Television Turmoil: Life with Lucy

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.

Television, especially the sitcom, owes a lot to Lucille Ball. The odds are pretty good that you’ve read a line similar to that many times. Ball’s influence through her 25-year run of shows has become ingrained in the bedrock of most sitcoms. For someone as defining as her, a little cliche might be necessary, especially when the topic of conversation is on her greatest failure.

By the fall of 1986, Lucy hadn’t been a regular presence on TV screens for 12 years, entering a semi-retirement that everyone but her seemed okay with. The runaway success of Bill Cosby’s comeback program, The Cosby Show and positive reception from her dramatic role as a homeless woman in the made-for-TV film, Stone Pillow convinced Ball that a return to the sitcom format was viable. With producer Aaron Spelling on board and full creative control for Ball assured, Life with Lucy went into production.

Like her previous shows, Ball played another Lucy, Lucille Barker, a widowed grandmother who inherited her husband’s interest in a hardware store. Lucy insists on helping with the store, owned by her late husband’s uptight business partner, Curtis McGibbon (long time Lucy scene partner, Gale Gordon). In addition to being business partners, the duo are also in-laws with Lucy’s daughter, Margo (Ann Dusenberry) being married to Curtis’ son, Ted (Larry Anderson). But wait, there’s more! In one of the more convoluted set-ups for a family sitcom, they all live together along with the grandchildren, Kevin and Becky (Phillip J. Amelio II and a young Jenny Lewis respectively). We never get a sense of the size of the house, but we can assume the living situation is a nightmare.

John Ritter guest starred in an episode, which sounds great. A shame about how it actually turned out.

ABC and the producers involved believed that Life with Lucy would be a huge hit and ordered the show into production before shooting the pilot. With no test screenings and zero network interference, Ball was free to create the show she wanted. Ball hired her long time writers, Bob Carroll Jr and Madelyn Davis, along with various crew members she had worked with since the days of I Love Lucy. The intent was to make Life with Lucy just like her old programs and that was exactly what we got.

The major problem with this strategy was that the entire landscape of television had changed in the time between the last Lucy show and this new attempt. Trying to make a show with a similar feel to 60s sitcoms would never play with audiences in the 80s. Some trappings of the modern sitcom were there with Lucy’s family, but the center of attention was firmly on Ball and Gordon’s antics, to the point where most of the family would be lucky to get more than a scene in each episode.

As great as Ball’s material was in the 50s and 60s, it had become old hat by the time Life with Lucy debuted. Lucille may have been off the screen for 12 years, but Lucy never left. Most of the audience had been exposed to reruns of her shows by that point and nothing on this new program could compare. The stale writing and tired joke likely didn’t help matters.

The reviews at the time were savage, specifically toward Ball herself. With that classic blend of sexism and agism, critics blamed audiences’ lack of interest on the 75-year-old Lucille. “At her age, the audience was more worried about her safety than her pratfalls,” Aaron Spelling remarked in a 1999 interview. Which feels like an obvious load of crap. While Ball and Gordon certainly looked older than the last time they were on screen, none of their comedic timing or joke delivery had vanished. Ball was still more than capable of the occasional physical bit and Gordon infamously never flubbed a line during the 13-episode run. The problem was never the lead performers.

Nothing says 80s sitcom quite like having a robot show up.

In that same interview, Spelling lays out the actual problem. Ball had offered to try something different if Spelling believed it would be best. He insisted her ideas were more likely to succeed and Life with Lucy went forward as planned. The series ran for 8 episodes before being cancelled, with 5 other episodes never making air. It was the first time a Lucy program had been canned. The show’s failure and the harsh reviews it received devastated Ball. She made only a few public appearances before passing away in 1989.

While it seems like a sad end to a legendary career. Life with Lucy has become a footnote in biographies and stories about Lucille Ball. It exists today mostly as an odd curiosity. A program that fails by playing it safe and giving the audience something they knew too well. All together, Lucille Ball starred in 506 episodes of television, a legacy that far outweighs a crummy comeback attempt.

Next Time: We get two shows for the price of one with the afterlife styling of Second Chance and the revamped version Boys Will Be Boys.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson.