Judge Bill Gibron Lucy [Fill in the blank with any phrases from this list: idolizes, dotes on, glorifies, venerates]
Our reviews of The Best Of I Love Lucy (published June 29th, 2011), I Love Lucy: The Complete Second Season (published December 1st, 2004), 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: If some other woman was to take Fred away from you, you'd be singing a
Whenever a television program fiddles with the formula that made it successful, it runs the risk of rejection. Fans enjoy the comfort of familiarity and don't cotton to corrections in cast, tone, or circumstances. Usually, the re-imagining comes in the form of matrimony or paternity, the social salvos to any long-term interpersonal involvement. Yet writers don't understand how such human parameters change the way viewers see their favorite characters. The sexual tension between sitcom leads instantly dries up the minute they commit to each other in an orthodox, consecrated manner, and the introduction of new life into a living arrangement signals responsibilities and retribution that are either harsh, hackneyed, or far too close to home.
Of course, when the producers of I Love Lucy decided to incorporate the birth of their stars' second child into the series, there was none of this fidgeting and worry. Back in the beginning days of the medium, such retrofitting was rare. Shows allowed the natural course of events to dictate their decisions, not some focus group falderal. Still, it had to seem a daunting task for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as they prepared for the third season of their wildly successful sitcom. The pressure was on to find a way of incorporating the child, to be named Little Ricky, into the storyline without it overshadowing what made the show a hit in the first place. Amazingly, they handled the challenge with the right amount of deftness and daring, not to mention the daffy.
Indeed, Season Three of I Love Lucy, new to DVD from Paramount, is another monumental outing for what is arguably one of the greatest comedy shows of all time. Making the baby as important as any other ancillary cast member, and adding the family dynamic to a concept already ripe with wacky situations, the series actually survived and thrived thanks to this reality-based revision. As Little Ricky grew and started to steal some of the scenes himself (most in Season Five), the fabulous foursome of Ball, Arnaz, Frawley, and Vance really had a new equal addition to deal with. But Season Three proves that, sometimes, a show can endure even the most radical changes as long as you've got something classic to begin with, and I Love Lucy was and is just that—classic TV comedy.
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 12 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. Having recently had a baby, though, puts a new spin on everything. Lucy is even more desperate to prove her worth as an artist. She doesn't want her child, Little Ricky, growing up thinking her mother was merely a housewife.
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 Seasons One and Two, the Ricardos and the Mertzes found themselves in all manner of messes. Season Three is no different as we experience 31 installments of insanity, I Love Lucy style. Individually, the plots that play out are as follows:
• "Ricky's 'Life' Story"
• "The Girls Go Into Business"
• "Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress"
• "Equal Rights"
• "Baby Pictures"
• "Lucy Tells the Truth"
• "The French Revue"
• "Redecorating the Mertzes' Apartment"
• "Too Many Crooks"
• "Changing the Boys Wardrobe"
• "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined"
• "Ricky's Old Girlfriend"
• "The Million Dollar Idea"
• "Ricky Minds the Baby"
• "The Charm School"
• "Sentimental Anniversary"
• "Fan Magazine Interview"
• "Oil Wells"
• "Ricky Loses His Temper"
• "Home Movies"
• "Bonus Bucks"—When Ricky locates a dollar that has a contest's winning numbers, he secretly gives it to Lucy. She uses it to pay the grocery boy. Hijinks ensue.
• "Ricky's Hawaiian Vacation"
• "Lucy is Envious"
• "Lucy Writes a Novel"
• "Lucy's Club Dance"
• "The Black Wig"
• "The Diner"
• "Tennessee Ernie Visits"
• "Tennessee Ernie Hangs On"
• "The Golf Game"
• "The Sublease"
After a previous review by yours truly on Season Two, as well as some superb analysis by Judge Barry Maxwell on previous Season One sets, there's not a lot that needs to be said about I Love Lucy that wouldn't sound repetitious or redundant. That it was a great show, a classic sitcom, and a first of its kind in a lot of ways are just plain givens. No series lasts nearly six decades in syndication without having something universal and appealing to say to each new generation of possible fans, and no one did it better than Lucille Ball, husband Desi Arnaz, and co-stars William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Though later television comedies would challenge Lucy and her dominance as hilarity's top dog, it's hard to argue with such pratfall precision. Individuals coming to the show for the first time may notice that, unlike modern sitcoms, I Love Lucy is more concept than character driven. It is a true situation comedy, with narratives completely motivated by the unusual circumstances the Ricardos and the Mertzes find themselves in. While the individual characteristics of the participants—Ricky's haggard husband, Fred's crotchety old cootness, Ethel's steadfast friendship, and Lucy's ditzy delirium—are important, each episode actually lives or dies by the premise and the eventual implementation of same.
