Debuting in 1951 and running six standard seasons, "I Love Lucy" is a television series that needs no formal introduction. Next to "The Honeymooners" it is THE go to example of the sitcom genre at its finest, inspiring many comedians over the years and imitators that pale in comparison. For the uninitiated or vaguely familiar, this collection of 14 episodes deemed the "best-of" the series, is a solid overview of what made "I Love Lucy" the number one show for four of its six seasons (and even then it debuted as number three and only dipped to number two once). Lucile Ball is the titular Lucy Ricardo, the often scatterbrained, pipe-dreaming wife of long-suffering entertainer Ricky (Ball's real-life husband Desi Arnaz). Often joining Lucy's schemes and shenanigans is Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) who like Ricky often draws the ire of her stick-in-the-mud, tightwad husband, Fred (William Frawley). Formula at its best, "I Love Lucy" draws from a relatively simple cache of story skeletons, but is elevated to legendary status by witty dialogue, no holds barred absurdity, crowd roaring appearances by major guest stars, and above all, the comedy brilliance of not just Ball herself, but the cast at large, who beneath the humor exhibit some of the best natural on-screen chemistry ever captured for TV.
Now any "best-of" release is sure to draw detractors, be it a musical release, an anthology of short stories, or in this case 14 (uncut) episodes of a beloved series. However, speaking from the viewpoint of a merely casual "I Love Lucy" fan, this release hits the right buttons. From standard early series episodes focused around the Ricardo household as well as Lucy's attempts to work her way into one of Ricky's shows, the release does a great job of showing the series at its best and giving viewers the most laughs for their dollar. Midway through the release, two-episodes are devoted to a hallmark moment in "I Love Lucy" history, the announcement of and eventual birth of Little Ricky, which has whether one likes to admit it or not, inspired every whacky hospital birth episode that followed. The latter half of the release has a heavier focus on the Ricardo's and Mertzes abroad: LA, Paris, Rome, and trains become the locales to provide fresh comedic stomping ground for the cast, as well as allow more reasons for great cameos and guest appearances.
The Ballet, The Freezer, Lucy Does a TV Commercial (aka Vitameatavegamin), Job Switching (aka The Chocolate Factory), Lucy is Enceinte, Lucy Goes to the Hospital, LA at Last, Lucy Gets in Pictures, Harpo Marx, The Great Train Robbery, Bon Voyage, Paris at Last, Lucy Gets a Paris Gown, Lucy's Italian Movie (aka Grape Stomping)
By and large, the iconic moments of the series are tackled. You name it, this release likely has it: Vitameatavegamin, The Chocolate Factory, Grape Stomping, and the famous guest spot by Harpo Marx are all present and just as funny as you remember. However, getting to view these moments in the context of their episodes at large is a very rewarding experience, allowing the series to once again show it's much more than iconic highlights and the build-ups to these moments forever burned in our brains are worthy of our time and laughter. A lot of the fun from a personal level came from watching the evolution of the on-screen chemistry. Strong to begin with, by the end of the collection, it was flawless. The famous "Harpo Marx" episode begins with Lucy and Ricky arguing over Lucy's absurd, but at this point unsurprising, requests for access to movie stars. As quickly as Lucy can fire off a request or complaint, Ricky denies her without batting an eye, sprinkling in a few snarky one-liners for good measure. These little character moments are what becomes forgotten when the credits roll and the discs are back in their case, but without them, the show would have been nothing.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is incredibly clean looking, with tremendous clarity and balanced contrast. This is how a 60-year old TV show should look and a huge step-up from countless cable re-runs.
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack won't wow anyone from a sound design standpoint, but like the image, it's a clean, crisp affair. Distortion is kept to a minimum as is standard aged audio hiss. A Spanish mono soundtrack is included as well as Spanish subtitles.
For the hardcore "I Love Lucy" fans, this release will either serve as a necessary addition for the completeist, or a waste of time. However, directed at the viewing public at large, it's a solid, attractive release that satisfies the appetite for the classic series without the investment into the complete series set. My only quibble is the batch of episodes selected only span years one through five, ignoring season six as well as the "unofficial" seasons seven through nine, which consisted of the spotty "Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" specials. Frankly, I'd have loved to have seen the premiere episode from that program as it featured a memorable guest spot by Cesar Romero and was essentially the Lucy/Ricky origin story. Equally fun was a trip to Mexico that resulted in one of my fondest "I Love Lucy" guest roles, the incomparable Maurice Chevalier. Quibbles aside, I laughed at the very least twice in every episode in this collection, a testament to the series' enduring legacy. Highly Recommended.