First and Last: The Evolution (and Lack Thereof) Across I Love Lucy’s Beginning and End
This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The first installment features I LOVE LUCY, created by Jess Oppenheimer. The show ran for six seasons from 1951 to 1957 across 180 episodes, with the first being “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” and the last “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue.”
I LOVE LUCY, for multiple generations of TV watchers, is an ultimate nostalgia comfort food. My grandma’s love for the show transferred to me, and coinciding with my deep dive into the history of film about a decade ago, I turned to a full watch, not just reruns, of the groundbreaking sitcom as an origin point of American television (although there were earlier hit and important shows, this is the oldest point in the medium I care to explore in full series form). What I discovered was the sheer volume of episodes created for series, comedic or dramatic, at the time. Although I LOVE LUCY’s last season ended with a more “reasonable” 27 episodes, the first included 35, and the pace for production was always faster than the network era of a decade or more later.
This is one important factor to consider in the evolution, or lack thereof, of a show of I LOVE LUCY’s time. On-demand viewing, binging, hell, even reruns (another pioneering introduction of this show) were not yet around for viewers to keep up with a storyline. Appointment viewing was being formed at the beginning of the 1950s, but the idea for many TV shows was to be truly episodic and provide a reliably consistent experience. Most people wouldn’t catch every episode anyways. So if things were repetitive, that was OK, right?
However, I LOVE LUCY pioneered a restructuring of television expectations, which were themselves much more based on radio show structures than the similarly visual cinematic medium, from sponsors to runtimes to story structure. I LOVE LUCY itself had a proto-existence as the radio show MY FAVORITE HUSBAND (1948–1951), which starred Lucille Ball. I LOVE LUCY wasn’t the first or only show to inject plot developments that did not just revert everything to the initial premise by the end of the episode. But things like the birth of Ricky Jr., a move to Los Angeles, another to Connecticut, and more marked milestones in the series’ run. More importantly, they allowed the show’s writers to find new avenues to send Lucy Ricardo’s zaniness down.
But this all happened in between the subjects of this piece: the first and last episodes of I LOVE LUCY. If you’re somehow not familiar with the general idea of the show and its innovations, it follows Lucy Ricardo (Ball) and her husband, bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz, Ball’s real-life husband at the time), as they experience wacky marital situations alongside neighbors Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel (Vivian Vance) Mertz.
Two things immediately stand out about “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” (I LOVE LUCY’s first episode), especially for those familiar with the era both in television specifically and culture at large. First, an interracial marriage is being portrayed on TV; Ball was of course white and Arnaz Cuban. This dynamic would not really be recreated for decades, making the show’s popularity in spite of contemporary racism all the more remarkable. Second, I LOVE LUCY’s look, as devised by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, is rich because of its film medium, as opposed to the kinescope or video tape of contemporary productions. Supporting this visual experience is the audio, by which I mean live studio audience laughter. The laugh track concept, whether captured organically or not, rankles many these days, but there is something oddly reassuring about it for certain sitcom structures. Again, this is an ode to radio listening (which also carried audience sounds) rather than movie watching (sure, you could hear people in the theater, but that wasn’t represented on film).
Much has been made of the conservatism represented by American television of the 1950s and for good reason. Many of I LOVE LUCY’s stories revolve around how goofy the housebound wife is, which butts up against the reason and exasperation of the bread-earning husband. And there’s the matter of two twin beds for the spouses, rather than one bed that a couple would presumably share. But if I LOVE LUCY doesn’t totally throw off the shackles of comic representation of its time, it certainly subverts some of the tropes by, first, having Lucy be the agent of chaos, rather than being a passive participant. Additionally, Ricky is as often made to look silly, often by his own assumptions and behavior.
This tension is present right away in “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub.” Lucy and Ethel clean up in the kitchen and discuss Ethel’s desire to go out and dance for her and Fred’s anniversary. The pairing, by the way, seems somewhat odd, as Frawley was indeed 22 years older than Vance. It was a dynamic that the latter would always rue, feeling it made her appear older. In any event, the men relax in the living room and discuss going to the fights to celebrate the very same occasion. The general progression from there, from Lucy and Ethel’s sweettalking the boys and vice versa to the third-act reveal of Ball in some kind of outlandish get-up or situation, is replicated many times across I LOVE LUCY’s life.
Lucy and Ethel proclaim they will take two different dates out, which leads Ricky and Fred to seek their own to keep an eye on the girls. Lucy and Ethel find out and dress up as “ugly hillbillies” (just one aspect of the whole show that hasn’t aged so well) and put the scare into the men before revealing themselves. The joke is essentially on Ricky and Fred, but two elements hold back any kind of proto-feminist reading. First, Ricky becomes aware of the situation and ferrets the girls out. Then, just after everyone makes up and the men say they’ll take their wives out, the final scene of the episode shows Lucy and Ethel dressed up and bored as their partners hoot and holler at the fights. Of course, there is a reflection of real-world sexism, but I don’t happen to find it particularly aware or critical of that.