With the birth of Little Ricky, there was fear that such a family dynamic would dig into the Ricardos regular routines of the ridiculous. But unlike other shows that demanded the child become part of the machinery, I Love Lucy used a "seen and not heard" ideal for most of its post-pregnancy programs. Ricky would be brought out for a moment or two, recognized as part of the ancestral unit, and then shuffled into the background so that more merry mayhem could ensue. While it may seem odd that the most blessed event in the couple's life would end up as more or less an audience-friendly exclamation point for a scene or two, the truth is that children in television weren't the smart savants of today who appear, fresh from the womb, with an attitude and a tagline. No, I Love Lucy understood that, while the baby was cute, the series rode directly on the backs of its adult stars. That's why, with only three or four exceptions in Season Three, Little Ricky is never the main focus of the fun. No, it's the magnificent quartet of perfectly polished performers that make the madcap ideas the show slaps and sticks across the small screen work so well.
Not everyone could do what Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley, and Viviane Vance did. Indeed, if this were the case, we'd have hundreds of I Love Lucy variations ruling the television terrain today. No, what makes this combination of the loony and the loveable so potent is the amazing acting and the clockwork comedic timing of the entire cast. Loads of plaudits have been placed on Ball's bean, and rightfully so. She single-handedly keeps the show energized and alive. Arnaz is also a substantial straight man, specializing in the kind of double takes and facial mugging that feel both cartoonish and unforced. But perhaps the best actors in the entire run were also the most natural. Both William Frawley and Viviane Vance were old pros, stars of the stage long before Ball and Arnaz were known names. Frawley in particular is so wonderfully begrudging, more apt to whine his way out of an unpleasant situation than to say something formal or funny, that his unpredictability made Fred Mertz one of the best sidekicks ever. But Vance wins this war without even lifting a laugh line. While she does get her far share of gags, where she shines is in the role of reality checker. Indeed, Vance is us, the audience, cocking an uncertain eyebrow at every stupid scheme her best friend dreams up, furrowing her brow with every wisecrack made by her husband.
While it has been said before, it does bear repeating—Frawley and Vance are the keys to I Love Lucy's success and longevity. While never overshadowing the leads, their specific power lies in being the ideal complement, the comment or consequence of everything happening in the Ricardo household. The relationship between the couples is so close as to be paternal: at times, Vance is mother and Fred is father. Though it's hard to imagine Lucy and Ricky as "kids," this was an area often explored in I Love Lucy. Fred fought in the First World War and starred in vaudeville. Though 25 years his junior, Ethel gives off the aura of having been around the block a few times. They take the Ricardos' radiant optimism and channel it through a much more somber, serious set of eyes. While they are prone to their own peculiarities and outright ridiculousness, Fred and Ethel provide a kind of authenticity anchor to I Love Lucy. Without them, the program would appear to be the unbelievable misadventures of a fiery foreigner and his almost felonious spouse.
Yet somehow, they kept the balance right, and in the process, made TV history. With so much sensational sitcom silage to sift through, it is almost impossible to discuss each installment at length. It is also a Herculean task to pick out the absolute best episodes of I Love Lucy, in this, its third—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 Three:
#10. "The Black Wig"—Beginning with the physical comedy the show excelled in, Lucy's impersonation of an Italian actress is flawless. But it's the supposed "date" between Ricky and Fred and Lucy and Ethel (the gals in goofy disguise) that really sells this episode. The cultural combo platter Ms. Mertz is required to wear is a classic of sight gag goofiness.
#9. "Baby Pictures"—Proving it could be as verbally witty as visually crazy, this episode revolves around the by now passé notion of keeping up with the Jones' children. The exchanges between Lucy and Carolyn are classic, including one where the Appleby baby is given a sensational simian retort. A hilarious take on the bizarre behavior of parents.
#8. "Home Movies"—Since it was such a new medium, the idea of Ricky creating his own TV pilot via home movies seems sort of strange today. Thanks to the horrible western skit that Lucy and the gang conceive, plus the incredibly odd final product (a combination of Ricky's show, the hackneyed horse opera, and Little Ricky footage), the results are absolutely priceless.
#7. "Lucy is Envious"—Though the title doesn't hint at it, this is the episode where Lucy and Ethel dress like aliens as part of a publicity stunt. While such outlandish antics may seem corny by today's comedy standards, the execution is brilliant and proves why Ball and Vance were such a formidable pairing. This is where all future buddy comedies (Laverne and Shirley, et. al.) got their start.
#6. "Redecorating the Mertzes' Apartment"—Pure slapstick, perfectly planned and implemented. Perhaps the best bit is a very subtle, very skillful moment. Watch Lucy as she picks the feathers out of their air with lightning speed. Such physical grace and agility is what made these episodes so memorable and timeless.
