ILoveLucy1coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1951-52, 908 min., black and white
CBS Home Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for adult drinking and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: B-
CBS restoration trailer

In 2002, TV Guide named the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. On May 6, CBS Home Entertainment will bring three of the Top 10—at least the first seasons—to Blu-ray. Soon we’ll post reviews of The Andy Griffith Show and The Honeymooners: Classic 39 Episodes, but since I Love Lucy ranks 2nd behind Seinfeld on the list, it seems like the logical place to begin—though logic and Lucy have little in common.

Lucille Ball set the gold standard for physical comedy and character comedy playing opposite real-life husband and band leader Desi Arnaz in a sitcom that revolved around only four characters: Ricky Ricardo (Arnaz), his wife Lucy, and their neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). That is, two housewives prone to get into trouble, one fuddy-duddy who wore his pants up to his chin, and a Latin lover whose love for Lucy was sorely tested in just about every episode.

This past school year my ‘tween daughter would start her morning with an episode of I Love Lucy, which, remarkably, is still in syndication more than 60 years after Season 1 was first broadcast. Even more remarkable is that she enjoys the show as much as I did when I watched it on days I was home from school, “sick.” What makes it so timelessly appealing? The slapstick and the situations. Things that happened to Lucy on a quiz show are still happening to unsuspecting kids on a Nickelodeon game show, for example, and while the writing was decent, it was really the four stars that made the show work.

I Love Lucy was one of the early TV series that made the leap from vaudeville and radio to television. It began as My Favorite Husband, a radio program starring Ball and Dick Denning. But Lucy suggested that her TV husband be played by her real husband, who was then appearing as a panelist on the game show What’s My Line? The rest is TV history. I Love Lucy was an immediate fan favorite, finishing #3 in the Nielsen ratings its first year, and #1 seasons two through four, #2 their fifth season, then back to #1 again for the sixth.

Season 1 includes one of the all-time greatest I Love Lucy episodes, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which she plugs a tonic called Vitameatevegamin. The only trouble is, the commercial requires multiple takes, and the product is 23 percent alcohol. Other memorable episodes include ones in which Lucy gets locked in a walk-in freezer, goes to great lengths to convince Ricky that growing bald isn’t so bad, and, with Ethel, tries to make it as “Pioneer Women” by not using any modern conveniences.  

All of the episodes are fueled by Lucy’s frequent paranoia, jealousy, and her tendency to misunderstand things, to blow things out of proportion, or to scheme behind Ricky’s back to try to “help” or to get her way—which often involves her best friend and her not-so-secret desire to break into show business, although she has no talent except comedy.

ILoveLucy1screenA number of episodes each season also deal with the battle of the sexes that was fought in kitchens and living rooms across America, with storylines like “Men Are Messy,” in which Lucy divides their apartment in half and insists that Ricky mess up his own side, not hers. In other words, this isn’t just TV history; it’s cultural history. The values are totally ‘50s, with Ricky doing things like giving Lucy an “allowance” for her household budget and then inspecting her records once a month. He doesn’t want her to have a career in show business, because he wants his wife to clean his house, bring him his slippers when he comes home from work, and take care of his children when they have some. So the episodes might spark a few family discussions about gender roles then and now.

All 35 uncut Season 1 episodes are included here, and you can choose two ways watch: as they aired in syndication with the heart-on-satin openings and closings, and as they were broadcast in 1951-52 with animated stick figure openings and closings and all the original commercials. That would be a terrific family feature later in the series when the show was sponsored by Cheer laundry detergent and Lilt Home Permanent, but the first season was sponsored exclusively by Phillip Morris cigarettes, and their iconic Johnny the Bellhop and his cry “CALL FOR PHIL-LIP MORR-RIS” is so often used it grows annoying pretty quickly.

Like the sexism present in the show, there are things to discuss here with the kids, but even adults will be shocked at how infomercial-like and how long the cigarette commercials are. With the commercials added, you also start to notice product placement within the show, like packages of Phillip Morris cigarettes placed throughout the Ricardo apartment, and Lucy and Ricky lighting up at least once per episode in the early going.

ILoveLucy1screen2Of course, you can just elect to PLAY ALL of the syndicated episodes and by-pass the commercials entirely, but I could see some of this material making a good school report—especially one long commercial late in the season that shows how “America starts its day with Phillip Morris,” or shots of Lucy and Desi lighting up and telling America to go out and buy a carton of “America’s most enjoyable cigarette”—“smoke for pleasure today with no cigarette hangover tomorrow.”

If you already own Season 1 on DVD and wonder if it’s worth upgrading, the answer is yes. The pilot (included here) was remastered from the original 35mm negative, and all of the episodes are a visual upgrade. Plus, the box takes up less space, you get two ways to watch the episodes, and there are some nice bonus features, the best of which is new to this edition: Lucy and Desi’s costume and make-up tests.

Like most TV series, “I Love Lucy” grew more sure of itself as the first season went on, and you can see the characters and the comedy starting to evolve into patterns that would sustain the show for the rest of its run. Our family still laughs out loud at some of Lucy’s antics, and this Blu-ray from CBS Home Entertainment is sure to please fans. Later seasons will be even funnier.

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