Everyone loves Lucy, but Judge Bill Gibron always thought Ethel Mertz was a stone fox.
Our reviews of The Best Of I Love Lucy (published June 29th, 2011), I Love Lucy: The Complete Third Season (published March 16th, 2005), I Love Lucy: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 11th, 2006), I Love Lucy: The Complete Fifth Season (published October 26th, 2005), I Love Lucy: The Complete Sixth Season (published July 26th, 2006), I Love Lucy: Season One, Volume Nine (published November 11th, 2003), and I Love Lucy: Season One, Volumes One And Two (published July 23rd, 2002) are also available.
"Lucy, I think you got some 'splainin' to do…"
You can argue it until you're red in the head, but I Love Lucy was the first true situation comedy. Ignoring the radio wave past and plowing through all the early boob tube broth to reach this consensus, the argument is hard to beat. Clamor for The Honeymooners all you want, but aside from the occasional "get rich quick" scheme or major mess made out of a misunderstanding, the Kramdens and the Nortons were people first, potent pratfalls second. Ozzie and Harriet may have stayed around longer, and fostered the family-based funfest, but their interrelated follies were often couched in the cautionary, not the comic example. No, when it arrived on the air, I Love Lucy set standards that are still used today (benchmarks like filming before a live audience, using three cameras to capture the chaos), while proving that, as long as you had set personality traits in place, the circumstances could clearly dictate the clever. Certainly other shows mined the endless vein of vaudeville and variety to come up with risible reasons for their stars to slip on the banana peel.
But I Love Lucy was different. As people, the Ricardos were complex and crafty, not physical comedy props. Along with their lifelong friends and neighbors, the Mertzes, the entire social dynamic was represented: old and young, famous and common. Placed together with absurdist notions of acceptable human behavior and those ever-ripe, overly complicated plots, this joke-filled juggernaut ruled the airwaves from the start…and technically hasn't stopped. Over 53 years later, I Love Lucy is still one of the timeless classics of television, old or new. And thanks to Paramount, which has finally ditched dividing up the series into separate issue episode sets, we have I Love Lucy: The Complete Second Season. While the first foray into funny for the show was masterful, this second helping of hilarity is Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance at their most amazing.
Facts of the Case
Ricky Ricardo is a famous orchestra-leader and singer, working out of the Tropicana Club in New York City. He has been married to his wife, the wannabe performer Lucille McGillicuddy Ricardo, for over 11 years. Ricky is a suave, yet sometimes befuddled Latin male who can't quite come to grips with American customs and language. Lucy, on the other hand, is a conniver and a schemer. Her main goal is to participate in Ricky's performances, feeling that she's destined to be as well known as her husband. Most of the time, her efforts fail miserably. But every once in a while, she succeeds, usually screwing up the show in the process.
The Ricardos have lived in the same apartment for almost as long as they've been together, and are friends with the landlords of the building, Fred and Ethel Mertz. Fred is an old vaudevillian who occasionally longs for the spotlight, that is, when he can work up the energy to care about anything. Ethel is the very definition of a long-suffering wife. Marrying a much older man has meant putting up with several strange idiosyncrasies, including Fred's rampant penny-pinching and irascible attitude. Ricky and Fred are best buddies, sharing a common interest in all things masculine, like sports and short skirts. Lucy and Ethel are co-conspirators in the war of the sexes—though Ethel usually has to be dragged in kicking and screaming—battling their bravado-boasting men for some respect and recognition.
Throughout Season One, the Ricardos and the Mertzes found themselves in all manner of messes. Season Two is no different as we experience 31 installments of insanity, I Love Lucy style. Individually, the plots that play out are as follows:
• "Job Switching"
• "Ricky Has Labor Pains"
• "The Black Eye"
• "The Ricardos Change Apartments"
It is hard to argue with perfection (so they say), and that is exactly what I Love Lucy is. Flawlessly written, faultlessly performed, and as timeless as an artist's masterpiece, television owes its very soul to a batty redhead and her flummoxed foreign hubby. While many may look at this half-century old comedy and complain about its corny, gentile humor and reliance on physical comedy, there was never a better example of ensemble excellence on television before or since. The four main performers at the center of the show overcame personal issues, professional jealousies, and backstage squabbling to craft one of the greatest examples of short form funniness ever conceived.
Between the partnership in pranks provided by Lucy and Ethel and the confused castle king camaraderie evoked by Ricky and Fred, the basic man vs. woman dynamic was deliciously developed. Then you add in Ricky's attempts at Westernization, Fred's skinflinting, Lucy's craving for the cult of celebrity, and Ethel's tired take on life with Mr. Mertz, and unlimited additional elements of entertainment were formed. By the time you take in the surrealistic circumstances in which the couples found themselves, the oddball strategies for success developed by Mrs. Ricardo and the usually confused cast of ancillary players who had to put up with all their peculiarities and problems, you have a sitcom so deep that it would take well-prepared PhDs a few dozen dissertations to explain all this delicious delirium. It's safe to say that, 50-plus years later, I Love Lucy is as funny, fresh, and fabulous as it was when it took America by storm (it was the #1 program for four out of the six years it was on the air).
