Sitcom

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Overrated I love Lucille Ball, but must I love “I Love Lucy”? Many did. When Eisenhower was inaugurated, in January of 1953, 29 million people watched; a day later Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky, and 44 million watched. That statistic genuinely frightened fifties mass-media critics, who had suspected that Americans would always turn out in bigger numbers to be entertained than to celebrate their collective democratic power. But could 44 million Americans have been wrong?

How good was “I Love Lucy”? It was never as sublime as its contemporary “The George Burns Show,” never as psychologically acute as “Leave It to Beaver,” never as funny as “Sergeant Bilko.” The real pleasure of the series wasn’t wit but something creepier, the audience’s understanding of a difference between what “Lucy” presented on the surface and what they presumed to be happening behind the scenes.

By today’s standards, the surface of the show is bad enough. Looming large are values about women’s roles that don’t quicken our inclination to laugh. In the pilot episode Ricky tells Lucy, “I don’t want my wife in show business. . . . all you got to do is clean the house for me, hand me my pipe when I come home at night, cook for me, and be the mother for my children.” For the rest of the series, try as hard as she might to connive her way into show business, Lucy always ended up back in an apron.

But beneath this Formica veneer was a fact not lost on any viewer in America: Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were really Lucy and Desi Arnaz. Who didn’t know they were married in real life? If anyone was using the other to make it in show biz, it was Desi, a successful but not particularly celebrated musician, using Lucy, an MGM star since the late 1930s. What viewers imagined was happening behind the show (power struggles of a more realistic sort) added to their voyeuristic pleasure.

Ball’s creative dominance of the show encouraged the producers and writers to make plot and character development secondary to creating situations that would highlight her gifts for physical comedy. The much-replayed scenes (Lucy madly stomping grapes into wine, Lucy failing as a TV huckster of Vegameat-avitamin, Lucy and Ethel unable to keep up with the candy on a conveyor belt) typically end only when Lucy herself lets out her famous wail of despair.

This kind of hysteria went the way of women behind bars and Cold War allegory creature features; we like our comedy cooler and campier now. We may still love “Lucy,” but it’s more nostalgia than enthusiasm for anything intrinsic to the show.

Underrated “Congratulations. I still hate your f——g show, but the audience seems to love it, so we’re putting it on.” Thus read a telegram from the president of CBS, the “Tiffany network,” to Sherwood Schwartz, creator of “Gilligan’s Island,” in 1963.

The gap between what both William Paley and Frank Stanton (who ran CBS) wanted and what the viewing public wanted never seemed wider, at least to critics who gazed upon the Minnow and its seven castaways. “Gilligan’s Island” is stupid, subsophomoric, and uninspired.

Simulating what it imagined to be a cross section of America, the show offered up comic oppositions that could be endlessly juggled and rearranged: Jim Backus’s tycoon and Bob Denver’s deckhand; the movie star, Ginger, and the girl next door, Mary Ann; the skilled yeoman, the Skipper, and the expert, the Professor. In his memoir Schwartz describes his heroic struggle to render the seven characters as “prototypes” rather than “flesh and blood,” which simultaneously explains the show’s amazing vacuity and why it has dated so little.

Its enthusiasts take “Gilligan’s Island” very seriously indeed. One can visit a Web site that elaborately links it to a universal, existential sense of human exile. The media critic Tom Carson, explaining why he chose to base his current experimental novel Gilligan’s Wake on the sitcom, told the Los Angeles Times Magazine , “The difference between ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and Waiting for Godot is of degree, not kind.”

In addition to its continuing global popularity and universal themes, though, “Gilligan’s Island” is a peculiarly American tale. Its record players made out of boat wheels and radios fashioned from coconuts are an embodiment of American handiness and ingenuity. A fair number of the con men and poseurs who visit and betray the islanders take us into Mark Twain territory. “Gilligan’s Island” dovetails with all the stories Americans love to tell about themselves, from the one about our having no impermeable social classes to the one about our all seeking what Fitzgerald called the green breast of the new world, to which we are endlessly drawn back as surely as the castaways were stuck on that island.