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Sunday, July 5, 2009


Seeing Lucy and Viv climbing up onto the roof of their two-storey house to put up a TV antenna just seems to activate some primal response of giddy nostalgia in me. Sure, I love shows like "The Simpsons" and "Married with Children", but after years of seeing the traditional sitcom being deconstructed all to hell, it's nice to go back to basics and watch the real thing every once in a while. "The Lucy Show", needless to say, is definitely the real thing, a prime example of pure, cornball situation comedy with only one goal--to make us laugh--and every episode pays off like a slot machine.

THE LUCY SHOW: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON gives us the first thirty of those episodes on four discs, looking just about as good as they did when the show hit the airwaves back in 1962. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, it was the second TV collaboration between (now former) husband-and-wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball after their long-running classic "I Love Lucy." Desi executive-produced the first fifteen episodes, making sure the show got off to a well-nurtured start before bowing out and leaving Lucy in charge of Desilu Studios, making her the first woman since Mary Pickford to fulfill such a position.

The show was filmed like a stage play before a live audience, using the same three-camera method pioneered by Desi and giving it a fast-paced, immediate quality. (Other series such as "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would use the three-camera method as well, which became especially prevalent in the 70s thanks to Norman Lear.) Of course, after the principal live photography was done, the director would shoot a number of obvious close-ups that are easy to spot and sometimes result in interesting continuity errors, some of which are featured in the "Flubs" section of each disc.

I don't remember the adventures of widowed single parent Lucy Carmichael being this funny when I used to watch the weekday morning reruns as a kid, but this is top-notch comedy writing performed by some of the most talented comics in showbiz history, and it's "wacky" in a way that you just don't see much anymore. Lucy herself was a marvel, plain and simple, able to deliver funny dialogue with perfect timing one minute and execute the most complex, physically demanding slapstick the next. She's so good here, sometimes it's downright awe-inspiring.

Put her in front of that live audience with a pair of stilts, a kangaroo costume, or a trampoline, and she keeps them in stitches with barely enough time to catch their breath. Not only that, but she also gets laughs just by sitting in a chair, trying not to nod off during a boring date at the symphony. I can't think of a single woman who comes close--she's very likely the funniest comedienne of all time.

On top of that, Lucy and Vivian Vance are a wonderful comedy team whose work together often rivals the likes of Laurel and Hardy and other well-known comic duos. Viv, here playing Lucy's divorced best friend and tenant, Vivian Bagley, is the perfect straight woman for Lucy--her reactions are priceless and the acting skills she brings with her from the theater compliment every gag without her ever having to resort to overstatement or mugging. Many episodes consist of a first half that sets up the premise, and then a second half which is an extended setpiece of compounding hilarity much like the sort of stuff Stan and Ollie used to perform in shorts like "Helpmates" or "Berth Marks." In the aforementioned "Lucy Puts Up a TV Antenna", we see definite echoes of the time "the boys" tried to install a radio antenna on Ollie's roof, with similar results.

It's amazing what they can accomplish with only a set of bunk beds in the episode "Lucy and her Electric Mattress"--one poor guy out in the audience sounds like he's laughing so hard they had to carry him out on a stretcher. "Lucy Buys a Sheep" and "Lucy Digs Up a Date" are more howlers that just keep paying off, especially in the latter when Lucy is forced to fence her way out of a YMCA in drag, using Viv as a human shield. Clearly, the writers (who also worked on "I Love Lucy") walk a tightrope between keeping the show somewhat rooted in reality while serving up slapstick that borders on farce.

"Lucy Builds a Rumpus Room" ends with our heroines literally glued to the wall and buried in coal. You'll just have to watch to see how they managed that feat. In "Together for Christmas", the constantly-squabbling friends go tit-for-tat Laurel-and-Hardy style as they destroy each other's Christmas trees in a frenzy of hacked-off branches and smashed ornaments. Echoes of Stan and Ollie's "Saps at Sea" can be found in "Lucy Buys a Boat", while titles like "Lucy Drives a Dump Truck" and "Lucy Takes Up Chemistry" are enough to make the viewer cringe with apprehension. And for sustained bellylaughs, you can't get much better than "Lucy is a Kangaroo for a Day."

