Geek Punditry #15: How Lucy Gave Us the Arc

A few weeks ago I wrote about how, for a lot of people, familiar TV shows, books, and movies, act as a kind of pop culture comfort food, something that calms, soothes, and entertains you almost as much as a visit with an old friend. We rewatch these shows because the familiarity does us good and makes us happy, and that’s what makes Pluto TV the best app around, in my opinion. Pluto TV gives you (free) access to hundreds of channels that provide you with this sort of entertainment. There are channels dedicated to old sitcoms, channels dedicated to old gameshows, an entire channel that shows reruns of The Carol Burnett Show, another that gives you a steady stream of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one that’s all RiffTrax, and two separate channels dedicated to repeats of the various Star Trek series. My son specifically asks to watch “Nick Jr. on Pluto TV” as opposed to asking for a particular show, and as that has weaned him away from YouTube I’m not complaining in the slightest. There are also channels for news, sports, music, movies, cartoons, and (for my wife) true crime shows and documentaries. It’s honestly an app that has something for everyone. 

I swear they’re not paying me to say this. I just really like it.

But most pertinently to this week’s Geek Punditry, there’s a channel that only shows episodes of I Love Lucy, the timeless sitcom about the love between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and the barely-disguised loathing of their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. To my surprise, once we added the Lucy channel to our regular Pluto TV rotation, I learned that my wife had not watched this show growing up, so for her, it’s all new. It’s given me a good excuse to voraciously rewatch the show and, since Pluto shows the entire series in order, it’s also allowed me to notice something that hadn’t occurred to me before.  I don’t need to remind anyone what a groundbreaking, legendary series this was, about how it literally invented the rerun, how it pioneered the three-camera setup used by many sitcoms ever since, or about how Lucille Ball was simply one of the funniest human beings ever to walk the Earth. But what I didn’t realize until recently is that Lucy and Desi also apparently invented – or at least codified – one of the primary elements of television that exists today: the story arc.

“Luuuuuucy…are you breaking new ground in televised entertainment AGAIN?”

These days, of course, arcs are commonplace, and no longer the purview of only soap operas. Babylon 5 is largely responsible for bringing the technique to science fiction, blazing a trail that shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began to follow a few years later. Then Lost premiered in 2004, probably the first mega-hit to run with an ongoing storyline, and since then almost any drama that isn’t a police procedural (and many that are) has followed suit. 

Comedies were a different breed, though. A “sitcom” is literally a “situation comedy,” and changing up the situation was a big no-no. In the past TV comedies existed in a state of permanent status quo, where anything that changed in the story had to be changed back by the end of the episode. If it was a show about a nuclear family, that family stayed nuclear. If it was a show about a workplace, the people employed at that workplace stayed constant. Nobody ever moved away without moving right home again, nobody in the main cast ever got married or divorced, and if somebody lost their job, they had to regain it in 30 minutes or less. There’s a single episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph is laid off but they forgot to put him back behind the wheel of the bus before the episode ended. They simply ignored it the next week and moved on as if nothing had happened, but it was so shocking that it became a punchline in an episode of Family Guy decades later.

“When I catch the guy who forgot to gimme my job back, BANG! ZOOM!”

Now I could be wrong. I’m not a TV historian, and I know that things like radio dramas and soap operas had arc-based stories for some time, but when it comes to primetime shows, especially comedies, I feel like this is another area where Lucy broke new ground. Over the six seasons of the show, I count no less than six storylines that can legitimately be described as “arcs” (which, for ease of discussion, I will hereby define as a story thread or change to the status quo that carries through multiple episodes before resolution). The first was a matter of necessity: when Lucille Ball was pregnant during the second season of the show, they decided to incorporate it into the story rather than disguise it like so many shows have done before and since. (It was not, however, the first TV show to depict a pregnancy, as is often erroneously reported. A mostly-forgotten show called Mary Kay and Johnny actually beat them to the punch by a full four years, and they did it for the same reason that Lucy did.) Lucy’s pregnancy was announced in season 2, episode 10 and the baby was born in episode 16, with the five episodes in-between pretty much all dealing with the pregnancy as that episode’s major plot point.

Before and, for a time, after the birth of Little Ricky, I Love Lucy was mostly content with the one-off stories that were sitcom staples. In season 4, however, things changed with an absolutely massive arc in which the cast uprooted and went to Hollywood. It started in season 4, episode 6, when Ricky had a screen test with a movie producer. The next couple of episodes dealt with him waiting to hear back about the test, getting an offer to do a movie, planning a trip to Hollywood with the Mertzes for some reason, and several episodes of buying a car, fixing up the car, and driving from New York to California before finally arriving in Hollywood in episode 17. The cast stayed in California for the remainder of the 30-episode season, not returning home to New York until episode 6 of season 5. The arc was in many ways an excuse to bring in a bunch of celebrity guest stars like John Wayne and Harpo Marx, but it was still an unprecedented change to a series of this nature.

“Do you really think they’ll watch five episodes of us driving?”
“Of course they will, Nintendo hasn’t been invented yet.”

They didn’t stay home very long, though. In episode 10 of season 5, Ricky’s band is given an opportunity to tour Europe, and after a few episodes of getting a passport and (again) planning a trip with the Mertzes, they set off on a cruise ship in episode 13 and then continued traveling the continent for the remainder of the season’s 26 episodes. 

Season 6, the final season of the show in its original form, brought with it two more arcs. The first one, once again, was based on travel, with episodes 6-9 centered around a vacation to Miami and to Cuba to meet Ricky’s relatives (with the Mertzes). The final arc is a little harder to define, but it’s there. In episode 15, Lucy decides she’s tired of city life and wants to move to the country. Cue several episodes about buying a house, moving, and settling down in their new home, along with the Mertzes, proving that Bert and Ernie’s was not television’s first codependent relationship. Episode 20 is about the Ricardos and Mertzes trying (hilariously) to start up an egg farm, and that’s where I declare the “arc” over, as the remainder of the season’s (and series’) 27 episodes didn’t really deal with the move anymore, but the fact that they were new in town did still turn up as a plot point more than once.

No other show at the time had ever done so many extended storylines, especially nothing as long as the Hollywood arc, and it was a long time before such things were handled the same way. While changes in the status quo began to be allowed, they still often took the form of a single episode where a change was made and a new status quo took over: the move of the Laverne and Shirley characters to California, Richie joining the Army and leaving Happy Days, and of course, the infamous introduction of Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch are good examples of this. Changes were happening, but they were done so quickly that it was almost like a whole new show took over after an episode rather than the sort of slow burn that Lucy and Desi pulled off.

No matter how mad you are about what happened on your favorite show, remember, it could be worse.

Comedies now embrace arcs as well. The Office, for example, started off with the unrequited love between Jim and Pam, which was the sort of thing that sitcoms had always done, but then they did something shocking in season three and (gasp) REQUITED it. So they needed new arcs. They had the “Michael Scott Paper Company” storyline, the Sabre arc, the Dwight/Angela/Andy love triangle, and assorted other storylines of varying length and quality. Most other successful sitcoms these days bring in arcs after a while, if not built in to the DNA of the series from the very beginning. But as I sit there with Pluto TV showing me Lucy spending two episodes ruining and then trying to fix John Wayne’s footprints in wet cement in the middle of their year-long brush with Hollywood, I am in awe of the people who blazed the trail for everyone else.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He didn’t even touch on the Pluto channels for Doctor Who, Top Gear, or The Price is Right, because how much awesome can you realistically handle in one column?