One has to admire Lucille Ball’s desire to work hard to please her audience even at an age when most folks have retired, but Life with Lucy was a misguided effort from the get-go.
The Production: 2/5
After staying away from the network sitcom wars for twelve years, her time away spent doing occasional films and television specials, Lucille Ball was persuaded by producer Aaron Spelling to return to network television in a new situation comedy. With Spelling anchored at ABC, Life with Lucy would be Ball’s first comedy series on another network, CBS being her longtime home. To get the star to sign on, Spelling had to offer the moon: a huge salary, complete creative control, and her choice of timeslots. Ball’s creative decisions inevitably wrecked the show though it’s not clear the 75-year old legend would have flourished any better with different writers, a different premise, or a different timeslot than Saturday night (though The Golden Girls had certainly given new life to the comedy careers of other middle-aged comedic ladies on Saturday night though on a different network).
Lucy plays Lucille Barker, a widow coming to live with her daughter Margo (Ann Dusenberry), Margo’s law student husband Ted (Larry Anderson), and their two precocious children Becky (Jenny Lewis) and Kevin (Philip Amelio). Also in the picture is Lucy’s crotchety brother-in-law Curtis (Gale Gordon) with whom she shares half ownership of a hardware store in Pasadena, California. Despite some superficial changes from her previous sitcoms, the premise allowed Ball the latitude to pull out all of her old bag of tricks which had been working for her for over thirty years, overseen by Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis, two of the original writers going all the way back to I Love Lucy. So, we get the tried and true formulas: Lucy victimizing one and all with her mishandling of appliances (a giant-sized fire extinguisher which douses the store in foam, a mishandled computer which spits out endless reams of printer paper, leaf blowers and vacuum cleaners that run wild), Lucy’s star struck enthusiasm bringing down famous celebrities (John Ritter gets the business), Lucy’s desperation to enter show business (stage and television mishaps), and Lucy dissolving into ugly crying jags. The studio audience enthusiastically cheers the star’s every move (she gets raucous entrance applause in every episode) and sounds like they’re having a great time (they also predictably “aw” at moments of tenderness and sentimentality), but much of this ancient slapstick doesn’t wear well after our over-familiarity with it down through the decades.
Of course, Lucy chose Gale Gordon, her favorite comic foil, to come out of retirement to join her on the new series. Even at age eighty, Gordon enthusiastically participates in the comic mayhem, but he and Lucy do overplay their hands: their loud, bombastic delivery of lines and big comic takes seem like desperation ploys for laughs, and there are occasional episodes where Gordon’s vocal pitch never falls below a bellow. But what’s missing is for Lucy to have a pal to join in with her schemes (her longtime second banana Vivian Vance had already passed away by the time of this show’s production), and Lucy acting alone is never as much fun. The children, especially Philip Amelio’s Kevin, know their lines and cues and never seem intimidated by performing with such pros. The older supporting actors Ann Dusenberry, Larry Anderson, and hardware store assistant Donovan Scott playing Leonard Stoner do what they can with very cardboard characters. True to Lucy’s comedy series, she dots her shows with guest star friends: Ruth Buzzi, Greg Mullavey, Peter Graves, Reva Rose, Dick Gautier, Dave Madden, and Audrey Meadows (who was approached after her episode to become Lucy’s second banana and wisely turned it down).
After a promising premiere episode rating, the show quickly lost its initial audience curious to see what Lucy was up to after more than a decade, and ABC canceled the show after the eighth episode, so five of the episodes in this set have seen very little light of day. And the somewhat bitter irony is that in what proved to be the series finale (and Lucy’s last major stab at TV stardom), she delivers a spoken recitation of “Sunrise, Sunset” that literally and figuratively parallels the fate of the show and her own twilight time in show business.
Here are the thirteen episodes contained on two DVDs in this single season set:
1 – One Good Grandparent Deserves Another
2 – Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter
3 – Love Among the Two-by-Fours
4 – Lucy Gets Her Wires Crossed
5 – Lucy Is a Sax Symbol
6 – Lucy Makes Curtis Byte the Dust
7 – Lucy, Legal Eagle
8 – Mother of the Bride
9 – Lucy and the Guard Goose
10 – Lucy and Curtis Are Up a Tree
11 – Lucy’s Green Thumb
12 – Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
13 – World’s Greatest Grandma
3D Rating: NA
The series was videotaped in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the era. Thus, the shows are never as sharp and detailed as the filmed episodes of other sitcoms of the period. Color and contrast are fine, but you’ll notice video interlacing artifacts depending on the size of your screen and your TV or video player’s ability to upscale. There are no age-related anomalies with the images, however. Each episode has been divided into 4 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound mix is decoded into the center channel with my equipment. Sound is clear and clean with no noticeable age-related problems with hiss or other anomalies. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are all mixed expertly to provide the final soundtrack.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Hour Magazine segments (5:00, 5:07, 4:59): host Gary Collins interviews Lucille Ball (and Gale Gordon in the first of three segments) in which she extols her co-star as vital to her return to television. She acknowledges the poor reviews the show had received, but she has confidence that her loyal audience will continue with the show.
ABC promos (0:30): four vintage spot ads for selected episodes in montage.
Entertainment Tonight segments (4:12): two brief interviews in montage with Lucy before the show’s premiere.
One has to admire Lucille Ball’s desire to work hard to please her audience even at an age when most folks have retired, but Life with Lucy was a misguided effort from the get-go, and these thirteen episodes from the misbegotten series sadly don’t reveal a hidden gem ready for rediscovery. For fans of the star, however, at least the show is now available in its entirety to add to their collections.