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HOWARD ROSENBERG

You Can't Go Home Again, Lucy

October 03, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Getting that deja vu feeling again? Seeing double? Hearing echoes?

No wonder. What you see on TV is what you got.

It's bad enough that TV's pirates far outnumber its creators, that rip-offs are as much a part of the business as ratings. It's bad enough that hot characters and formats are cloned in duplicate and triplicate, with touch-ups to mask the copying. On ABC these days, Lucille Ball is even cloning herself.

Now something even mustier is occurring.

More and more, producers are reaching deep into TV's archives and resorting to remakes of old--and mostly crummy--series to feed a growing appetite for first-run off-network programming. Nostalgia is blowing across TV in large, stale gusts.

Sterile and squeaky clean, "The New Gidget" premiered this season in syndication. And WTBS cable has inherited from the Disney Channel a newer version of "The New Leave It to Beaver," a feeble attempt to retool a TV classic.

"The New Monkees" is on the way, too. And being discussed are possible remakes of "Lassie" (maybe this time Lassie will be a Chihuahua), "My Favorite Martian" and the snotty "Dennis the Menace," which was an insult to Hank Ketchum's comic strip.

Proving that you needn't have lived long to get reborn in first-run syndication, meanwhile, are current revivals of these short-term, relatively recent network series: "Mama's Family," "9 to 5," "It's a Living" and "What's Happening!" whose updated title is "What's Happening Now!" Still nothing, unfortunately.

Why TV's nostalgia upsurge, mirrored also in movie versions of such famed series as "Perry Mason," "Mayberry RFD," "Gilligan's Island" and "I Dream of Jeannie"?

For one thing, the industry encourages safety and familiarity, not new vistas.

For another, cable and independent stations are increasingly demanding first-run programs, and remaking old series is easier than originating new ones. It's the industry's equivalent of painting by the numbers and a fair measure (as if you needed another one) of TV's creative doldrums.

And finally, there seems to be a desire by many Americans to flee the threatening present and embrace the past and its so-called traditional values.

Our memories are selective, so we recall only the good times and ignore the pain. In TV terms, that means thinking of "Gidget," which mercifully lasted only the 1965-66 season on ABC, and recalling surfers and and innocence, not Vietnam. It means watching reruns of "I Love Lucy" from the 1950s and seeing slapsticking, not the malicious blacklisting and Red tainting that briefly victimized even Lucille Ball herself.

For most, though, traveling backward is a journey to be avoided.

Ball should be learning that in her return to series TV as a zany, flighty grandmother on her new "Life With Lucy" sitcom (at 8 p.m. Saturdays on ABC) that has settled near the bottom of the Nielsen ratings.

She is her own nostalgia wave, straddling TV's past as the heroine of the fabled "I Love Lucy" and also its present, because that comedy is still the world's most internationally syndicated series, giving Ball such an enormous following that she may possess the globe's most familiar face.

Ball had TV afterlives, yet none as successful as "I Love Lucy," which ran on CBS from Oct. 15, 1951, to only June 24, 1957.

That's right, less than six years. "Laverne and Shirley" lasted longer. So did "The Jeffersons," "Diff'rent Strokes," "Green Acres" and "Hogan's Heroes."

"I Love Lucy" was a first-run series almost four years less than "The Beverly Hillbillies" and only slightly longer than "Mr. Ed."

Although five years and eight months are a lucrative run for any series, "I Love Lucy" is such a revered and re-run classic that you'd think it had lasted a decade.

So you wonder why Lucille Ball in her mid-70s would agree to do a series for ABC (she couldn't need money or fame) that would have her competing with Lucille Ball of the 1950s. It's a match she was bound to lose.

The appealing thing about "Life With Lucy" is that it depicts an older woman as eager, energetic and sexual. Lucy Barker--her name for this series--is ABC's Golden Girl.

The positive count stops there, however.

A co-production by Ball and nostalgia-nick Aaron Spelling, "Life With Lucy" mistakenly replants Ball in the same comedic turf she occupied as the disaster-prone wife of Ricky Ricardo and neighbor of Fred and Ethel Mertz.

She should have known. You can't go back.

"I Love Lucy" writers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis have returned for this series. Oh, Ball doesn't play quite as broadly as she did, and the character is externally changed. Beneath all that, however, pounds the heart of Lucy Ricardo.

This time Ball is a widow who has joined her daughter and son-in-law and their young children living in a house also occupied by Curtis McGibbon, who is played by Gale Gordon, Ball's second banana on "The Lucy Show" and "Here's Lucy." Curtis is the pompous, argumentative father of Lucy's son-in-law and was also the business partner of her late husband.

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