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.
UPDATE – As of October 2019, this entire series has now been released on DVD.
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!
I’m glad you thought Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo’s script was the best of this bunch (faint praise, I know). The duo remain my favorite writers from “Alice,” from “Frasier,” (in fact, I’d argue that series was not the same once they had moved on), and even from “Doogie Howser, M.D.”
Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I was hoping someone would bring them up — it’s no coincidence the episodes of LIFE WITH LUCY that tend to play better were written by staff members with some of the fresher voices. In fact, the contrast in styles between Morris/Rauseo and Davis/Carroll is noticeable in screening these episodes, but it’s especially interesting to see them coexist within the same series (as they did on ALICE, which I find generally insufferable) and then, in hindsight, recognizing the elements of the “old guard” that were brought into the “up-and-comers”‘ future endeavors.
I tend to concur that they had the good fortune to be on FRASIER during some of the brightest years, and I think they were able to bring unique qualities to the show’s metaphorical table (in fact, I think they were distinctly felt there — they almost seem out-of-place), but I’m not sure I would attribute any surge or descent in quality with regard to their presence specifically, particularly because I think that show’s trajectory is more nuanced (and, frankly, I probably don’t recognize them as being quite as superior as you do). But, stay tuned for more on that front, as I think we’ll be discussing the series before 2017 ends…
I’ve often said that LWL would have been more successful in first-run syndication or, had it come a couple of years later, airing on Nick at Nite. I don’t think the show is much more repulsive than some of the big hits of the 80s like Growing Pains or Full House. Poor Bob and Madelyn were just worn out after basically writing the same show since 1948, so I can’t feel too upset about their writing. A longstanding rumor was that Aaron Spelling would take their scripts and change them to the way he wanted, which is very unlikely considering his track record of having good sense as a producer. The one thing that stands out to me the most about the series is how much Lucy’s dead husband is actually acknowledged. On The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy you could probably count the references made to the late spouse on one hand. It’s the only aspect of the show where a new element was added and used fairly well.
Hi, George! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Great points — the construct is no worse than we’d find in other hits of the era, and the premise does provide for that enhanced emotionality (the dead husband, the family, etc.). And you’re right, the quality of the writing could perhaps be likened to some of the other ’80s domestic comedies — most of them inevitably to be overlooked here — but the problem is that we expect more of a Lucy vehicle than we do of a John Stamos vehicle (for instance). Ball knew there were high expectations, but she miscalculated on how she could meet them.
Thanks for reviewing Life With Lucy. Even though it might not be her best series, I still enjoyed just seeing Lucy.
Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Glad you enjoyed — it’s not nearly as bad as some of the other shows I’ve discussed here this year! (FILTHY RICH, for one…)
Thank you for a thoughtful, intelligent review of LIFE WITH LUCY. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Almost inevitably, when anyone writes about LWL, it’s with a pen dipped in venom, and an attitude of outdoing other writers for overall cruelty. What you had to say was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, you’ve obviously actually seen the shows. Many people who write about the series, I get the impression they haven’t. I’ve wondered if a legitimate DVD release might not help rehabilitate the show’s reputation, but I’m not sure that it would. So many people would be out to trash it before the DVDs were even in anyone’s hands.
In all the criticism of the show I’ve read, I think what bothers me most is how free critics felt to say truly awful things about Ball’s appearance. I can’t help but think that she must have been terribly hurt by much of what was said. If you want to criticize the show, or the cast, or the writing, or the performances, or the direction, that’s fine. Those are fair targets. But to maliciously attack the star for being 75 years old and not looking like she had thirty years earlier is just unfair.
I agree that writers Davis and Carroll’s work had a tendency to stay stuck in the past. During their tenure on ALICE, the show’s storylines often evoked a LUCY milieu. (In one episode, for example, Mel sells the diner, then changes his mind and wants to buy it back. The new owner won’t cooperate, so Alice disguises herself as a gangster to scare the guy away.) Unfortunately, the kind of writing that had worked so well at Desilu, played twenty years later by decidedly less capable comic hands, was just stale and felt, at best, warmed over.
Don’t know how much truth there is to it, but I’ve read that there were some staffers who, when LIFE WITH LUCY was in development, thought the show might have fared better veering away from the “grandma and the family” angle and patterning itself more strongly after THE GOLDEN GIRLS. That is, the Lucy character as senior citizen, surrounded by people her own age. Whether that’s true or not, it leads me to wonder if maybe part of the show’s problem was that those in charge were more concerned about imitating what other successful shows were doing than they were in just concentrating on creating the best vehicle for Ball, regardless of whether or not they were successfully evoking whatever trend was currently hottest.
Hi, Gary! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I consider myself a tough critic, but I try to treat each show I cover here as an individual entity that creates its own standards, aiming to use those specific guidelines in conjunction with my own three C’s (character, comedy, and creativity) as a benchmark of each one’s success. For instance, a lesser season of NIGHT COURT is going to be generally worse than a lesser season of CHEERS, but I may be harsher when adjudicating the latter because I hold it to a higher standard. (This can sometimes be jarring to those who look at each post here in a broader “big picture” context.)
In the case of LIFE WITH LUCY, I think everyone goes in today with low expectations, so there’s no need to be petulantly derisive about a show from which little is to be sought. Of course, these notions were quite the opposite in 1986, as the words “Lucille Ball” and “new series” were understandably going to inspire excitement and higher standards, as a result of her prior body of work. But I’ve simply never understood why Ball’s performance and her work on the show itself was a target for potential blame with regard to its lower quality. I suppose the disappointment was so overwhelming that EVERYTHING looked bad at the time, but in viewing the episodes today, the argument doesn’t add up. Lucy is Lucy; it’s the writing that reeks… (and, might I add, not a total surprise given the material she’d been given in the latter half of her TV career).
Glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts — writing them made for a surprisingly pleasurable experience.
I stumbled across a link to your blog on Facebook, and read your post with a lot of interest. I remember when LWL was aired, watched with great expectation and enthusiasm (after all, it was Lucy in something NEW), and then had to watch it all go down the ratings drain. I remember feeling so disappointed, so sad that our Lucy was so poorly received. I always felt that LWL never clicked, and that the premise was the problem. Your insights helped me rethink that, and I’m grateful for your excellent, honest review of this lost opportunity. I’ve always been amazed that some kind of retooling wasn’t attempted. It was Lucille Ball, for God’s sake- and yet, 8 episodes aired and then cancelled and sent packing. She deserved better.
A few years earlier, in 1982, I was a Radio, Television, and Film major at the University of Maryland. I took a programming class, which allowed the students to create television shows for prime time airing. As producers, we were given a fictional amount of cash, had to hire performers, create the shows, pitch the show to a group of “Networks” and then get our shows aired. A TV Guide was created with all the television show airings, and then random students on campus were given the Guide and asked what shows they would watch during each programming block. Ratings were determined, and then shows were renewed or cancelled. Ingenious class, right? My partner and I created a show for Lucille Ball that lasted two of the three seasons in this simulation.
Lucy lived in a retirement community. Her best friend was Eve Arden. The mayor of the community was, you guessed it, Gale Gordon. Hijinks ensued. Much of the plot developments we created came from the “Lucy-Ethel” partnership which was duplicated with Lucy and Eve vs. the Gale Gordon character. Personally, I think LWL lacked that Ethel/Viv character that had made her earlier shows work. The premise of our show seemed to be well received, did well in the “ratings”, and was not cancelled. It demonstrated high ratings in the simulation, and ended because the class ended.
The saddest part of LWL for me is that Lucy felt rejected by her fans, and that she was washed up. I believe she died still thinking that two and a half years later.
Hi, seriesbklvr! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Sounds like a brilliant exercise — that’s my idea of fun!
The class was a lot of fun. I have to say that I agree with you. Most of the writing in the later years of Lucy’s shows had poor writing. I can watch I Love Lucy over and over, but most seasons of The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy are one and done- one viewing and never return. Those were on prime time when I was a kid and we watched Lucy because that was what you did! By 1986 that habit was gone.
I’m with you — seriesbklvr! There’s occasional brilliance in Ball’s later TV work (mostly due to her performance specifically), but one must know where to look!
I enjoyed reading your observations. I remember watching the series at the time, and I had always enjoyed all of Lucy’s shows. I was 25 at the time, and I recall thinking that the writers kept having her do Lucy Ricardo type activities but those moments were not funny since that Lucy was in her late 30s and here we had a woman in her 70s. I never thought Lucy lost her talent; I even like her in Mame (1974), even though the musical has its flaws. I too would like to be able to see all the episodes, even the ones that ABC never showed on its regular schedule.
Hi, Robert! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think your sentiments about LIFE WITH LUCY at the time were not far off from the majority’s — essentially that she was too old to be doing the things the show had her doing. But I disagree; I think part of Lucy’s persona was the expert physical shtick, and I actually believe she could still do pretty much anything. (However, this could also be a function of the fact that our perceptions of “old” have changed since ’86. Betty White seems to have proven that 90 is the new 75.) And although it’s far from common, it’s also no longer quite as shocking to see a 75-year-old woman cavorting around on TV like Ball did on LIFE WITH LUCY.
