Life with Lucy: The Complete Series DVD Review

A misguided attempt at a sitcom comeback for a great comic star. 2.5 Stars

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.

Life with Lucy (1986)
Released: 20 Sep 1986
Rated: N/A
Runtime: 30 min
Director: N/A
Genre: Comedy
Cast: Lucille Ball, Gale Gordon, Ann Dusenberry, Larry Anderson
Writer(s): Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Davis
Plot: Lucy Barker is a grandmother living with her daughter's family while constantly getting into comedic predicaments.
IMDB rating: 6.1
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: CBS
Video Resolution: 480I/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 2.0 DD
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 5 Hr. 22 Min.
Package Includes: DVD
Case Type: Amaray case with leaf
Disc Type: DVD-9 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 10/08/2019
MSRP: $44.98

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

Video: 3.5/5

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.

Audio: 4/5

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.

Overall: 2.5/5

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.

Published by

Matt Hough

editor,member

20 Comments

  1. I agree with your assessment, but there is one episode I like, “Love Among the Two-by-Fours”. Peter Graves portrays an ex of Lucy’s, and they rekindle their romance. It is the most adult of the episodes, and I think if the series had focused more on aging and family issues, kind of like Golden Girls did, it would have been a better show. There is a nice mother and daughter moment that I find touching. And the episode ends with a low-key Lucy-style gag that is not too over the top, like in some of the other episodes.

    Too often, they tried to redo the zany antics of Lucy and Mr. Mooney, that just are not funny, both with a more sophisticated audience and, for me, it was alarming to see a grandmother trying to deal with an out of control washing machine, etc. But I will pick this up as I would like a higher quality version that what I have from my VHS tapes from the time (and I don’t have all the episodes).

  2. What a coincidence. Lucy's last movie was Mame in 1974, and her last TV show were in 1986, and both were soundly rejected by the public. Both years are years of the Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac since they are twelve years apart. TV changed dramatically then, almost as much as it did from 1962 to 1974, the Lucy Show/Here's Lucy era.

    KPmusmag

    I agree with your assessment, but there is one episode I like, "Love Among the Two-by-Fours". Peter Graves portrays an ex of Lucy's, and they rekindle their romance. It is the most adult of the episodes, and I think if the series had focused more on aging and family issues, kind of like Golden Girls did, it would have been a better show. There is a nice mother and daughter moment that I find touching. And the episode ends with a low-key Lucy-style gag that is not too over the top, like in some of the other episodes.

    Too often, they tried to redo the zany antics of Lucy and Mr. Mooney, that just are not funny, both with a more sophisticated audience and, for me, it was alarming to see a grandmother trying to deal with an out of control washing machine, etc. But I will pick this up as I would like a higher quality version that what I have from my VHS tapes from the time (and I don't have all the episodes).

    Coincidentally, Peter Graves was on The Golden Girls in its last season as one of Blanche's dates. If they'd done a show like you'd suggested, they would have been accused of ripping it off. Not like that ever stopped ABC (Always Been Copying) before.

  3. I tuned in to see this show in 1986 and I tuned out quite quickly, too. If I recall, this return to TV was being billed as something new and refreshing for Lucy and her fans (modern, I guess?), but her decision to want Gale Gordon back negated all that immediately. I have nothing against Gale Gordon, to be clear, just that decision was opposite of how the show was being publicized. Right from the start it felt "same old, same old" and emphasis on old. I don't know if I can even attempt to watch these episodes now…I had enough trouble getting through Here's Lucy a couple years ago. I hadn't watched it when it first aired, I watched Laugh-In.

  4. BobO’Link

    **EDIT**
    Wow… just checked Amazon. This 13 episode, 2 disc, series has a far too expensive $35 pre order price! Is this a BOD? It *is* from CBS who seems to be doing this more and more with older/stalled series.

    Considering that this Life With Lucy all-in-one has bonuses on it, I don't think it's a BOD/MOD.

  5. BobO’Link

    Or rather *were* funny the first time but not the 3rd/4th/etc.

    And between the last two Lucy shows, her old writers did Alice and got nine years out of that, so that must have been a change of pace for them. The coincidence of that is that the Oscar-winning originator of the title role from the movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Ellen Burstyn, had a flop sitcom right after Life With Lucy from Golden Girls' producer, Touchstone Television.

    I was three years old then and mainly watched NBC and CBS cartoons on Saturday Morning so I wouldn't have seen or heard promos for it, and if I was up to watch anything on prime-time TV on Saturday at 8:00 PM, it was more than likely The Facts of Life over on NBC. I didn't even watch I Love Lucy in reruns until Nick at Nite got the rights, and then later I found that Lucy had a radio show where a lot of that show's earliest plots originated. A lot of these bits of business are older than you think.

