LOU GRANT “Suspect” (first aired 5/17/1982)
Director: Alan Cooke
Teleplay: Seth Freeman
Lead actors: Edward Asner, Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey, Mason Adams, Jack Bannon, Daryl Anderson, Nancy Marchand
Guest stars: Lance Guest, Renn Woods, Dixie Carter, Christina Pickles
The lost sixth season of LOU GRANT might have featured even darker material than the series had showcased during its highly honored but increasingly controversial run. The show’s core writing team (producer Seth Freeman, Michele Gallery, Steve Kline, and subsequent crime novelist April Smith) were slowly but surely adding crime elements into the series in its fifth year, and there’s every reason to believe that if LOU GRANT had not been shot down by a backlash against Edward Asner’s political activism, this trend would have escalated. (Parent production company MTM was already upping the ante with HILL STREET BLUES and would launch the dark, surreal hospital drama ST. ELSEWHERE in the fall of 1982.)
One catalyst for such a direction can be found in the presence of young heartthrob actor Lance Guest, who was being developed as a new series regular during the second half of the fifth season. His character—the naïve, overly confident rookie reporter Lance Reinecke—was a perfect addition to the Los Angeles Tribune newsroom at a time when the personalities of its two most prominent reporters (Robert Walden as Joe Rossi, Linda Kelsey as Billie Newman) were in danger of over-exposure.
Gangly (6’3”) and curly-haired at age 21, Guest had “passed his audition” and would have been a full-fledged series regular if LOU GRANT had avoided the axe and made it to a sixth season. And the episode “Suspect” demonstrates the direction that the series’ writers could have taken to exploit this inexperienced, in-over-his-head character that would have been at their disposal. While the episode also contains a semi-syrupy “B” sequence introducing another love interest for Lou Grant, its major narrative drive comes from the increasingly dangerous situation that Lance finds himself in when he stumbles across a fatal biking accident that proves to be murder.
Writer Freeman and director Alan Cooke (a Briton of considerable talent, who schooled with Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger but could not duplicate their career paths) give Lance just enough increasing increments of rope in order that he can hang himself. The tendency of eager young reporters to try to solve murder cases (explored with such nostalgic panache in the series’ third-season peak “Hollywood”) gets a double-edged treatment here, as Lance ineptly gets in deeper and deeper, caught between his desire to solve the case and the admonishments of Lou Grant, who tells him to turn over what he knows to the cops and “stay out of it.”
The dialogue between Lance and Lou, when the former is trying to convince the latter that the bicycle accident involves the murder victim running afoul of a ghetto prostitution ring, is a priceless send-up of the plot elements that in other settings would be darker than midnight:
Lance Reinecke: So we got this very straight, very established guy, who's involved with hookers.
Lou Grant: [unimpressed] So? A straight guy goes to hookers.
Lance Reinecke: Not a hot flash, okay. But then I ask the hookers about it, they get nervous.
Lou Grant: [matter of factly] You ask hookers questions, and they act nervous.
Lance Reinecke: Not surprising? Okay, but then this dude, this pimp or something tries to warn me off.
Lou Grant: You make hookers nervous and the pimp warns you off.
Lance Reinecke: Okay, okay. I'm not saying stop the presses or anything, I just feel like I'm on to something.
As it turns out, Lance is on to something, all right. Except, of course, that he hasn’t a clue what’s really going on until things are at a flashpoint of real danger. Along the way, there are fine performances from Renn Woods as the hysterical hooker, and Christina Pickles (soon to be a regular on ST. ELSEWHERE) as the murder victim’s secretary whose intimate relationship with her now-deceased boss does not include the knowledge that he has been horning in on a prostitution ring.
With an episode like “Suspect,” LOU GRANT’s writers were right on the cusp of TV’s narrative revolution, and who knows what they might have done as that climate opened up in the very next season—the one they weren’t permitted to create.