Virtually unrecognizable from its first few seasons, when The Lucy Show (1962-68) was about a Danfield, New York widow, Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball), sharing a big house with her two children, a divorced friend (Vivian Vance) and her son, the Official Sixth and Final Season finds Lucy a single if decidedly middle-aged, star-struck birdbrain ensconced in Southern California apartment and working for stingy, stuffy banker Theodore J. Mooney (Gale Gordon). What began as a slightly subtler, certainly more domesticated sitcom gradually gave way to "skit-com" slapstick, with The Lucy Show's final two seasons especially becoming a revolving door of big-name Hollywood guest stars.
Just as I Love Lucy was never quite the same the moment William Holden set Lucy Ricardo's putty Pinocchio-like nose aflame, The Lucy Show "jumped the shark," even earlier though, oddly, audiences not only didn't seem to mind, a big ratings bump strongly suggested that's how they loved Lucy best. Lucy's wild-eyed obsession with Hollywood's elite might have proved limiting for Ball's team of writers, but audiences couldn't get enough, so it seemed. In this, its final season, The Lucy Show garnered its highest ratings ever, ranking #2 among all primetime shows that season, and for which Ball was awarded her second consecutive Emmy Award, against much younger competition.
I didn't much care for The Lucy Show in my youth, having endured it endlessly in reruns during the 1970s when television viewers had far fewer viewing options. Looking at it now, all these decades later, I'm more forgiving of its conceptual laziness and found myself enjoying watching guests stars like Jack Benny, Edie Adams, Joan Crawford, and Frankie Avalon clown for obviously appreciative studio audiences, and, by golly, I found myself laughing out loud a couple of times most episodes.
It helps that these Paramount/CBS video transfers are so good, and that they're supported by a ton of extra features, all of it coordinated with the assistance of Ball's image-conscious estate. (Thomas Watson, in tiny type, is credited as the DVD set's executive producer. DVD labels should be less stingy giving credit where credit is due.)
The Lucy Show's seismic story shifts reflect its rather tumultuous history. Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn (Pugh) Martin, veteran writers on I Love Lucy, left after the show after the second season, with like-minded scribes Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller, also of I Love Lucy, following soon after. Ball's ex-husband (and savvy television producer) Desi Arnaz, was still one-half of Desilu when The Lucy Show began and by all accounts was a substantial part of its early success. When he left the company in 1963, Elliott Lewis and Jack Donohue took over in turn, but for the last season Ball's famously less-talented current husband, stand-up comedian Gary Morton became The Lucy Show's executive producer, though probably Ball was really running the show.
It was a busy time for Desilu. During The Lucy Show's early seasons the company's main source of revenue was renting out the many stages and backlot space Lucy and Desi purchased from RKO - two big lots in Hollywood and Culver City - bought back in the 1950s. But beginning in 1966 Desilu was producing two very expensive hour-long dramas: Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. At the time Star Trek wasn't doing so hot ratings-wise, but Mission: Impossible was a huge critical and commercial hit, and Ball made the wise financial decision to sell Desilu to Gulf+Western, a conglomerate that had recently acquired Paramount Pictures, Desilu's next-door neighbor on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.
In another amazing shrewd commercial decision, Ball ended The Lucy Show, reworking it as Here's Lucy in order to retain ownership and control of the sitcom in which she'd star. Here's Lucy ran another six years.
More than half of these Lucy Shows feature Hollywood stars, usually but not always playing themselves. "Lucy Meets the Berles," the season opener, is a typical example, with Lucy moonlighting (as she illogically often did) as a secretary to Uncle Miltie, who's taking a break from comedy in order to produce his first picture. He wants to cast a reluctant Ruta Lee and Lucy, overhearing her script reading over an intercom, mistakenly believes the two are having a torrid love affair. Though only mildly amusing, it's nonetheless fun to watch Lucy and Berle playing to the studio audience, with Lee and Mrs. Berle almost breaking up on-camera a la The Carol Burnett Show.
Ball, ever the canny manager of her shows, had a standing agreement to trade off appearances with the biggest stars. For instance, after Carol Burnett appeared on The Lucy Show, Ball returned the favor by guesting on Burnett's new comedy-variety series. Clearly, scripts were also tailor-made to stroke the egos of Hollywood royalty. That Lucy Carmichael made such a fuss (all, invariably, were her "all-time favorite") helped, but the lengths the writers obviously went to lure big names is also sometimes hilarious and obvious.
In "Lucy and the Lost Star," for example, Joan Crawford appears. In an opening scene, Crawford's agent informs her that one particular studio is just dying to sign her, and for good money, too, because the public is just clamoring "for new Joan Crawford pictures!" In 1968? Shlockmeister producer Herman Cohen, maybe - but all of Hollywood?
That episode garnered a certain amount of infamy due to Crawford's reported drunkenness during rehearsals, her feuding with Ball, and Ball's unsuccessful attempts to replace her (with Gloria Swanson), but the final show, in which Ball and guest star Vivian Vance wrongly assuming the Great Star is destitute and try to reinvigorate her career, is legitimately funny on its own terms.
Besides regulars and semi-regulars like Mary Jane Croft, Mary Wickes, Doris Singleton, Lew Parker, and Roy Roberts, the star-studded guest star list this season also includes Jacques Bergerac, Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Robert Goulet, Dick Shawn, Richard Arlen, Charles "Buddy" Rogers," Vivian Vance (two episodes), Jackie Coogan, Edie Adams, Buddy Hackett, Phil Harris, Ken Berry, Ralph Story, and Sid Caesar. About half are "celebrity" shows. Barbara Babcock, Lucie Arnaz, and Gerald Mohr also make appearances.
Video & Audio
As with all (official) Lucy-related DVD releases, The Lucy Show - Official Sixth and Final Season looks splendid in its original full-frame format, strong color and sharpness throughout, with 24 episodes spread over four single-sided, dual layered DVDs. Episode titles with brief descriptions and airdates are offered as part of the packaging. The English-only mono, with optional SDH English subtitles, sounds great, too.
Supplements include an okay sketch with Ball, Tim Conway, and Carol Burnett from the latter's comedy-variety series; a black and white clip from Ball's Emmy Award win and her sincere acceptance speech; outtakes; costume sketches, vintage openings and closing (with sponsor spots, permission for which is duly noted); extensive production notes, less extensive cast bios, and photo galleries; and one episode, "Lucy Gets Her Diploma," also offered in an Italian-dubbed version with Italian credits.
Not really a classic of television comedy but for its guest stars, excellent home video transfers, mountain of extra features, and even for some of the comedy itself, The Lucy Show - Official Sixth and Final Season is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.