#5. "Equal Rights"—From Ricky's ridiculous dinner order (Spaghetti…meatballs…and pizza) to the tableside grooming session between the men and the women, this is another solid outing. Though some of the topicality will be hopelessly dated for modern mentalities, this is a wonderful glimpse into the mid-'50s female mystique.
#4. "Lucy Tells the Truth"—Though it tends to tumble toward the end, this is a great premise pulled off flawlessly by the cast. The initial scenes, where Lucy is forced to confess some fairly embarrassing information, are utterly hilarious and some of her honesty-based comebacks are fantastic. It's just a shame that the ending couldn't continue the show's creative bent.
#3. "Lucy Writes a Novel"—Without a doubt, one of the series's finest moments. Lucy's desire to write a book is buffered by the total hatchet job she does on her husband and friends. With a wonderful denouement at the end, plus a plethora of cleverly written "passages," this installment of the show proves that I Love Lucy was more than just a ditzy dame constantly falling to the floor.
#2. "The Million Dollar Idea"—Giving Vivian Vance a chance to shine as fake home economist Mary Margaret McMertz is just one of the joys in this classic episode. Lucy does a variation on her insane vagrant routine (hobo clothing, boisterous voice), and the sequence where Ricky figures up the costs of each bottle of salad dressing is a wonderful bit for an otherwise unappreciated actor.
#1. "Ricky Loses His Temper"—This is a classic Ricky vs. Lucy battle bonanza. Trying to get him angry with an increasingly cruel set of stunts, our newly cool as a cucumber bandleader learns that staying calm has some sensational fringe benefits. Be on the lookout for the worst ventriloquist since Edgar Bergen. Why Ricky would want this kooky cowpoke in his show is one of I Love Lucy's own private mysteries.
There are other amazing moments in this season as well, from the capitalist spirit the Ricardos and the Mertzes show ("The Diner," "The Girls Go Into Business") to the exploration of other cultures ("The French Revue," "Ricky's Hawaiian Vacation"). There are some incredibly funny moments of cross-dressing ("Lucy's Club Dance"), unusual sports techniques ("The Golf Game"), and more bad hammy hilarity than should be allowed by the actor's union ("Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined"). What makes I Love Lucy great is its never-ending desire to entertain. Where some modern shows feel full after dishing out just a few choice jokes, Lucy and the gang deliver a volume of vitality so rich and ridiculous that you feel like you're overdosing on delight. Hundreds of years from now when historians are looking for reasons why TV became such a potent pop culture force, there is no doubt that the sitcom will be high on the list of contributing factors. If there is any justice, sitting side by side with such a sentiment will be the famous laced heart with those immortal words plastered across it in prosaic script. Always at the top of its game and never once floundering into utter failure, I Love Lucy is arguably, the greatest situation comedy of all time.
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 bare bones 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 exclusively 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 Phillip 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 samples that coincide with their broadcast equivalent), production notes (information and data about the series), and some behind-the-scene stories.
There are also deleted scenes, restored music, Spanish language versions of the shows, script excerpts, and promo spots for the series. 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 executed packages ever.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sorry, you fans of the formidable old pea picker, but Season Three features two of the LAMEST shows I Love Lucy ever attempted. While the use of actual celebrity guest stars was rare (it would pick up when the show moved to LA for Ricky's movie career and Europe for an massive world tour), Mr. "16 Tons" himself, Tennessee Ernie, makes an appearance in two of the later shows this season and, sadly, it's all hayseed and redneck humor. Now, if you love the farcical Ford, you will die for these rare comedic forays. The singer uses his thick as strap molasses accent to turn on the cornpone charm, and he's so over the top and mannered that he makes some of Lucy's larger than life tics seem subtle. It is just a personal thing with yours truly, no real salient statement on the series's otherwise stellar qualities. There is just something about a loud, lunkheaded hillbilly who looks like an Italian maitre 'd that just rubs this critic the wrong way.
No, Little Ricky's arrival didn't ruin I Love Lucy. As a matter of fact, it began a brainstorm that actually took hold of the series and never let go for several seasons. MGM would offer Ricky a contract at the start of Season Four, and the series moved to Hollywood for an extended look at life in the limelight for the Ricardos and Mertzes. Season Five focused on a trip to Europe, from the preparations back home to the culture shock (and celebrities) abroad. Indeed, it wouldn't be until Season Six—the show's last—when a more episodic format would be approached again (and even then, that series marked a long form storyline about a move to the country).
The birth of a baby proved two things to this stellar sitcom: first, any change would be met with delight, not despair; and second, as long as our leads were there to guide us through these new and unusual circumstances, everyone would gladly follow right along. While others have tried to copy its classic creativity, they've never been able to achieve its timelessness. I Love Lucy is the first and best sitcom of all time, and I Love Lucy: The Complete Third 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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