By the time Lucille Ball launched her third sitcom, “Here’s Lucy,” in 1968, she was absorbing more than a little goodwill from television viewers. While the program ran through 1974 and was mostly in the top ten during its six season stretch (it dropped to #15 in its final season), the show displayed more than a little staleness as the redheaded star gamely attempted to live up to her reputation as America’s wackiest comic actress.
The problem was that “Here’s Lucy” (which has been repackaged into a new six-disc DVD anthology) was mostly an extension of the less than amusing late-season stretch of Ball’s predecessor series “The Lucy Show.” In this go round, the only major format tinkering was having Ball’s real-life children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. play her on-screen kids (Ball’s character is a widow and has no evidence of a regular love life). However, the younger performers had relatively little to do but play second banana to their camera-hogging mother – who inevitably wound up with the lion’s share of the laughs. Ultimately, it was a waste of the young actors’ talents – Desi Jr. left after the third season while an attempt to spin off Lucie’s character into her own sitcom never went beyond the pilot stage.
While Ball was too old for the heavier demands of physical slapstick, she tried her best to churn out zany antics and absurd situations. Even a broken leg didn’t sideline her – a real-life accident that happened prior to the fifth season was written into the script, with Ball’s leg cast used as a sight gag and point of comic reference. And even though too much of the program had a been-there/done-that residue, Ball could still generate some hearty fun from longtime sidekick Gale Gordon. In his role as Ball’s employer and brother-in-law, Gordon’s overstated fluster/bluster reactions to Ball’s silliness created comic alchemy, spinning golden laughs from leaden material.
But that’s not to say the program was without surprises. Ball commanded an A-list of guest stars, including the only sitcom appearance of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during their tumultuous married years. (Taylor seemed to enjoy herself, Burton looked pained.) There would be occasional disruptions of pure energy – Ball and her daughter joining Ginger Rogers in a wild Charleston dance, Jackie Gleason making an unannounced appearance as Ralph Kramden – and for sheer strangeness, nothing surpasses Ball going wild over an appearance by female impersonator Jim Bailey as Phyllis Diller. (Diller herself, oddly, was never invited to appear, although Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett turned up.) Vivian Vance turned up occasionally for old time’s sake, but her appearances only offered a rueful reminder that Ball was capable of doing much better work – and that people truly had to love Lucy in order to keep this second-rate show on the air for so long.