While it's been beaten to death like a dying thoroughbred, it bears repeating that I Love Lucy contained four of the greatest actors ever to play parts on the small screen. While the Great One, Jackie Gleason, is definitely in the Top Five, and The Andy Griffith Show's stuttering savant, Don Knotts, is about as brilliant as comic craftsmanship can get, it is hard to compete with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance. Everyone champions Ball, and with good reason. She is a rare comedienne, a completely free performer who never appears to be faking or forcing the obviously scripted moments of mirth. There is a frailty and a pathos in her shtick, a knowing nod to the audience suggesting that Lucy understands how stupid her plans are, yet she hopes and prays they work out anyway. Without a sheer force of will driving the show, I Love Lucy would fail (this is why so many imitators over the years have paled in comparison). But thanks to the expert timing and talent of Ball, the series has lived on in glass teat legend. With Lucy partnered up with Vivian Vance more than any other actor on the show (even real-life husband Desi doesn't get as much screen time with his wife as the grand dame gal pal Ethel does), we get twin titans of untapped possibilities, greatness encased and saved like potential energy. Vance is the perfect foil for Ball. She's a flustered ball of insecurity sounding a necessary voice of reason over Lucy's ridiculous ideas. Why she continues to go along with them—a facet that reinforces the strong bonds of friendship perpetuated by the show—is a mirth-based mystery. Along with her put-down domination of husband Fred, and her soaring soprano voice (also a treat next to Lucy's lumbering bray), the ladies form a laugh machine that set the blueprint for all friendship follies to come.
Which is why it's so sad that Arnaz and Frawley fail to get more attention, both as equals to and as excellent counterpoints for their silly spouses. Frawley has the crotchety old coot routine down pat, playing off the younger performers with just the right amount of piss and vinegar. Fred Mertz could easily be the most miserable character in the I Love Lucy canon, a complete jerk who treats his tenants horribly, his wife worse, and the rest of the world like the land beyond his personal prison walls. But when placed alongside the machismo of Ricky, the resplendent retardation of Lucy, and the hen-pecking pointedness of Ethel, Fred becomes an oasis, a clueless complainer who would rather rest than wrestle with all the weirdness around him. Frawley fills Mertz with a kind of cautious crankiness, never letting Fred fall into the horribly hateable category. While he's not the most underrated actor here—Arnaz easily wins that award—William Frawley is I Love Lucy's secret weapon, a go-to grumbler who accents everything he does with a good old-fashioned wheezing of age.
As stated before, Desi Arnaz is perhaps the most unheralded member of the Lucy cast, and there are several reasons why this occurred. First and foremost, he was the business brain behind the show, crafting many of the innovations for which the sitcom is known. Also, Arnaz was more than just an actor. He was actually a bandleader who recorded several hit records before, during, and after Lucy's run. This gave him an outsider aura that lessened his impact as a character. But the real reason may be the most obvious. More times than not, Arnaz was offered up as a sacrificial straight man to everyone else on the show, the hapless husband having to put up with a near-clinically crazed wife. No one could play befuddled and perplexed as well as he could, and some of Arnaz's reaction shots are far funnier than the gag he is countering. While some can consider it revisionist history to balance out the comedic quartet, giving Frawley, Vance, and Arnaz equal footing with the titanic talent of the title entity, it is only fair. Subtract one element from the group, and I Love Lucy would be completely lost.
With Season One as a set-up, the mythological maneuvers of the show's success—sight gags, physical comedy, occasional witty bon mots, and the incorporation of classic character bits—paved the way for the show's sensational second season. Season One included such seminal episodes as "The Diet," "The Quiz Show" ("the sap runs every two years"), "Lucy Writes a Play" ("My Bean Locita"), "The Gossip" ("Grace…Foster"), "The Freezer," and the much-beloved icon, "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" (for that lipsmacking treat Vitameatavegamin). Season Two would match the previous programming, punchline for punchline, but it would also contribute to a landmark in early television history. Near the beginning of the new series, Lucy discovered she was pregnant with her second child, Desi Jr. (Lucie Arnaz was born the year before). Needing a way to write the pregnancy into the plot lines, and also realizing that early broadcasting standards wouldn't allow the mention of such a condition outright, the risky decision was made: The Ricardos would have a baby. The result was more publicity and ballyhoo than the show could carry, and when Little Ricky was born on January 19, 1953, it was the most watched moment in television history (a record it held for over three decades). It was also timed to match the real-life birth of Desi and Lucy's actual son, thus creating one of the most fortuitous cosmic crossovers ever. Even in faux reruns (Lucy recorded a few shows before the arrival of her child, and they were presented with wrap around material featuring Ricky and the Mertzes), the show was a sensation, becoming a living room routine for the remainder of its run.
