Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Archival Revival (Minneapolis TV Edition)



(It's been almost a week since my last post, and if I were to go through Ed Asner's long and impressive list of acting achievements, as well as the equally long, and, from my point of view on the political spectrum, equally impressive list of social causes he was involved in, it would be another week before this blog had any new posts, and I can't let it sit dark for THAT long. So instead I'm going to replay a section of a 2017 tribute to Mary Tyler Moore, which I somewhat ghoulishly used to talk about her famous sitcom in general. As I HOPE you know, Asner played WMJ news producer Lou Grant on that series. When the show ended it seven-year run, he continued playing the same character in an eponymous non-sitcom spinoff. I like both the comedic and dramatic versions of the Lou Grant, but have a slight preference for the early, funny take on the character, and it's that take I went into at length back in '17.)

The gruff boss with a heart of gold. It's obvious to everyone that when he gives Mary a hard time, starting with her job interview, that he's merely having fun with her. In fact, it soon becomes fairly obvious to Mary herself, though she can't quite help but get nervous anyway. In the one episode where Lou actually does have to admonish her (she and her best friend, under the influence of bit too much wine, write some comical obituaries that accidentally go out on the air) he in fact seems less gruff than usual. Despite that, Mary's offended enough by what she regards as rough treatment to quit her job.  When she realizes she's made a mistake, comes back but finds she's already been replaced, Lou plays up the gruffness, but helps ease her way back into her old job anyway. He must have realized he made a mistake, too.

Lou Grant comes across as a basically self-assured individual, but look again. The series kind of danced around the subject, and never said so for certain, but Lou may have been--and I don't use this term lightly--an alcoholic. He keeps a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer, and offers Mary a drink during her job interview. Now, this was back in 1970. It may just be there was more drinking going on in the workplace back then. Except that, on the very same day Lou hires Mary, he later shows up at her apartment drunk! Quite a debut for a sitcom character, wouldn't you say? True, his drinking never reaches such bizarre proportions again, but it keeps reasserting itself throughout the run of the series. When he's (temporarily, as it turns out) promoted upstairs, his swanky office actually comes equipped with a liquor cabinet. But it's all the way across the room, not close enough for Lou, and as his new desk, essentially a glass table, lacks a drawer, he uses the wastepaper basket to store his bottle instead! In another episode Lou gets drunk before going on the air to report the news during a TV strike, but ends up giving a flawless performance, so at least he's a functional alcoholic. In interviews he gave after the series had ended, Asner occasionally bemoaned having played a drunk for laughs. But at least it was a different kind of drunk than Dean Martin, Foster Brooks, or Otis on The Andy Griffith Show. Like that other top-rated 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dealt with serious topics from time to time, but in a less sensationalist manner. Or to put it this way, on Family a serious topic was depicted as a disruption of the ordinary, whereas on TMTMS the serious topic didn't disrupt so much as quietly, almost gently, subvert the ordinary. So it was with Lou's drinking. But why was he like that? His marriage breaks up halfway through the show's run, but alcohol doesn't seem to be the cause of the problem. Rather, wife Edie (Priscilla Morrill), in the parlance of the times, wants to "find herself". And anyway, even back when Lou mistakenly thought his marriage was a happy one, he drinks to excess. In fact, in that episode where he shows up at Mary's place drunk, he writes a love letter to his wife! The arc of Lou's journalistic career, which is gradually revealed throughout the years, might have something to do with it. Lou was once an up-and-coming reporter who worked alongside Walter Cronkite when they were both war correspondents during World War II. But Cronkite ended up at CBS, Lou at WJM. I suspect disappointment that his once-promising career had lost its promise was behind his drinking. Lou eventually goes back to print journalism, but that's another TV show.

(In the above clip, you may have noticed an actor by the name of...


...Gavin MacLeod, who played WJM news writer Murray Slaughter. MacLeod died just this past May and I was going to write a tribute then, except when it came time to type the name of his other series, The Love Boat, a sudden paralysis struck my right hand. I was rushed to the hospital and spent three days in ICU with my fingers hooked to a catheter. After my knuckles received an injection of a massive amounts of interferon, I was released from the hospital with a warning from the resident on duty that I never again type the name The Love Boat [in case you're wondering how I'm able to do it with this post, I asked the retired IBM keypunch operator who lives down the hall if she would type it in for me, which she agreed to do as long as I sampled some of her homemade Fig Newtons.] Fortunately, The Mary Tyler Moore Show poses no such threat to my health and here's what I wrote about Murray four years ago.) 

Mary Richards co-worker, and in some ways her confidant, at least at the office. He was also the personification of quiet desperation, the character who had the hardest time hiding his inferiority complex. Again, looking at it objectively, he didn't really seem to have all that much to complain about. After all, he was married to the attractive, charming Marie (Joyce Bulifant) and had what I would imagine was a fairly interesting job writing the evening news. Even if that particular line of work is overrated, it still beats cleaning rest rooms. But Murray clearly wanted more out of life. He also wanted Mary. This becomes evident as early as the first season when he stares dreamily at her as she relates some bit of business involving Lou or Rhoda or whoever. Murray eventually reveals his feelings to her, and she lets him down in as bighearted, if somewhat self-embarrassed, a way as possible, and they're able to remain friends. Murray may seem like a rather depressing person to be around, but, fortunately, he has a highly mitigating sense of humor, which actually makes him a bit of a trip at times, and, in his asides to Mary, often acts as a wisecracking Greek chorus to the goings-ons in the newsroom.

(Surviving members of The Mary Tyler Moore Show include the aforementioned Joyce Bulifant, Lisa Gerritsen, who played Phyllis Lindstrom's precocious young daughter Bess, John Amos, who played WMJ weatherman Gordy Howard, and, of course, Betty White, so memorable as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens--Kirk)

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