Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Life With Lucy: The Complete Series



It is said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I have now examined Life with Lucy, and it is definitely a life not worth watching. Misguided, almost doomed from the beginning, Life with Lucy veered far from its intended course. Yet did it have to be this way? 

First, a quick summary of the show's premise. Recent widow and health food nut Lucy Barker (Lucille Ball) has decided to move in with her daughter Margo's (Ann Dusenberry) family. That would mean moving in with Margo, her husband Ted (Larry Anderson) and their children Becky (Jenny Lewis) and Kevin (Philip J. Amelio, II). She is also the co-owner of a hardware store, along with Ted's father Curtis (Gale Gordon). Along with their employee Leonard (Donovan Scott), Lucy inevitably gets into one set of hijinks after another. 

Now, a ranking of the Life with Lucy episodes from Best to Worst, including the five unaired episodes finally released on DVD (marked with an asterisk).

That two of the best and worst Life with Lucy episodes were unaired says something about the wildly fluctuating quality of the show.

As I think on the premise, I think Life with Lucy might have worked as a series of specials or a stage play. That way, we could get a series of comedy bits, put in some drama, and then get out. Instead, turning this into a weekly television series creates two problems. First is trying to come up with one premise after another for twenty-plus episodes. The second is trying to come up with one premise after another that the cast can participate in.

If we look at past Lucille Ball sitcoms, you will see that the cast for each was relatively small. I Love Lucy had four principle cast members, five if you count Keith Thibodeux (then billed as Richard Keith) as Little Ricky. The Lucy Show eventually whittled down to primarily two (Ball and Gale Gordon), after Vivian Vance opted to leave and the children of the Ball and Vance characters were written out. Here's Lucy had mostly four cast members (along with Ball and Gordon were Ball's real-life children Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucie Arnaz).

Life with Lucy had an astonishing seven characters. There were simply too many characters for such a small amount of time. With such a large group of people, it was all but impossible to fit everyone in. You could not cut out Ball or Gordon, so you were left with the family. I would have pushed vociferously to cut the character of Leonard out altogether. Yes, the hardware store needed employees, but there were issues with Leonard. He was the sole employee, or at least the sole employee ever seen working at the store. It made no sense to have one employee. He could never fit into the family dynamic. A couple of times Life with Lucy shoehorned him into family matters, but it ended up making less sense.

Moreover, Leonard was just annoying. The pratfalls, the exaggerated announcer voice and overall useless of the character took away from everything and everyone.

Not that the rest of the cast was any better, at least acting-wise. While Lewis as Becky had some good moments and was probably the best of the cast (the Becky-centric episode Lucy is a Sax Symbol being a standout for Lewis), the rest were in one word, horrendous. Once can cut Lewis and Amelio some slack given they were kids. 

Some slack. 

Dusenberry and Anderson, however, get no such reprieve. 

There is just no getting around it: both were simply awful as Margo and Ted. Their acting rarely if ever rose above community theater level. At times, there was almost a sense of desperation to their performances, as if both knew Life with Lucy was terrible and they wanted out. To be fair, Dusenberry had one good moment, a dramatic scene in Love Among the Two-By-Fours that worked well. Other moments, like Lucy, Legal Beagle and the pilot episode One Good Grandparent Deserves Another were simply ghastly. 

Anderson was just there.

As I think on the large cast, I'm reminded of how the early years of The Facts of Life also had an unwieldly large cast, forcing the producers to whittle the cast down to five. That could be done there, but on Life with Lucy? How to pare down a scenario like Life with Lucy? You going to kill off the family?

At least you could kill off Leonard. He was absent in one episode (Lucy and Curtis Are Up a Tree) and sometimes is in just one scene (Lucy is a Sax Symbol, Mother of the Bride). The show should either have been set at home or at work. Trying for both never worked. You might not have placed Lucy and Curtis in a retirement home (though that would be logical), but you could have opted to drop the hardware store. Why not make them employees of the hardware store, or have them volunteer at some senior center or other facility? That would provide an alternative setting that could cut out the family or the center when needed. 