One of the most astounding sequences occurs during the episode "Lucy and Viv Put In A Shower", in which the gals make a disastrous attempt at some do-it-yourself plumbing. A series of steadily mounting foulups results in them being trapped behind the shower door as the stall quickly fills up with water, until finally they have to dog-paddle to keep from going under. Not only do Lucy and Viv perform this difficult setpiece brilliantly, but (according to Wikipedia) Lucy almost drowns at one point and has to recover her breath and her wits while Vivian adlibs. "Where's Lloyd Bridges when you need him?" Lucy finally manages to sputter.

Supporting characters include Lucy's son Jerry and older daughter Chris, and Viv's son Sherman. Jerry (Jimmy Garrett) is the typical wisecracking little kid who manages to be funny without being too obnoxious, while Sherman (Ralph Hart) acts as a big-brother type. Perky blonde Chris (Candy Moore) is the standard early-60s teen who "digs" Bobby Darin and dates dweebs, and is cute enough to make us worry that Humbert Humbert may show up any minute looking for a room to rent. (Although, strangely enough, she's also a dead ringer for "Beaver" Cleaver's friend Gilbert!)

Dick Martin is his usual likable self as Lucy's neighbor and frequent last-resort date, Harry, and brawny Don Briggs plays Viv's jovial, big-lug boyfriend, Ed. Veteran character actor Charles Lane is superb, as always, in the role of Lucy's penny-pinching banker Mr. Barnsdahl (in the second season he'd be replaced by Gale Gordon as the immortal Mr. Mooney). In "Lucy the Soda Jerk", Lucy's real-life daughter Lucie Arnaz, who would later co-star with mom and brother Desi, Jr. on "Here's Lucy", makes her first major guest appearance on the show. Desi, Jr. also pops up as a cub scout in Lucy and Viv's troup in "Lucy Visits the White House."
The DVD collection's colorful packaging and animated menus are fun, and so are the scads of bonus features. Each of the four discs contains a selection of extras including:

"Flubs" --mostly continuity errors and such. In one episode, for example, a chair with Lucy's name printed on the back is visible in the background, and in another, Lucy calls a character by his real name.

"Special Footage" --A half-hour interview with Lucie Arnaz on disc one is filled with great insights about Lucy and the show, as is a 15-minute talk with Jimmy Garrett on disc four, in which he gives his former-child-star perspective and also takes a look at various "Lucy Show" comic books, games, and toys. There are also several 1962 promos for the show including scenes from "Opening Night" with Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, Garry Moore, and Jack Benny.

"Original Elements" --These are the sponsor-related spots that are attached to the show's opening and closing, plus cast commercials for the various products, all of which can be viewed either seperately or included with each episode. Watch Vivian Vance read the cue cards! These elements were recently rediscovered and are a fun addition to the show.

"Meet Special People" --Profiles of the cast and crew.

"Production Notes" --miscellaneous behind-the-scenes tidbits of trivia.

"Guest Cast" --Profiles of all the main guests in each episode. Some of the many notable people appearing in this set are Hans Conried, William Windom, Majel Barrett, John McGiver, Del Moore, Vito Scotti, Don Grady, William Schallert, Mary Jane Croft, Mary Wickes, Ellen Corby, Philip Carey, Parley Baer, Paul Hartman, Nancy Kulp, Frank Aletter, Reta Shaw, Alan "Fred Flintstone" Reed, Janet "Judy Jetson" Waldo, Leon Belasco, Bobs Watson, "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall, Frank Nelson (the "Yessss?" guy), Carole Cook, Jim Boles, Benny Rubin, and Stafford Repp.

Richly entertaining and brimming with comic surprises at every turn, THE LUCY SHOW: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON is a delightfully joyous wallow in just plain, good-old-fashioned sitcom fun. Not to mention a great reminder of just why Lucille Ball will always be considered TV's First Lady of Comedy.


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