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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: We All Loved Lucy

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It is hard to believe that I love Lucy, the iconic television series that competes with Law and Order in the "show that is always on somewhere" category, is 60. What's even more amazing is that Lucy seems less scatterbrained and a lot more entertaining than most the television housewives we see today.

God knows what Lucy would have made of reality TV and the women who rule it. They are generally a bitchy, superficial, materialistic group who have given housewives a bad name. Not only will we hopefully never see a spinoff called I Love Snooki, but these characters, as well as many of the soapy fictional ones, have made a name for themselves drawing not sympathy but antipathy from viewers. Okay, I guess there's empowerment in not having to be likable good girls, but the current crop has done women no favors.

This is not to say that Lucy did not want to be noticed as well as loved. One only has to recall the most famous episode of all, "Lucy Does A TV Commercial," wherein she gets progressively more inebriated while trying valiantly to be on her husband's TV program. Audiences may have thought of her as zany and empty headed, but her antics were a winking wake up call to women everywhere: Speak up, show up even when not wanted, get out of the kitchen. All that wasted energy and creativity sort of became the underlying point. One critic said Lucy Ricardo was less a feminist than an argument for why feminism was needed. Lucille Ball herself claimed the show had been about fun and if there was liberation afoot, it was the seething silent kind. "I've been so liberated, it hurts," she said later.

We may not think Lucy Ricardo had real issues, at least not like the "complex" multi- taskers of today. But really, is Christine Applegate's character on Up All Night any less ditzy? Most sitcoms now don't even have the nerve to go near the housewife thingy, preferring to revert to the "girl" variety: those looking for men or jobs or roommates. As far as the hour-long shows go, the "wives" run from boring background material (think Blue Bloods) to the gratingly flustered (Parenthood). And no one will ever love Betty Draper, though I can't really feel sorry for someone who got to sleep with Don all those years.

The good wife portrayed by Julianna Margulies has left her bad husband. We applaud her, of course, but its now basically become a workplace series, Most of today's series still tend to be geared around men playing cops and robbers: most have female partners but they are either tough as nails ala Mariska Hargitay and Maria Bello, or afflicted with some neurosis ala Clare Danes. Possibly the most likable and interesting wife on TV is played by Jennifer Ehle on A Gifted Man. And she's dead!

I don't know what it says exactly, but isn't it ironic that the memorable wives of television were Lucy, Laura, Donna, Harriett, Ethel and Edith? Yes, they may have been the undemanding ladies the men came home to after a day at the office. (Except for Ozzie, who as far as we know never had a job) But they were no dummies, usually held the house together, and were often very funny. They also knew how to enjoy great friendships, something we certainly aren't seeing on Bravo much these days.

None were or are as funny as Lucy, of course. She always denied that, saying "I'm not funny, what I am is brave." Maybe that's what we loved best about her, the courage it took to throw everything out there, emotions and frustrations alike. Part of her continued appeal is the knowledge that Lucille Ball was the power behind the show and changed the business of television forever. She also altered the long held belief that a woman could not be the beauty and the funny one on a television series. Our memories of her are in black and white but her persona and impact were as vivid as her hair.