Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! With the anniversary of Lucille Ball’s birth approaching this Saturday and Sitcom Tuesdays concurrently covering shows from the ’80s, the time has come for us to take a look at the iconic comedienne’s last foray into series television — Life With Lucy (1986, ABC). Long considered a devastating conclusion to the Redhead’s otherwise miraculous body of work, it’s time to clear up some misconceptions about the show (and what went wrong), and free Ms. Ball, once and for all, from the miserable reputation this series secured, which by the way, isn’t wrong, but is often based on all the wrong reasons.
As Bill Cosby was striking gold on NBC with his new award-winning series, ABC was desperate to find an appropriate vehicle for another classic TV star of a similar (if not a brighter) wattage. So it was a matter of great excitement when Aaron Spelling, along with assistance from her husband, “producer” Gary Morton, successfully coaxed Lucille Ball out of quasi-retirement for a new primetime show. Nearly 75 years of age at the start of production, Ball was already a television legend, and she’d consistently turned down series offers in the time since Here’s Lucy had ended in 1974, for although Ball was always happiest when working, it took a while to convince her that there existed a project worthy of the commitment. The million dollar question is, of course: why Life With Lucy? The answer: control. ABC, anticipating a hit of the highest magnitude, allowed Ball and Morton nearly total creative control. The first mistake.
Forever insistent that the only “Lucy” whom viewers would accept was the persona with which they were already familiar, Ball made the decision to return to everything that had worked so well for her in the past — employing Gale Gordon (her cohort on both The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, along with My Favorite Husband) as a regular, along with many key crew members, including I Love Lucy‘s first director, Marc Daniels, and her original writers, Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. (who’d been with her on-and-off since My Favorite Husband). Veteran scribes Davis and Carroll concocted a premise that reflected the sweet domesticity that was common within ’80s television — but one that worked for a woman of Lucy’s age and also allowed her the opportunity to do her renowned brand of shtick with Gordon. Ball was to be Lucy Barker, a widowed grandmother who moves in with her daughter (Ann Dusenberry) and son-in-law (Larry Anderson), while co-runnning the family’s hardware store with her son-in-law’s crotchety father Curtis (Gordon), who also moves into the house to keep Lucy from getting more time with the grandkids (Philip Amelio and Jenny Lewis). Donovan Scott played a store employee.
The concept had everything you’d need — warm moments with the family at home and old-fashioned hijinks with Gordon at the store. ABC indeed thought the same and placed tremendous faith in the series, so evidenced by their decision to both order 13 episodes without testing a pilot and to schedule the show on Saturday nights in a timeslot (up against the dying The Facts Of Life) that hadn’t been Nielsen fodder for years. But if there was anyone able to revitalize the night, it would be the Queen of Comedy! Well, as it turned out, this wasn’t the case… For although the series opened to respectable numbers, each ensuing episode bled viewers, with critics and audiences, all of whom loved Lucy, insisting that both the show and the comedienne’s work on it were not only beneath her prior efforts, but also some of the worst material they’d ever seen. Ball took these criticisms, especially those about her performance and the way it compared unfavorably to her work of the past, to heart. Was she too old to be returning to television? Were audiences done with her? The answer to both questions was no, but with few viewers and dreadful press, ABC cancelled the series in November, airing only eight of the 13 entries that had been produced. Ball was devastated.
The comedienne’s public displays of grief over what she viewed as this total rejection by viewers, coupled with the melodramatic reviews that lasted throughout its short run, gave the series an onus of sadness that has never evaporated. (It didn’t help that her ex-husband, Desi Arnaz, died just a few weeks after the cancellation.) Even watching the show today, it’s impossible not to think about all of Life With Lucy‘s dashed expectations — the audience’s, the network’s, and more importantly, Ball’s. It overwhelms the show, and although we watch with hindsight and a foreknowledge about the outcome, one can easily imagine what it was like at the time: the Queen of Comedy returning to television in a stinky property that nobody wants to admit is rotten because, it’s Lucy! As a result, I think there’s a sadness within the episodes themselves — sans everything we know now — that combines the show’s big risk (because anything she does is going to be compared to her classic work) with its slow failure, which reveals itself to be inevitable in the middle of the second episode.