  6. I think a lot of Lucy's continued success on TV in the 1960s and 1970s can be attributed to the fact that they were filmed before an audience when many sitcoms were single-camera shows with laugh tracks. Other shows switched back to the three-camera/studio audience format in the 1970s and took that advantage away from her. But her idea of changing with the times was to make her character a wheat germ-eating health obsessive. The opportunity to mine humor out of that whole mentality was there, but they squandered it.

    The irony of this show's failing where The Golden Girls had been a hit becomes even greater when you take Mame, Lucy's last big public failure, into account. Her co-star there, Bea Arthur, now had a hit show about aging after she'd flopped on ABC in Amanda's, an attempt to Americanize Fawlty Towers that also had the misfortune of premiering about five or six months after Newhart. Angela Lansbury, who played the title role on Broadway, also now had a hit in Murder, She Wrote. It's also an even greater coincidence that Eydie Gorme sings the theme song* since she had also recorded a fantastic version of Mame's "If He Walked Into My Life" when it was a new song.

    *Joel Higgins (whom ABC just did not know what to do with and NBC did), please come back to TV, we miss you.

  7. “Here’s Lucy” was not a particularly good series, so to bring back Gale Gordon and some of the creative team from that show 12 years later had disaster written all over it. The constant antagonism between Lucy and Gale Gordon’s characters had been played out years earlier. Plus, Lucille Ball was no longer the performer she once was. She was completely relying on cue cards by that time, and her gravelly, low-pitched voice had none of the inflections that helped make her line deliveries on her first series so funny.

  8. sjbradford

    “Here’s Lucy” was not a particularly good series, so to bring back Gale Gordon and some of the creative team from that show 12 years later had disaster written all over it. The constant antagonism between Lucy and Gale Gordon’s characters had been played out years earlier. Plus, Lucille Ball was no longer the performer she once was. She was completely relying on cue cards by that time, and her gravelly, low-pitched voice had none of the inflections that helped make her line deliveries on her first series so funny.

    Yes, I meant to mention in the review that you can catch Lucy referring to cue cards if you watch her closely. I mean, she was hardly the first to do that, but it does rob her of any spontaneity in her performance.

  9. Lucy's voice was already headed downward all the way back in the I Love Lucy days; she's much higher-pitched in the first two seasons. After Little Ricky was born (and Desi Jr. in real life), you could hear her lose an octave. Booze and tobacco brought it down further gradually and doing Wildcat live eight times a week seemed to do further damage.

  10. Matt Hough

    Yes, I meant to mention in the review that you can catch Lucy referring to cue cards if you watch her closely. I mean, she was hardly the first to do that, but it does rob her of any spontaneity in her performance.

    Quite true– however, my nephew Eli loves Here's Lucy notwithstanding; I got the third go (1970-71) for him for his 15th birthday, and I'm sure he'll devour it (he'll be getting the remaining three [one a year] at succeeding birthdays).

  11. One other thing that kept bringing audiences back to her Lucy Show and Here's Lucy series was the guest stars. Lucy could get the biggest names for her series week after week. I mean, she got Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and "the diamond" to appear! Pretty remarkable, (There is a documentary on the DVD set of that season, I believe it's thirty minutes, where they discuss the origins and the filming of that episode and, thankfully, it's very well-rounded telling the warts and all of everyone involved in it.

    Although some of those guest star episodes are train wrecks, you must admit. I never watched Here's Lucy when it originally aired because I watched Laugh-In every week, but a few years ago I began watching the series and I really had to think of it as variety show sketches because week after week didn't always adhere to any sort of continuity, or believability, a lot of the time.

    Anyone have an idea of why Lucy won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series two years in a row in 1967 & 1968? The two worst years of The Lucy Show? The other choices those two years were: Elizabeth Montgomery (both years) Agnes Moorehead (1 year), Marlo Thomas (both years) Paula Prentiss (1 year) and Barbara Feldon (1 year). I mean, really. Then again, the next two years it went to Hope Lange in The Ghost & Mrs. Muir which also makes absolutely no sense either.

  12. BobO’Link

    She kept repeating that formula seemingly hoping that lightning would strike again. It never did.

    She wasn't the only one. Her color shows also didn't have one important component of I Love Lucy: William Asher as a director. He was doing Bewitched concurrently, and I was shocked to see Uncle Arthur and Serena doing Lucy and Ethel's old candy factory routine in color in their fifth season!

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