After all the nice things I said about Lucille Ball, how could I not come back to her at least one more time? It’s been forty-five shows on this blog since we last saw Lucy, but this is the last series I intend to review of hers. Mostly, I was intrigued, because every show she was in was successful except for this one. After “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” (which was essentially the end of “I Love Lucy”), Lucy went on to make another show with Vivian Vance (who played Ethel) called “The Lucy Show”, and after that successful run, she made another show with her son and daughter called “Here’s Lucy”, which was another success. So what happened? Let’s find out with “Life with Lucy”.
“Life with Lucy” (LL for short) aired just eight episodes in 1986 before being cancelled, with five more finished episodes that never aired, and even a script for an episode beyond that that was never made. The show centered around the McGibbon family, with Lucy being their widowed maternal grandmother, and Gale Gordon (known for playing Mr. Mooney in “The Lucy Show”) as the widowed paternal grandfather. Lucy’s late husband and Gale’s character, Curtis, had co-owned a hardware store, so Lucy took over when her husband died, and despite Curtis and Lucy’s constant bickering, Lucy remained co-owner of the store. Lucy and Curtis both lived with their married children, who had two young children of their own. It followed the popularity of family shows in the 1980s, while also trying to entertain a live audience with Lucy’s same old comedy style.
Where the show went wrong I think is Lucy’s unchanging style. That may sound like a good thing, since that’s the style that audiences adored in “I Love Lucy”, but the difference was Lucy’s age. This may also sound contradictory, since “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy” both were hugely successful, even though Lucy had aged twenty years from the premiere of “I Love Lucy” to the end of “Here’s Lucy”. But first of all, her shows were all virtually back-to-back, meaning that as her style became more limited due to her age, the audience didn’t notice the limitations happening because they were happening in real time, if that makes sense. It wasn’t a decades-long gap between shows, so the audiences had no nostalgia to disappoint. However, the gap between “Here’s Lucy” and LL was twelve years, which isn’t alot in the world of TV, but at Lucy’s age, it made quite a difference.
Second, Lucy set up her shows to hide her age and limitations on physical comedy, even though they were all in front of live audiences. In “I Love Lucy”, Lucy was a housewife with no job, so she was free to do whatever mischief she happened to get into. In “The Lucy Show”, though still young and free to do her stunts, she set herself up as a widow who had to work to provide for the family, thus limiting her movements should she ever need to; the house and the office were nice, closed spaces, each with their obstacles to make stunts seem bigger than they were: the children at home or the desk at the office. It was a smart move, since the show lasted for six years, and both Vivian Vance and Lucy were older by the time it was over. Again, in “Here’s Lucy”, the format was focused on being relevant, so the show was just as much about Lucy’s children as it was about her. And again, Lucy was a working widow, this time in a department store, so there were plenty of obstacles to augment the comedy.
But in LL, Lucy played a retired grandmother, and although she worked in the hardware store, she felt no obligation to, and she didn’t know a thing about hardware anyway, which left Curtis to do most of the work. So there was no constant set with obstacles to exaggerate jokes or objects to hide behind. This gave freedom to have episodes in which Lucy didn’t work in the store as much as was desired, but Lucy’s twelve-year absence from TV, along with her unchanged but now quite-limited style of comedy, drove the audiences away.
The show had several scenes with the other family members, but it never really felt like it was about the family. There was never a plot that focused on someone other than Lucy. And Lucy continued to try her physical comedy, but it wasn’t as brilliant as anyone remembered. In a way, Lucy did herself in, by hiring back as much of the original “I Love Lucy” crew as she could, including writing duo Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis, even turning down the MASH writers. But when you have the same writers writing the same jokes that they did for the same person, you kind of can’t help but get twenty- or thirty-something stunts for someone in their late seventies. Lucy couldn’t do it the way she used to, and the show was scrapped.
Personally, I enjoyed “Life with Lucy”. It’s alot better than most content on television nowadays, especially in the pitifully lacking sitcom genre. But it’s understandable why audiences wouldn’t want a lesser version of what a character used to be, trying too hard to be the young person she was thirty-five years prior. What do you think?