I maintain that the problem in this show wasn’t the gags themselves, which Ball felt was a part of her established character, but the way those gags were crafted by a pair of old writers whose work was tired, repetitive, and unimaginative… all of this, ultimately, because Ball didn’t seek a fresh perspective. As a result, the material felt stale, and it was easy to claim that it was a mistake to have the Lucy character doing this kind of shtick. The real mistake was having her do poorly written shtick.
This is very interesting reading and I appreciate the fresh perspective. I can’t agree more about the writing, but it unfortunately permeated every aspect of the show. Honestly, I think the premise was tired even for the mid-1980s. And as the poster above points out, Lucy worked best with a foil and she didn’t really have anyone like that (other than Gordon) in this show.
I actually attended two tapings of the show. I can only remember the Audrey Meadows show; the for the life of me cannot recall (based on your work above) which other episode I attended. We were thrilled to see Lucy live, and we were very saddened by what we saw, other than her. Then it turned out that I knew someone working for Lucy so he got us into a rehearsal what turned out to be the last episode. This was great because there were only a few people in the audience. At one point, an older couple sat by us and asked us why we were there to which we replied “Lucy! Duh!”. Turns out it was Carroll and Pugh and we had a lovely long conversation with them.
Three tidbits from that day:
1: according to my friend, Lucy was drinking heavily and that could account for why creative problems were ignored.
2: I saw Lucy without her wig!!!! It’s probably a good thing cell phone cameras did not exist at that time, because it was quite a jolt to realize that the old woman rehearsing a one-man band gag was actually the star without her red hair.
3: Bob Hope was scheduled to guest star but the show was cancelled before that happened. Hopes were high on the set that his appearance would attract eyeballs and boost the ratings.
Thanks for the article, it’s a great read!
Hi, Animan! Thanks for reading and commenting.
And thanks for sharing your treasured recollections. I envy that time you got to spend with Carroll and Davis. A Bob Hope appearance, if not enough to save the series, would have been — at the very least — another delightful chance to see them working together.
Now, I would generally agree about the tiredness of LIFE WITH LUCY’s premise. In fact, if you’ve read any of my other coverage on this site, you’ll know that I am particularly unmoved by sitcoms that employ bland domestic constructs, particularly those produced in the 1980s (when sentimentality could be used to supplant genuine character-driven comedy). However, I understand why LIFE WITH LUCY was developed the way it was (see above), and I also don’t think a simple change in format would have been enough to excuse scripts that simply weren’t comedically sound. The problems with the writing would have, as you noted, permeated any concept, so I don’t think faulting the premise gets to the heart of this show’s failings.
And as for additional foils, of course, a stronger cast would have been a benefit to Ball (and perhaps the writers as well), and could have indeed helped the show finish the season. But I think even if Vance had been raised from the dead, we’d still cringe at the uninspired jokes provoking unearned, almost mocking, guffaws. The comedic aesthetics wouldn’t have miraculously changed in the writer’s room, and in the search for quality, the evidence suggests that we’d still be coming up short… there just might be more episodes for us to discuss!
Apparently Lucy was very disappointed that Hope was not available for an early episode, but his availability was limited. I was slated to attend that taping but alas, that magic never happened.
No, but you DID get to see Audrey Meadows’ appearance, which many fans believe to be the cream of the short-lived show’s figurative crop!
I agree that Lucy needed a friend and I bet Mary Jane would have done it. So many missed opportunities.
I believe Croft had moved out of state by that time, but I’m sure she would have been glad to appear on occasion if asked!
Thanks for this terrific look at another unfortunate series. I have several episodes recorded on VHS & your analysis was spot on. It didn’t matter who was in the cast the writing was still going to suck. A total disservice to Lucy(but as you pointed out- she had been dealing with bad writing for years)!
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
One of the reasons LIFE WITH LUCY doesn’t sting as much to me is that I’m already accustomed to making allowances for the lower quality of material associated with Ball’s TV ventures in later years.
Regarding the comments about the quality of writing in Ball’s later TV series, I remember reading a comment from Garry Marshall, who with his partner, Jerry Belson, wrote several LUCY SHOW scripts for the third and fourth seasons of that series. Marshall recalled that the series had a terrible time attracting young writers, and that he and Belson only agreed to write for it as a favor to Milt Josefsberg. Marshall said young writers considered Ball’s show old-fashioned by that point and weren’t interested in working for it. As a result, Josefsberg wound up relying mostly on old guys he knew from his radio days in the ’40s. Marshall said these guys were all stuck in the clichés of the past and were content to just rehash their old radio gags and situations rather than do anything new or original. If it was good enough for FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY back in 1946, it was good enough for Lucy in 1966.