No doubt the hardware store was created to allow for physical comedy. However, not only was the physical comedy obvious but also less funny and more frightening. In One Good Grandparent Deserves Another, there is a simply horrifying scene where, albeit accidentally, Lucy comes close to strangling Curtis. I was not laughing. I was fearing for his life.

That physical comedy leads to another issue with the show. One of Life with Lucy's greatest issues is how the show simply refused to adapt to the times. The writers, especially Ball's longtime writing team of Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davies, were writing for a character that no longer existed. Many of the antics that Life with Lucy's Lucy Barker got into were for someone in her 30's to 40's. Lucille Ball, sad to say, was simply too old for what they had the character do.

I want to make clear that Lucille Ball was still quite agile and could handle the dialogue and physical comedy quite well. I do not want to come across as ageist in my ideas about Ball. However, a lot of physical comedy on Life with Lucy came across as more dangerous than endearing. One scene in Lucy Gets Her Wires Crossed involves her failed efforts to fix a reclining chair. Inevitably, the results are disastrous, with the chair thrashing about and flinging the occupant hither and yon. With a younger person, say someone in his/her 40s, that might be funny. When a 77-year-old does it, it looks deadly. 

It is hard to laugh at physical comedy when you fear for the comedian/comedienne's life. 

Curiously, the age issue pops up again in an unexpected way. Near the end of the series, Lucy either forgets something (like the formula for a health drink that ends up being a temporarily successful fertilizer) or makes a ghastly mistake (such as ordering too many lawnmowers due to her inability to use a computer). Both unintentionally reinforce the stereotype of seniors as having poor memory or being inept with technology. 

It was safe, and easy, and ultimately cheap, to make Lucy into this senior klutz. Intended as wacky, her Lucy Barker came across as combination senile and nut job. Naivete and cluelessness are fine, even amusing and endearing. When it comes from someone who is in her seventies, her total unawareness of how organizing a store in alphabetical order makes her look either insane or thoroughly stupid. 

As a side note, the "Lucy is obsessed with health" bit was pointless. It was a way to get some awful reactions from horrified family forced to drink her latest grotesque concoction. Apart from that, it added nothing to the show or the character. 

Life with Lucy did not have to crash and burn. Some major work could have saved it from being the fiasco it turned out to be. Not film it in front of a studio audience (the wild cheers for her entrance just set Ball up for failure, giving her a false sense of success). Dump the hardware store. Dump Leonard. Ditch some of the family (make Margo a single girl or even Lucy's granddaughter). Set up a foil or partner in crime in the Vivian Vance style. 

Lucy, Legal Beagle had a great character in Dena Dietrich's Hilda Loomis. She was a sharp antagonist to Lucy Barker to where it might have been nice to see her face off against Lucy. Maybe an antagonistic neighbor or senior citizens center rival? Audrey Meadows' guest spot in Mother of the Bride allowed for an equally strong antagonist. I know there was talk of asking her to join the cast in a second season. That would not have worked for two reasons.

First is that the heavy cast would increase more. Inevitably the family would have to go by the wayside, a tough act with the family premise set up already. Second, in an interview to promote the show, Ball was asked about having a female foil, with the late Vance's name brought up. With tears coming close to falling, Ball replied she could not consider having a female partner in crime without Vance. It is a touching and sad admission. 

Maybe at that point, Ball should have realized there should be no Life with Lucy

It is a terrible shame for Ball to have Life with Lucy on her résumé. It won't eclipse her great and groundbreaking work on I Love Lucy. It will be an embarrassment to be sure. However, time softens all things. In due course, Life with Lucy will be hopefully seen as a curious blip, a strange interlude to an extraordinary legacy.

So long as you do not watch Lucy and the Guard Goose.

Well, at least the Life with Lucy theme song was good.

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