But what went wrong? And whose fault is it? First, let’s pinpoint the issues. And this is an interesting course of discussion because every Lucy fan has a different take as to Life With Lucy‘s failings. I’m going to potentially surprise my regular readers by insisting that the premise isn’t the problem. Now, I normally loathe shows that feature young kids and the bland family fare that personified many of the decade’s hits. But this structure allows Ball to play a more emotionally rich character than she’d been in Here’s Lucy or The Lucy Show (its later seasons), which lacked — even with her own kids present — deep bonds within the text to ground the looniness that ran rampant. The family in Life With Lucy gives Ball just those relationships. Furthermore, putting the Lucy character in a hardware store is genius — there’s infinite possibilities there for broad comedy, smart comedy, any kind of comedy you want. And because Ball and Gordon still work so well together (in fact, he’s better than ever: same timing, but appropriately mellowed with age), there’s a nostalgia present that brings something different to the metaphorical table without detracting from the newer elements. It’s a smart design.
Okay, so if it’s not the premise, then it must be… Yes, the scripts. It was a big mistake to allow this comeback vehicle to be created by a pair of writers whose ideas of comedy never evolved past 1958 and whose figurative well of creativity had been dry since 1963 (and this is arguably why they split with Lucy initially in ’64). I certainly understand Ball’s argument that viewers anticipated her to be the same type of character she played in the past, and as a viewer myself, I probably would have been disappointed if there weren’t, at the very least, elements of the Lucy persona in place. But what Ball didn’t take into account — and this is the only thing I’ll fault her for in today’s post — is that it’s not enough for her to play Lucy, she has to play a Lucy who is as interesting and well-written as the Lucy everyone remembers. It’s a totally unfair and nearly impossible request to ask that she find material that can be comparable to I Love Lucy‘s, but when a living legend agrees to return to the medium that made her immortal, the legend must actually be invoked. This doesn’t mean crafting stories or bits that are reminiscent of classic Lucy. It means crafting consistent, believable comedy, the kind for which she had become known. Davis and Carroll could do the former, but they could no longer do the latter.
Another thing for which I’ll fault this pair (and make no mistake, I still love and respect the majority of their work) is the development of the characters. Ball and Gordon are fine — they’re archetypes by this point and play them better than anyone else — and the grandkids, while boring, are no worse than your average kids on ’80s television. (And, to the show’s credit, the scripts don’t rely on them very much for cheap laughs, so they can’t be blamed with much.) The real problem is Lucy’s daughter and son-in-law, both of whom vacillate between utter drabness and obnoxious overplaying. There’s no middle ground, which tells me that the actors have no idea of how to fulfill their roles. And when this happens, it’s generally because the material hasn’t given them anything solid with which to work. Who are these people and from where does their comedy come? Until that’s established, they can’t share a stage with Lucille Ball, whose co-stars of the past (particularly Arnaz, Vance, and Frawley) are legends in and of themselves and have set this “bar” high. When this mediocre duo stands next to Ball, they look really bad — and, worse, she looks bad for condoning their work.
But while these above decisions, over which Ball must have had some sort of final approval, are really why Life With Lucy is a creative flop — and it is pretty bad (maybe no worse that Here’s Lucy, which was held to different standards) — the narrative about this show has long been that Ball wasn’t good anymore and she allowed herself to be coerced into a series that wasn’t ever going to work (thus proving that she never should have even tried a comeback in the first place) is WRONG. It’s wrong. Ball is as strong as ever, and aside from the few brief moments where the cue card reading is noticeable (just as it was in Here’s Lucy), she’s the same material-elevating comedienne we all know and love. And her judgment shouldn’t have been in question for wanting to come back to television; her judgment should only be questioned for not recognizing that the only way to maintain a consistent and recognizable characterization was through fresh ideas (and not recycled old ones). Once again, the fault is not in our star, but in our writers. They made Lucille Ball’s career and then they killed it. (And I hate to say it, because I love ’em.)
So now that the blame for Life With Lucy’s rottenness is taken off of both Ball’s work and its premise and put directly on the quality of the scripts, I’d like to share my favorite episodes of this series. However, that’s difficult to do because this show isn’t comprised of great installments — it’s comprised of great moments. And because every Lucy fan who knows this series has a different idea about the strongest offerings, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on this blog and give you “drive-by” thoughts on each of the 13 produced episodes, based on my initial draft of notes, which include the numerical ratings that I do for every series but never share here (and likely won’t again). This felt like the best way to work through my thoughts on the series and explain, in only a few words, the notions that come while watching.
01) “One Good Grandparent Deserves Another” (Aired: 09/20/86)
Curtis returns home from vacation to discover that Lucy had been running the shop.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Peter Baldwin | Production No. 01
Shows potential; Lucy/Gale material strongest w/ store sequences working best; 6.5
02) “Lucy Makes A Hit With John Ritter” (Aired: 09/27/86)
Lucy injures John Ritter when he’s in town doing a play, and then fills in for his leading lady.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Peter Baldwin | Production No. 04
Great to see two stars together; miserable script; Ritter great, Lucy adequate; 5.75
03) “Love Among The Two-By-Fours” (Aired: 10/04/86)
An old flame takes Lucy out on a date, much to the delight of her family.
Written by Arthur Marx & Bob Fisher | Directed by Marc Daniels | Production No. 06
Adult story; well-performed by all; great scene with Lucy and daughter; 6.5
04) “Lucy Gets Her Wires Crossed” (Aired: 10/18/86)
Lucy makes a fool of herself and Curtis when they go on a local TV show to promote the shop.
Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo | Directed by Peter Baldwin | Production No. 03
Two great bits — chair and glue; consistently funny; poss. best script; 7.0
05) “Lucy Is A Sax Symbol” (Aired: 10/25/86)
Lucy finds her old saxophone and encourages her daughter to take lessons.
Written by Arthur Marx & Bob Fisher | Directed by Peter Baldwin | Production No. 05
Premise shows nostalgia w/ sax; needs many more laughs; 6.0
06) “Lucy Makes Curtis Byte The Dust” (Aired: 11/01/86)
Lucy buys a computer for the store and inadvertently has Curtis declared dead.
Written by Arthur Marx & Bob Fisher | Directed by Marc Daniels | Production No. 08
Routine premise; a few decently executed bits; forgettable ultimately; 6.25
07) “Lucy, Legal Beagle” (Aired: 11/08/86)
When her grandson’s teddy bear is accidentally sold, Lucy takes the buyer to court.
Written by Richard Albrecht & Casey Keller | Directed by Marc Daniels | Production No. 10
Lucy sharp; story tired (+ Jenny Lewis-Golden Girls connection); need fewer cringes; 6.25
08) “Mother Of The Bride” (Aired: 11/15/86)
Lucy’s sister comes into town as Lucy’s daughter renews her wedding vows.
Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo | Directed by Bruce Bilson | Production No. 12
Right idea w/ Meadows character; but women need better chemistry; decent script; 6.75
09) “Lucy And The Guard Goose” (Syndication Only)
Lucy hires a goose to guard the shop after a burglary.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Peter Baldwin | Production No. 02
Horrendous premise and script; surprisingly: laughs w/ Gale and Lucy; 6.0
10) “Lucy And Curtis Are Up A Tree” (Syndication Only)
Lucy and Curtis get stuck in a treehouse after being accused of spoiling their grandkids.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Marc Daniels | Production No. 07
Characters actually having conversations — wow; laughs; relatively down-to-earth; 6.5
11) “Lucy’s Green Thumb” (Syndication Only)
Lucy makes a formula that cures an ailing plant, but she can’t remember the ingredients.
Written by Mark Tuttle | Directed by Marc Daniels | Production No. 09
Story belongs to The Lucy Show; goofy; tired; mess; 5.5
12) “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (Syndication Only)
Lucy must hire a replacement when Curtis decides it’s time to retire.
Teleplay by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Story by Mel Sherer & Steve Granat | Directed by Marc Daniels | Production No. 11
Sweet, but dull; some closure for Lucy/Gale dynamic; 6.0
13) “World’s Greatest Grandma” (Syndication Only)
Lucy’s granddaughter enters her into a talent show — but what can Lucy do?
Written by Richard Albrecht, Casey Keller & Laura Levine | Directed by Bruce Bilson | Production No. 13
Sweet, but dull; showbiz theme returns — points for the nostalgia; 6.0
So if you’re going by the rankings above, my favorite is “Lucy Gets Her Wires Crossed,” while “Mother Of The Bride” is second, and “One Good Grandparent Deserves Another,” “Love Among The Two-By-Fours,” and “Lucy And Curtis Are Up A Tree” fill out what would have been my top five favorites, had I decided to cover this show the way I do most 13-episode seasons. Meanwhile, “Lucy Makes Curtis Byte The Dust” and “Lucy, Legal Eagle,” would have been honorable mentions. The rest would not have been discussed, although I might have singled out “Lucy Makes A Hit With John Ritter” as being awful, along with the only episode to score lower, “Lucy’s Green Thumb.”
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten Jerome Kern musical!