How — or even if — that ties in with your theory about the biggest problem with Ball’s later shows being the quality of the writing, I will leave to you to decide. I just thought it was worth contributing.
I thought it was interesting, though, that at the same time he was criticizing these other guys, Marshall conceded that he and Jerry Belson never gave their LUCY SHOW scripts the kind of time and attention they gave to what they were writing for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW at the same time. For Lucy, they just came up with an idea for the big second act “block scene,” then wrote what they needed to write to get her into the necessary situation, apparently without much concern for plausibility. Even from him, there was this attitude of, “It didn’t matter whether or not it made sense or was believable, it was Lucy and they’d laugh at it.” I happen to think it DID matter, and that maybe if writers like them had given their LUCY scripts the same kind of TLC they had given their DICK VAN DYKE SHOW scripts, Lucy’s later series would be more highly regarded today.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think you’re absolutely right — the writing did matter. When Madelyn and the three Bobs first left Ball in 1964 (after a contentious scenario that’s contorted the narrative away from the simple fact that they’d burned themselves out and should have left anyway), Ball replaced her old writers with more old writers like Josefsberg. These old guys knew how to get her an easy laugh, and they knew how to deliver a block comedy scene (which were getting harder and harder to contrive in Season Two), but they were equally as tired in their comedic sensibilities and crafted stories that were even MORE disconnected from common sense.
This wasn’t so much of a problem in THE LUCY SHOW’s third season, particularly because the show was coming off a relatively laugh-dry second year that therefore made these writers’ old bag of tried-and-true tricks seem more initially satisfying, but once the show lost Viv and became a parade of guest stars, the compromises in logic extended beyond the stories and started taking a major toll on the Lucy character. These shifts ultimately proved irreversible — even when Carroll and Davis returned to HERE’S LUCY and attempted, with their outmoded notions of comedy, to inject more brains and stability into the proceedings.
At any rate, there was an EVIDENT lack of quality control in Ball’s work after the first season of THE LUCY SHOW, and many attribute this to the absence of Arnaz. That could very well be true. I think it’s uncertain that if Ball had been given better material during this time, she would have even had the good sense to recognize it as such. By all accounts, that was Arnaz’s strength — one of the major reasons that I LOVE LUCY, in its half-hour format, was rendered so consistently strong.
It’s interesting to compare how hard it was for Carroll and Davis to change their style and move with the times with how capably their fellow Lucy scribes managed it. Weiskopf and Schiller fit beautifully on Maude and All in the Family, and they were pleased to have the chance to stretch in a different direction.
Hi, Lee! Thanks for reading and commenting.
That’s a great point — Schiller and Weiskopf embraced change; Davis and Carroll avoided it.
I’m 63 years old and was really looking forward to Life with Lucy. And yes, I was there for the premiere episode. First thing I noticed–the old-timey choice of Edye Gorme to sing the theme song. Though I like her voice, by 1986, she and Steve were strictly squaresville, man. Then, the title flashed, and it was done so cheapy, like something put together for a video of someone’s high school graduation. I still cringe whenever I see it. The intros for her previous series were so innovative, and this, well, it just looked CHEAP. Once Lucy was introduced as a “hip” grandma who was a health food nut (but had a foghorn voice from apparently too many “healthy” Pall Malls), I saw it going downhill. Then, in the very FIRST episode, they truck out one of Lucy’s oldest schtics…where she must eat something that’s sour or distasteful. In this case, if I remember correctly, it was some concoction made in a blender. She did that with Vitameatavegimin and then with pickles on “Here’s Lucy,” and now, she was doing it again. Ugh.
The supporting cast was horrible. The son-in-law was a caricature, the daughter talked WAY too loudly, and the kids were just obnoxious and really unnecessary. I don’t tune in to a Lucy show to watch nameless, talentless kids. Waitaminit…I take that back. I DID watch her talentless kids on Here’s Lucy, but at least they had familiar names (Lucie and Desi). But like Lucie and Desi, this new cast shouted all of its lines, as if trying to be heard in the back rows.
As for Lucy, I thought she was game, but her make-up was terrible. Someone here said not to criticize her looks. Why not? She looked horrible! Way too much make-up. In fact, she looked like a painted clown next to everyone else. Just look at the screen shots on this page. She’s white, everybody else is normal. And her eyebrows suddenly being in the middle of her forehead didn’t help.
