79. "First Stop," I Love Lucy (1954)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Remember the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred all die in a car crash but don't realize they're ghosts? Or maybe you know it as the one where the beds move every time a train goes by?
"First Stop" could logically end with The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling stepping out of the shadows to tell us that the gang never leaves the crummy diner and "motel" where they seem to be the only customers. After all, they leave it once during the episode, but Lucy unwittingly drives right back. In the alternate timeline set up by "First Stop," maybe they're still there.
This was the first I Love Lucy episode to take place after Lucy and company leave New York for Hollywood, part of a season-long arc that rejuvenated the series in its fourth season. It's not very flattering toward what would become known as "flyover country," as Ohio turns out to be a series of spooky roads leading inescapably to that food-free diner run by Mr. Scratch Skinner. (None of this is surprising to followers of Jonathan Chait's "Life in Ohio" exposes.)
In the next episode, the Ricardos and Mertzes proceed to Tennessee, where they run into another crook, this time a sheriff running a speed trap. Notably, in the Danny Thomas Show episode that serves as the pilot for The Andy Griffith show (see clip at the bottom of this post), Andy is introduced as a Skinner-like sheriff who ensnares tourists on trumped-up traffic violations. Desilu Studios, which produced all three shows, had some pretty elitist ideas about small-town America!
• The bit about the bed sliding to a different part of the cabin everytime a train passes is a good example of I Love Lucy's ambitious stagecraft, which must have been a lot of fun to watch from the live audience.
• This is one of the rare I Love Lucy episodes in which Vivian Vance gets the best physical comedy moments, particularly when she shows how Ethel and Fred sleep on a ridiculously saggy mattress.
• The multitude of signs for Aunt Sally's Pecan Pralines forms a great running gag that keeps the scenes in the car from getting too static. Alas, the roadside attraction turns out to be a cruel hoax, like everything else in the god-forsaken state of Ohio.
• As I've noted before, good I Love Lucy clips are hard to find in YouTube. The one below is of terrible quality, but it does fit the Twilight Zone/David Lynch interpretation of the episode: