Less than a decade before newly appointed Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow famously described television as “a vast wasteland” in his first public speech—at a 1961 meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C.—I Love Lucy was the top-rated TV show with a weekly audience of 60 million.
Minow may or may not have been including the well-crafted ’50s sitcom (which spawned three successors) among his targets. Surely the show, which starred married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as married couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, was a few cuts above most of the now-forgotten “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families” (another phrase from Minow’s talk) strewn throughout TV Guide’s weekly listings.
I Love Lucy connected with later generations via reruns, and still retains a great deal of affection—despite its pre-feminism anachronisms—thanks to Ball’s endearing and enduring charm and precise comic timing. The show’s iconic stature no doubt had something to do with the prolific writer Aaron Sorkin’s decision to pen and helm the feature film Being the Ricardos (in theaters now before streaming on Amazon Prime starting Dec. 21). The bigger reason, I think, is that Sorkin is at home on the set of a TV show. To put it another way, he’s a creature of television.
His first TV foray, the short-lived late-’90s series Sports Night was about a cable TV show, and 15 years later he set The Newsroom at another kind of television program. Sorkin’s biggest success, of course, remains The West Wing, a TV show that ran for 155 episodes. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Sorkin has framed this line from that same Minow speech: “When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better.”
Sorkin’s forte throughout his career is taking us behind the scenes, and that’s his entry point and the focus of Being the Ricardos. He hones in on a particularly fraught week in I Love Lucy’s second season when the stars are clamped in the vise of dual (and dueling) public scandals: Walter Winchell has inferred on the radio that Lucy is or was a communist—a career-ending offense in 1952, thanks to Sen. Joe McCarthy and his enablers—while a tabloid has published allegations that Desi is having an affair.