With so much sensational sitcom silage to sift through, it is almost impossible to pick out the absolute best episodes of I Love Lucy, in its second—or any season, frankly. Still, just to offer up a taste of the terrific material buried in this boffo boxset, here is a rating—and mini-review—of the top ten episodes from Season 2:
#10. "The Handcuffs"
#9. "Lucy's Show Business Swan Song"
#8. "Lucy Wants New Furniture"
#7. "Lucy Goes to the Hospital"
#6. "The Camping Trip"
#5. "Lucy Hires a Maid"
#4. "Lucy Changes Her Mind"
#3. "Lucy Becomes a Sculptress"
#2. "The Operetta"
#1. "Job Switching"
During the next four years, I Love Lucy would forever change the face of network television. It would prove that TV was becoming a more viable and increasingly more popular source of easy entertainment than the fading fast medium of radio or the overblown spectacle of the cinema. Lucy proved that superstars, symbols of national importance and recognition, could be crafted out of the simplest of premises. With the revolutionary techniques of filming before a live audience and preserving the pristine negatives for future rebroadcast and reruns, syndication was born—as well as the concept of programs living beyond their seemingly short time slot life. Certainly, there are antiquated elements in the series (the Ricardos are supposed to be cosmopolitan New Yorkers, so naturally, like almost everyone in the '50s, they smoke like chimneys. And the brand? Why, sole sponsor Philip Morris, of course) and the few topical references (Hedda Hopper? Walter Winchell?) are now like lessons in ancient history. But for all-around entertainment value, for never once letting ego or exigent factors foul up the fun, I Love Lucy stands as a testament to the incredible imagination of its cast, its crew, and its creative element. Without this magnificent show, the sitcom as we know it would be a far different creature. I Love Lucy is TV at its best, and I Love Lucy: The Complete Second Season is a treasure to be savored and saved.
When black and white shows up on DVD, there are usually two ways it can come out. The first is foggy and gray, like visiting London or San Francisco on a summer's morning. The other is vibrant and sharp, with the darkness and light contrasting against each other in elemental acuity. Paramount's presentation of I Love Lucy is far more the latter than the former. The episodes here are magnificent in their monochrome amazement. Indeed, there is so much detail in the transfer that Lucy's patterned dresses wreck havoc with the three-dot matrix of the cathode ray setup. There are no age defects present, no dirt or grit of any kind, and the contrasts are clean and crisp. So is the Dolby Digital Mono. While the overblown big band ballistics of Ricky's orchestra can occasionally lead to some sonic shrillness, there is an amazing amount of warmth and depth to this single channel audio. In light of other TV-on-DVD offerings, I Love Lucy looks and sounds virtually brand new. Only the fashions and the fads give away the age of this amazing collection of shows.
Equally impressive, especially for a company that swore by barebones DVD distribution for far too long, is the wealth of bonus material offered in this box set. Paramount outdoes itself by placing a massive amount of material on each disc. As a rule, each collection of episodes contains the following additional material: special footage (material shot exclusive for reruns or syndication, along with public service announcements and cigarette ads); flubs (obvious times when the show failed to follow up on possible continuity errors or miscues); guest cast information (an endlessly informative resource, giving us the names and credits of all the ancillary actors on the show); original openings (the satin heart was a syndication addition—the original intro featured stick figure cartoons of Lucy and Desi cavorting, usually around a packet of Philip Morris cigarettes); radio shows (since most of the TV plots were borrowed from the radio program Lucy starred in—called My Favorite Husband—we get five samples that coincide with their telecast equivalents); production notes (information and data about the series); and some behind-the-scenes stories (excerpts from a tell-all tome by producer Jess Oppenheimer). There are also deleted scenes, restored music, Spanish-language versions of the shows, script excerpts, individual song selection (in those episodes where the cast croons), and promo spots for the series (including a rather clever Christmas greeting with Three Stooges regular Vernon Dent as Jolly Old St. Nick). Each DVD is like an encyclopedia for the show, and over the course of five discs, we learn a great deal about I Love Lucy, its performers, and how the series was put together. In the relatively brief existence of TV on DVD, this is one of the best-designed and best-executed packages ever.
What more needs to be said? Should another couple hundred words be wasted on praise for what is arguably one of the greatest television comedies of all time? Are there any more possible plaudits to be passed out among cast, crew, writers, and directors in defense of this brilliant series? Perhaps one final thought should be added, just to confirm the outright and obvious. When the epistles are drafted, when the future reformers look around at the vast wasteland of broadcast balderdash that passed itself off as entertainment, they will still be looking at Lucy and marveling at the magic inside. For such a simple show with an equally basic premise to fulfill its promise so fully, completely, and regularly has to be a singular achievement in the history of the medium.
No show has matched Lucy's mantle. Very few can even pose the paraffin around its legendary limelight. Sure, the closest current equivalent to the Ricardos reign of superiority is possibly found in the post-modern irony of the first family of Springfield, The Simpsons. And there will be those who look to the Griffiths and Gleasons and propose a kind of all-time greatness impasse. But don't let the pretenders to the throne convince you otherwise. I Love Lucy is the first and best sitcom of all time. And I Love Lucy: The Complete Second Season is an amazing demonstration to the immortality of this show. If DVD is forever, then the medium has found its match in Lucille Ricardo's realm of the ridiculous. Network television comedy doesn't get any better than this.
There is no possible way I Love Lucy could ever be guilty of anything other than abject hilarity. The case against the show is hereby tossed out of court.
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