Gale Gordon had one schtick only, and he went through it hundreds of times as Mr. Mooney. That was before he was even cast at Harry Carter! By Life with Lucy, he was about as funny as a toothache. His bombastic reactions to Mrs. Carmichael, whoops, I mean, Lucy Barker, lacked even a smidgen of humor. Just plain awful.
I watched Life with Lucy till its final aired episode. It failed because it was at least 10 years behind the times in 1986,. The writing let her down, but so did Lucy. She did it to herself. Afterwards, she went on talk shows and cried about the show’s failure, all without ONCE accepting any of the blame. Of course, it all comes down to her–she’s the only reason why anyone would watch this mess,.
Hi, Rod! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think your opinion is in keeping with the consensus. Certainly Ball’s inability to push for, or seemingly recognize, better material had been a hinderance to the quality of her television material since 1963, along with her flawed decision to remain associated with outmoded aesthetics. But I think faulting her specifically for LIFE WITH LUCY’s failure does nothing to get to the reason why it was such, particularly because I don’t think the quality of her individual work deserves the criticism it’s gotten when lumped alongside the show’s many legitimate problems, all of which stem from the scripts themselves. I am of the opinion that any mediocre premise or story can be made playable by a stellar teleplay, while a weak teleplay can not do the same for even a strong premise/story. This is where LIFE WITH LUCY fundamentally breaks down; better scripts mean a better show — maybe still a commercial flop, but not one with as low a reputation.
Also, If one wants to pinpoint Ball’s judgment, which is at the heart of the criticism leveled against her, as LIFE WITH LUCY’s prime and fatal flaw, then I think one has to be willing to do the same for the majority of her post-Arnaz career. I’m ready to do so (and if you’ve checked out our coverage of THE LUCY SHOW and HERE’S LUCY, you’ll know exactly where I figuratively stand), but this ultimately means that there’d be no reason for shock and outrage over this particular effort. I mean, why watch and expect greatness when a precedent for inferiority has already been set? (There are several honest and understandable answers to this rhetorical question, but from a critical point-of-view, it makes little sense to be as disappointed about LIFE WITH LUCY as many were and still are.)
At a certain point in her career, Ball was admittedly just churning out PRODUCT. She had a studio to maintain (at least during the “The Lucy Show”) and syndication to take into consideration. That would account for why she didn’t demand better scripts. The show still had to go on.
Hi, TV Talking Heads! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Indeed. Be sure to check out our posts on THE LUCY SHOW, if you haven’t already!
I’m glad I found the site. I like it. You’re quite the TV aficionado.
Thanks. What can I say? I love television. (And if you do too, please subscribe — that way you’ll never miss a post!)
I adore Lucille Ball and vaguely remember watching back then. I wish I could see them again. It’s a shame they aren’t available on home video. Now that she’s gone, I’m sure a fresh viewing would be very nostalgic.
Hi, Robert! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Last I checked, you could find several episodes of the series on YouTube!
I’m really late to the game on this review but a couple things to add…
I was fortunate enough to spend some with with Madelyn a few years back before she passed. When the subject of this series came up, she was quite candid about it. They had begged Lucy to take on a more supervisory role but not only did Ms. Ball insist they write as many of the scripts as possible, but also that they include the same type of Lucy shenanigans of years gone by. Their initial drafts had much of the comedy more dialogue focused, getting her into predicaments that weren’t quite as 1950s slapstick, even capitalizing on Ms. Ball’s real-life persona as a bawdy old broad, while still tethering that to the Lucy Ricardo character audiences had come to realize. They knew the times had changed and were eager to change with it. It seemed that Lucy, for all her strengths, was dead set on slapstick.
This, by no means, absolves the writers completely. Other than Gale Gordon, the supporting characters were drab and boring (reminds me a bit of ALF in this way) and the plots were pretty staid.
Aaron Spelling, for his part, took a lot of the blame for letting her run with this, rather than managing her a bit better. He felt, that seeing Lucy Ricardo dangling on a ladder, for example, was hysterical in 1955, but in 1985 you were terrified she would break a hip. He recalled screening the series with family and hearing audible gasps at some of the slapsticks, instead of the usual laughs.
Anyways, just wanted to share my two cents.
Hi, Justin! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Great insight. Be sure to check out our other Lucy posts, if you haven’t already!
Excellent critical review. I also thought this show got a bad rap. The critics were particularly nasty about her age and returning to TV. I enjoyed it. Not as good as her past shows, but not nearly as bad as most think.
Hi, DD! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Glad you enjoyed — I agree that the critical reaction to her age was off-the-mark: lazy and not indicative of the show’s real problems.