After sixty years, the shine still (almost completely) glistens on Lucy, Ethel, and their zany capers.
Lucille Ball, everybody. I know. I know. Save your applause for the end.
Let’s be honest, she raised all of us. You may think you had parents, but no. It was Lucy. Come on, who taught you the important lessons in life about getting revenge through elaborate stratagems and never sharing a ride to Florida with Elsa Lanchester? Exactly.
Consequently, I Love Lucy episodes have become like old friends, which makes winnowing out a top five a colossally trying task requiring some tough conversations with gems like “Pioneer Women,” “Lucy Writes a Novel,” and “Ethel’s Home Town.” I’m sorry, there just wasn’t room for all of you.
At the same time, if you’ve come here looking for famous, obvious choices like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” “Job Switching,” or “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” I’m going to have to disappoint you. Good? Yes. The best? No. We’re going for some deeper cuts.
5. In Palm Springs – Season 4
I Love Lucy basically invented stunt casting, even concocting a whole year-long Hollywood plot so that a star could believably pop up in every episode, but it never becomes nauseating in the way that modern guest-star parades do, perhaps because it happened too long ago to seem so cynical. It’s just plain fun seeing these big 50s stars completely embrace and live up to the nuttiness. Now, how a local New York club singer is suddenly friends with every celebrity in the world is, well, don’t worry about it.
Before we reach the top four episodes in the list, which feature Lucy being all Lucy, I want to recognize my favorite of the guest stars, Rock Hudson. He very much owns this episode when he is recruited by the men to soften up the women with a sad story about bad habits. With his stone-chiseled-yet-sweet face selling that deeply melodramatic tale about whistling, I sigh and sigh again. May we honor his legacy in our community by objectifying him forever. As Lucy says, “Oh, you can soften me up any time.”
4. Lucy Tells the Truth – Season 3
It’s no surprise that games and bets have become a theme of many of the best sitcom episodes of the last sixty years, ever since Lucy showed how it’s done. The heavy majority of the most entertaining Lucy episodes involve some kind of wager among the gang because competition makes everything better. Usually, the men match up against the women, but this episode stands out for pitting Lucy against the whole group, which allows her to be even prouder of her own guile in outmatching them.
Because of Lucy’s penchant for exaggerating her experience in show business, the gang bets her that she can’t tell the complete truth for twenty-four hours. They think they have her beat at the ladies’ bridge game, but Lucy rebuffs Ethel’s plot to force her into lying and instead becomes brutally honest with everyone in a mischievously delicious scene. “I told Ethel that your furniture looks like a bad dream you’d had after eating too much Chinese food.” “And Marian, stop cackling. I’ve been waiting ten years for you to lay that egg.” Yes. I soar.
3. Lucy’s Schedule – Season 1
Ricky is always the worst, acting as the show’s conduit for old-fashioned attitudes toward women, but he is at his worsty worstest when he becomes fed up with Lucy’s lateness and decides to put his own wife on a time schedule. Ew. Fortunately, the schedule allows Lucy to gleefully undermine him and be constantly contrary and sarcastic, and therefore amazing. “How about a kiss?” “Sorry, it’s not on the schedule.”
In order to get even with her problem of a husband, Lucy concocts one of her patented delightful schemes. When Ricky invites his boss, Mr. Littlefield, to watch his trained seal perform, Lucy keeps dinner on the most draconian of schedules. Aside from being exactly how I would like to run any social gathering (“Time’s up!”), this schedule imposes Lucy’s brand of joyful chaos and insanity on the proceedings, rushing the dishes in and out and pulling out a baseball glove so that Ethel can lob in biscuits from the kitchen. “Got to keep on schedule,” she says cheekily with sheer perfection.
