42. "Off to Florida," I Love Lucy (1956)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
"Off to Florida" made my list partly for personal reasons (it's a favorite of a longtime friend) and partly because it's just a well-written and well-executed example of a classic sitcom plot. This is the episode where Lucy and Ethel hitch a ride to Florida with an eccentric, watercress-sandwich-loving woman who they eventually suspect of being an "hatchet murderess."
She's played by Elsa Lanchester (the original Bride of Frankenstein) in one of the great sitcom guest shots of all time. Most well-known film actors who guested on I Love Lucy played themselves, but Lanchester is so much more fun creating a new character. Her "Mrs. Grundy" manages to come off as both a fluttery-voiced ditz and a terrifying drill-sergeant type.
Lucy: (trying to get Mrs. Grundy to stop the car) I gotta stop someplace and call my landlady.
Mrs. Grundy: (getting suspicious) I thought you said she was your landlady.
Lucy: Oh, yeah. (turns to Ethel) Hey, landlady, my tub's running over!
Since so many sitcom stories involve household members or co-workers learning to get along with each other, it's fun to find an episode that puts strangers in temporarily close quarters like this; it's more like a mini road movie (Edna Grundy: The Original Easy Rider).
And like all the better I Love Lucy episodes, "Off to Florida" builds with "small, logical steps," first establishing Lucy's propensity to lose things so that we're not surprised when she can't find the train tickets she needs to meet Ricky in Florida. That leads to Lucy and Ethel answering the ad from Mrs. Grundy, looking pick up passengers in exchange for gas money. Her odd behavior primes Lucy and Ethel to jump to conclusions when they hear a disturbing (and very well-timed) report on the radio:
Ethel: Maybe some music will lull us to sleep.
Radio announcer: And now the latest bulletin on the Evelyn Holby case. Police report that Holby, famous gray haired hatchet murderess, has escaped from prison and is heading south in a creme colored convertible-coupe. Now back to our previous broadcast.
Lucy: Did you hear what he said?
Lucy: Which way are we heading?
Lucy: Exactly. Grey hair, creme colored convertible.
Ethel: Oh Lucy, that's just a coincidence.
Lucy: But think! It all fits: likes to drive in the dark, won't stop at motels, uses back roads. Why do you suppose she uses back roads?
Ethel: She told us, to save time.
Lucy: Oh sure, she uses back roads to avoid the police.
Ethel: Oh Lucy, I don't believe you, the woman they're looking for is a hatchet murderess, she doesn't look like a...
Ethel and Lucy: (both remembering what they've seen in the trunk) HATCHET!
Ethel: Eh, uh...we're just jumping to conclusions. She brought the hatchet to uh...to uh..
Lucy: To what? Chop watercress? Ethel, that woman definitely has the killer look about her. Come on, we've got to make a run for it.
It's a very silly episode, but something about I Love Lucy's total commitment — no winking at the audience, no meta jokes about radios that broadcast only plot devices — makes it endearing.
• The only YouTube clip I could find — CBS really wants you to buy the DVDs — is a poor copy, but it includes one of the best scenes from the show's later seasons, when Lucy and Ethel have to change a tire. At one point, Lucy imitates Ricky losing his temper in Spanish, hoping it will help her channel his car-repair abilities.
But maybe I should take back what I wrote about the show not being meta, because in this scene Lucy Ricardo seems to change into real-life Lucille Ball, who was a notorious perfectionist and who did not like ad-libbing or unscripted clowning around on the set. She's pretty snippy with poor Ethel here.