“The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” also features an important part of the I LOVE LUCY act. Although it wasn’t with his iconic drums, Arnaz performs a song in the cramped quarters of the Ricardos’ apartment at the disguised girls’ request. Throughout the show’s run, there would at times be a sort of “variety show” feel as Arnaz performs in his bandleader capacity or Lucy shows up in some kind of disguise or getup at his place of work or some other performance space.
I mention the cramped quarters of the Ricardos’ apartment because as I LOVE LUCY went on, the couple and the Mertzes moved to a few different locales that would open up their spaces. But the first apartment will always hold a special place in my heart as a more “grounded” reflection of New York City living. It’s definitely a far cry from the high ceilings, wide windows, and open backdoor of the whole group’s shared residence in Westport, Connecticut by the time of the final episode, “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” introduced only 12 episodes earlier in the sixth season.
By this time, the wear and tear of 179 prior episodes’ jokes and Ball and Arnaz’s partnership are felt. Watching the last episode just after the first, I was struck by how tired everyone seemed. In “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” Lucy organizes the reveal of a Revolutionary War tribute, attempts to train Ricky Jr.’s dog Fred (Jr. now four, Fred now a comic device for confusion with the human Fred), and corrals her husband and friends into various roles for the ultimate event. The premise of the I LOVE LUCY finale feels all too scattered and reflects the typical approach to a “last episode” of the time…just to die as the show lived, by which I mean that there isn’t any kind of culminating experience to reflect on.
And yet “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue” does carry the threads of what made I LOVE LUCY great. In spite of a decreased quality over the show’s life, it’s true that the Ricardos and Mertzes are some of the most comforting characters in TV history, so to see their “conclusion” is in some ways cathartic. Structurally, the episode still builds to a kind of performance from Ricky (in this case, a speech before revealing the statue) and Lucy’s silly intervention (acting as a “living statue” to pass off the fact she accidentally destroyed the real one). If there is a conclusive element to “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” it’s that the whole Westport community starts to close in on the Ricardos and Mertzes as they ready to defend themselves due to Lucy’s accidental behavior. It’s almost a SEINFELD (1989–1998) finale moment!
But the reality is that “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue” was not the end of the I LOVE LUCY characters, and the inclusion of their continuation was a sticking point for me in writing this piece. But ultimately, I decided to consider just the initial six-year run of I LOVE LUCY, and not the “sequel series” (as it would be called today) THE LUCY-DESI COMEDY HOUR (1957–1960), as 13 hour-long specials would come to be collectively known after the run’s and the Ball-Arnaz marriage’s conclusion. The end of THE LUCY-DESI COMEDY HOUR feels especially lethargic and anti-climactic as the culmination of a nine-year creative partnership between Ball, Arnaz, Vance, and Frawley. Perhaps there’s something to be gained by comparing “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” and THE LUCY-DESI COMEDY HOUR finale “Lucy Meets the Mustache,” but that is not the focus of this piece.
Reflecting on the lasting popularity of I LOVE LUCY, I can’t help but notice that many of its iconic episodes live in the middle range of its premiere and finale, a dynamic that has certainly been replicated more often than not throughout television history since. But it’s a credit to the show’s central performers and writers that I LOVE LUCY never dipped too far into true self-parody territory (or a “shark-jumping” realm as HAPPY DAYS [1974–1984] would inadvertently coin), even with various celebrity cameos toward the end of its life.
The comic compromise of “Lucy meets blank” (which admittedly existed with I LOVE LUCY) would be more thoroughly and disappointingly mined for Ball’s follow-up sitcom THE LUCY SHOW (1962–1968), to say nothing of the situations that would arise for her shows beyond the ’60s. Arnaz continued as a producer for the studio he and his wife co-founded (Desilu of, most famously besides I LOVE LUCY, STAR TREK (1966–1969) fame) before departing for independent pastures. Vance co-starred for the first half of THE LUCY SHOW before the series’ major premise change (which also happened to write out “Lucy Carmichael’s” two children with barely any attention paid). And Frawley would die in 1966 after cameoing in a Vance-less LUCY SHOW episode and playing a central role in MY THREE SONS (1960–1972). No one involved would reach the heights of I LOVE LUCY, in my opinion.
But you know, that’s not meant to be a demeaning statement. The truth is that I LOVE LUCY came along at a perfect time in American and television history. It challenged comedy and TV expectations even as it was built on radio foundations and even played tribute to vaudeville traditions. It depicted the simple existence of interracial love and pregnancy; the latter was unfortunately compromised by risk-averse sponsors but was still unprecedented in its sheer reckoning with the everyday experience (even if the word was never actually uttered on the show). And yes, its performers hammed things up to the rafters as disembodied laughter flowed out through the TV set. But if all the show ever did was rely on the sheer physical and timing brilliance of Ball (and it did more), it would still be known as an all-time classic. This thread is more apparent between “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub” and “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue” than it is in those episodes specifically, but even in a diminished state, the charm, warmth, and laughs of I LOVE LUCY is present in its beginning and ending.