2. Lucy Fakes Illness – Season 1
You know that thing where you suddenly fall gravely ill and your only symptom is nonstop Tallulah Bankhead impressions? Of course you do. That’s why you’re on this site. Lucy understands. She feels she’s not getting enough attention from Ricky, so she decides to develop a complex that allows her to play a series of colorful characters, including Tallulah Bankhead. “The phone woke me at the crack of noon. Noel called. We chatted till one, I bathed till two, turned down scripts until three.” Don’t you just wish, dahling?
Ricky discovers that it’s all an act and decides to get even with Lucy by bringing in a fake doctor, Hal March, who uses his spoon-into-crème-brulee of a deep doctor voice to diagnose Lucy with a life-threatening illness, the gobloots, in an infinitely reenactable scene. It’s so ridiculous and perfect with an unabashed commitment to its own grave silliness. “Mrs. Ricardo, some people go on for years without a zorch . . . of course, you’ll never be able to trummel again.”
1. The Gossip – Season 1
I love this episode so much it flames, especially the first scene. Lucy promises not to tell Ethel her juicy new gossip, so she instead performs it as an elaborate minutes-long charade. No words, just Lucille Ball’s comedic perfection in every gesture.
The boys then bet the girls to see which team can go the longest without gossiping, and since Ricky and Fred are horrible, they cheat. They pretend to whisper gossip in their sleep and then let Lucy and Ethel tell it to each other, which of course they do. I love that when Lucy is retelling the gossip to Ethel, she has added 18 new facts to the story on her own since the night before, like all the best gossips. The boys catch them in the act, which also introduces us to the important revelation that entire private conversations can be conducted via the furnace pipe. It’s like 50s texting.
Ricky and Fred are trying to win on a technicality, which I have no time for, and neither does Lucy. Trickster vengeance Lucy is by far my favorite Lucy, so when she naughtily pulls the $5 out of her purse at the end to pay the milkman for reenacting the gossip as real and winning her the bet, she has never been more wonderful.
Even an I Love Lucy obsessive can admit that, as great as the majority of episodes are, a select few of them are profound clunkers that need to be shut away and never seen again. Ever. Ever ever.
Usually, this is the bottom 1 section, but this time we have a tie! The audience gasps. A murmur rises from the mezzanine. Basically, I couldn’t decide between two episodes equally problematic for their own upsetting reasons.
Lucy Goes to Scotland – Season 5
Um, WTF, y’all. For decades, it seemed like an official requirement that every TV comedy have one cray-cray acid trip of an episode, and well, this is certainly that. The episode is supposed to be based on Brigadoon, but funny enough, it’s actually based on a schizophrenic lemur’s rotten-ham-sandwich-induced fever dream.
Lucy dreams she is in Scotland and about to be sacrificed to the local dragon unless Scottish Ricky saves her, and the entire plot is based around how it’s super funny to make Desi Arnaz say Scottish things. Ha? It’s boring and dumb and full of singing, and then the situation gets even worse because Fred and Ethel appear in the role of a two-headed dragon. That doesn’t . . . I don’t even . . . WHAT IS THIS? I DON’T LIKE THIS THING!
Lucy Gets Homesick in Italy – Season 5
This episode doesn’t feature a Fred and Ethel two-headed dragon, but that almost makes it worse because it has less excuse for being hard to watch. Lucy is in Italy during Little Ricky’s birthday because he is useless and deeply unfunny. She misses him and so begins giving birthday gifts to a local boy instead, and then all the other children arrive and pretend it’s their birthday as well so they can wrangle gifts.
The depiction of Italian children as greedy little manipulative urchins has never sat well with me. I know it was the 1950s and we have to recognize the different attitudes of the time and try to treat these uncomfortable moments as among those not real things, but even so, watching Lucy be sort of helpless and taken advantage of isn’t funny or pleasant. It’s sad, frustrating, and unsatisfying.
Now you go. Which episodes are you sure to watch every time you pretend to be home sick with the gobloots? Do you think the episodes from the country are even worse than my bottom two (a legitimate argument)?