Thursday, March 7, 2013

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.

Curiously, for a writing team that had literally decades of experience and success, Carroll and Davis missed a good opportunity for genuine laughs. Curtis is so appalled at the thought of Lucy living with his son and his family that he willingly drinks the health concoction that Lucy has whipped up. We the audience know that it tastes awful because we've seen the family save Curtis react to it. Even Lucy winced after taking a swig. 

Curtis, however, did not know that it was disgusting. Therefore, the gag of him chugging the drink in a quasi-suicide manner does not work. It would have been funnier if he had first tasted it and found it appalling. That way, when he hears what he thinks is awful news, his guzzling would have sold the bit of his metaphorical wish to die. As written and acted in One Good Grandparent Deserves Another, the gag falls flat.

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. The television audience, conversely, 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 was not funny to begin with. What the scene ends up becoming is an almost horrifying spectacle. 

Adding things to make Life With Lucy more perplexing is what is supposed 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. 

Another weak point of Life With Lucy was the acting apart from the veterans.  Ball still shows she can handle the physical comedy. She was thoroughly game for things, and Ball never phoned it in. She gave it her all, working to sell Lucy Barker's eccentric fixation with awful-tasting health drinks and overall wackiness.

Gordon actually manages to outshine Ball in his droll delivery and flustered frustration. Curtis' mix of fussiness and pomposity works well. Gordon makes Curtis into perhaps the most sane person there, though one line was rather tasteless. As he starts presenting Hawaii vacation gifts to everyone, there is one person he left out. "I'm sorry, Lucille," he tells her. "It's just that I don't think of you as family". Gordon tries to sell this cringe line with sincerity, but it does not work. Curtis may dislike Lucy, but even he would know such a line would be hurtful, and Curtis is harsh, maybe snobbish, but not deliberately cruel.

Ball and Gordon, when together, are still strong. It is almost 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. To be fair, on watching the episode again, I think Lewis did the best as Becky. She was also working to make the premise work, and her line reading was effective. One can forgive the late Amelio* for his 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 had been dragged out of a community theater production an hour prior and thrown onto the set.  Neither of them appeared to believe in any of the script and behaved like rank amateurs. Their joint performances were so broad as to almost reveal that they knew One Good Grandparent Deserves Another was junk and they were just grateful they were getting paid for it.

Laugh, but the world cried for you...
As for Scott, he seems to just be there. He is more plot device than genuine character, as if the Life With Lucy production staff felt that having just Ball and Gordon at the store would not work. Granted, the hardware store would need employees, but Scott's Leonard really had little to do at the store or in the plot. I think Scott did his best but he embodies what did not work here.

The main interplay is between Ball's Lucy Barker and Gordon's Curtis McGibbon. Everyone else seems to be there.

Finally, what made One Good Grandparent Deserves Another such a bizarre, even sad thing to watch is that the audience simply should have known better. I think they were just thrilled to see Ball and Gordon together again. Nostalgia is a heck of a drug.

They both received extended and excited 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. Listen, however, to the laugh track and the dialogue, and one will find that the laughs are few and far between. My sense is that if Life With Lucy had been a play or a touring show, it would have been slightly better. The physical comedy might still have been frightening for people. However, at least it would have relieved the burden of coming up with a continuing set of situations to put everyone through.

The material wasn't there.  The performances save for Ball and Gordon weren't there.  The scenario was not allowed to build up. Why, for example, was Curtis so hostile towards Lucy? How is it that Lucy's late husband and Curtis ended up business partners? If that's the case, Curtis must have known what Lucy was like.  

Perhaps One Good Grandparent Deserves Another was just a bad fluke. To be fair, 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). I wouldn't say it's as bad as that, but if One Good Grandparent Deserves Another is anything to go by, Life With Lucy is a sour note on which to end a brilliant career.

This Life is not worth examining...

Life With Lucy has not been released on DVD.  Truth be told, I wouldn't mind owning it**. It would be nice to see what a debacle it truly is.

Lucy, did you READ the scripts?


Next Episode: Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter         

* Amelio died suddenly in 2005 at age 27 due to a bacterial infection. 
** Since the original post, Life With Lucy has been released on DVD. I now will review each episode.

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