Thursday, March 7, 2013

Life With Lucy: One Good Grandparent Deserves Another

Life With Lucy:
One Good Grandparent Deserves Another

Lucy Dropped The Ball

Life With Lucy is the Star Wars Holiday Special for Lucille Ball fans: an embarrassment that tarnishes a legitimate icon and pioneer of television.  This was Ball's fourth television series, but what was meant as a triumphant comeback for the Queen of Comedy turned into a fiasco of epic proportions. I Love Lucy was a beloved series, and Ball's follow-ups The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy were respectable and funny, catering to family audiences who delighted in the "Lucy" character befuddling her stuffy counterpart, both times played by Gale Gordon.  Neither The Lucy Show or Here's Lucy took away from her status or added anything iconic, but they are still amusing if at times, dated. 

Life With Lucy, on the other hand, simply coasted on the "Lucy" legend. One Good Grandparent Deserves Another, the premiere episode, should have told the audience and the production crew, both in front and behind the camera, that it just wasn't going to work.

Health-obsessed senior Lucy Barker (Ball) has moved in with her daughter Margo McGibbon (Ann Dusenberry), her son-in-law Ted (Larry Anderson) and their kids Becky (Jenny Lewis) and Kevin (Phillip J. Amelio, II). Recently widowed, Lucy is also the co-owner of a hardware store with Ted's father Curtis (Gale Gordon), having inherited her share from her late husband. Curtis is none-too-thrilled to have Lucy, whom he has a barely concealed contempt for, take a greater interest in the store. He is also horrified when he learns that she's made 'improvements' to the store, his sole employee Leonard (Donavan Scott) never stopping "Mrs. B" from her oddball shenanigans.

At the store, Lucy shows off her improvements, such as putting all the items in alphabetical order. She then shows off two other items to a shocked Curtis. The first is an industrial-size fire extinguisher, the second is a pasta maker.  Needless to say, both were used in the episode to disastrous, almost deadly, results.  

At the end of One Good Grandparent Deserves Another, Curtis storms into Ted and Margo's home. Insisting that he won't allow his grandkids to be overseen by this menace of a woman, he informs everyone that he too is moving in with Ted and Margo. The adults react in various ways: Margo somewhat thrilled, Ted horrified, Lucy a mix.  

It is unfair to blame either Ball or Gordon for the failure of Life With Lucy in general and One Good Grandparent Deserves Another specifically. Both of them are still surprisingly agile and have great timing for being 75 and 80 (Ball and Gordon respectively). Gordon in particular shows he still has a great delivery to all his lines, even if they are terribly inferior.

The failure of One Good Grandparent Deserves Another and Life With Lucy, however, is spread all around. The first part of the blame goes to the script. It is almost astonishing that Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis, the creative writers who were behind some of I Love Lucy's greatest moments, could have come up with such abysmal material.  Then again, perhaps it isn't a surprise.  

Sometimes television writers can end up just copying themselves, repeating the same story without realizing it. What was new, fresh, and original in the 1950s simply wouldn't go in 1986.  The Golden Girls was the Number One show at the time Life With Lucy premiered. While both shows featured older women, the former was contemporary, unafraid to talk about such things as their sex lives, prescription and gambling addiction, and difficulties with being parent or grandparents. 

Life With Lucy, on the other hand, would not accept the fact that both television and the world had changed since Eisenhower was first inaugurated.  Even the audience understood this; when the industrial-sized fire extinguisher was revealed for example, there was already laughter from the audience. It is as if the audience knew what was coming, with the large fire extinguisher being the Chekov's Gun for a surprisingly unfunny bit. 

Good comedy can come from expectation, but nothing so patently obvious.

Even worse, no one wanted to acknowledge the two leads' ages when coming up with these gags.  There were surprisingly few laughs when Ball crashes into Gordon's nose while rolling on a ladder. I think it is the sight of these two elderly people in dangerous situations that makes things almost frightening. Leaving aside how we know that the rolling ladders were going to be part of a physical comedy bit, the muted studio audience reaction here should have told everyone involved in Life With Lucy that such sight gags would elicit more gasps than giggles. 

One horrifying scene involves that pasta maker. Lucy, in her inevitable way, gets Curtis' tie caught in the device. As she prattles on, oblivious to Curtis' understandably growing terror, the studio audience might have been chuckling, but the television audience would have gasped in terror.  As she keeps demonstrating the pasta maker, she keeps grinding his tie, pulling him closer and closer to strangulation. Perhaps in the past, we might have been laughing.  In One Good Grandparent Deserves Another, you end up thinking, "My God, she's going to kill him". 

This scene is no longer funny. To be fair, it  becomes an almost horrifying spectacle.

Another simply inexplicable aspect of Life With Lucy was the acting.  Ball still shows she can handle the physical comedy and Gordon actually manages to outshine the Queen of Comedy.   It's everyone else who is simply horrible. 

Perhaps Peter Baldwin just directed everyone to basically just stand there and say the words on the script (or in Ball's case, the cue cards).  However, One Good Grandparent Deserves Another has such a broad style of performing that it almost ends up a series of muggings for the camera.  One can forgive Lewis and the late Amelio (the youngest cast member dying suddenly at age 27 from a bacterial infection) for bad line reading.  Children can use their age as an excuse. 

Dusenberry and Anderson, however, have no such recourse.  They were simply awful in this episode: wildly overacting and behaving as though they were practically dragged out of a community theater production and thrown onto the set.  Neither of them appeared to believe in any of the script and behaved like rank amateurs. 

Laugh, but the world cried for you...
Finally, what made OGGDA such a bizarre, even sad thing to watch is that the audience simply should have known better.  Ball and Gordon received extended ovations merely by showing up.  They didn't do anything to merit such lavish applause; they just appeared.  Even worse, gags like the pasta maker and the extinguisher received great applause when they just weren't funny.

The audience appeared to give Ball and Gordon great love (which their careers certainly had earned) but if one listens to the laugh track and the dialogue, one will find that the laughs are few and far between. 

The material wasn't there.  The performances (save for Ball and Gordon) weren't there.  The scenario was not allowed to build up (why exactly was Curtis so hostile to Lucy?).  Adding things to make Life With Lucy more perplexing is what is suppose to make Lucy Barker so endearing.  WHY would someone in her seventies arrange the hardware store in alphabetical order?  It doesn't make her look scatterbrained, it makes her look senile, almost insane.

Life With Lucy has not been released on DVD.  Truth be told, I wouldn't mind owning it.  As a Lucille Ball fan I enjoy her work.  Perhaps One Good Grandparent Deserves Another was just a bad fluke (although I suspect that succeeding episodes were more suited for the 1960s than the 1980s).  Life With Lucy might have worked perhaps as a special.  It might have worked if the creative team behind the series (Ball, her husband Gary Morton, producer Aaron Spelling) had reworked it to adapt to the times or give the Lucy Barker character a partner in crime a la Vivian Vance. 

However, Life With Lucy didn't work.  It was listed as the 21st Dumbest Television Moment in Television History in David Hofstede's book What Were They Thinking? along such television barbarisms as the Star Trek Season Three opener Spock's Brain (ironically produced by Ball's Desilu Studios), Pink Lady & Jeff (the entire series), the Snow White/Rob Lowe opening number from the 62th Annual Academy Awards, the "It Was All a Dream" season of Dallas, and the Star Wars Holiday Special.  I wouldn't say it's as bad as any of those debacles, but truly, Life With Lucy is a sour note on which to end a brilliant career.
This Life is not worth examining...

Lucy, did you READ the scripts?


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