evidence of some media critics and liberal organizations thinking it wasn't just the ratings that finished the series off. (There is zero evidence that it was anything other than low ratings and overdone writing killed the show.)
Asner even hired lawyers to prepare to sue CBS over the cancellation--and by then he had become what one critic called a "pompous bore." Asner had gone from the cuddly 1970s favorite of the Mary Tyler Moore Show to believing his new show's storylines making him a liberal crusader. The author deifies Asner in a way by not giving enough credence to the evidence that shows how foolish the star was.
The book's tone matches that of the series--kind of dry and dull. In retrospect the show was too serious and tried too hard to make points about journalistic integrity, which is similar to what this book is like. One of the Los Angeles Times consultants hired by the series made the point to producers that "the scripts lacked the wry humor of the newsroom and that the characters were stiff." That is probably the best analysis of the Lou Grant series--and yet he was let go after the first season. If his feedback would have been integrated into the program, the series may have done better in reruns. Instead no one is watching Lou Grant today and most people under 45 have never even heard of it. While it's nice to have a book discuss the subject, it's as uneven as the series.