Why Lucy and Ricky are still the gold standard for television couples
"Lucy, I'm home!"
More than 70 years of television have been made since those words first were uttered. Seventy years of iconic couples, will-they-won't-they tension, swoony grand gestures, and perfectly penned declarations of love. But there's still nothing more romantic in TV history than those three little words and the promise they hold: of hijinks, of good humor, and most of all, of love.
When I Love Lucy premiered in October 1951, it changed television forever, bringing audiences into the New York living room of housewife Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and her husband, bandleader Ricky (Desi Arnaz). Adapted from her radio show Our Favorite Husband alongside producer Jess Oppenheimer, the sitcom was a bid by Ball to save her marriage. This time, her real-life husband, Arnaz, would also play her onscreen partner in an attempt to keep him closer to home and by her side, as opposed to constantly touring with his band.
CBS initially balked at the idea, objecting to the notion of showcasing All-American girl Ball married to a Cuban, despite it being true to life. Ball and Arnaz developed a vaudeville act to take on the road and prove CBS wrong, and it was the small nuances and truths of their marriage that ended up giving I Love Lucy its beating heart amidst its outrageously funny comedy.
"Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were dreamers," says Laura LaPlaca, Director of Archives, National Comedy Center & Lucy Desi Museum. "Lucy was a housewife reaching for opportunity outside of her brownstone apartment, and Ricky was an immigrant entrepreneur making his way in an adopted country. Together, they were partners in building an aspirational life of their own unique (and very unique for the 1950s) design."
"Their story was extraordinarily progressive for the time, and continues to be vital and relatable," she adds. "Lucille Ball's unmatched prowess as a physical comedian and the show's incredible writing have brought big laughs to generations of viewers. But some of the best moments in the series are the tiniest and quietest: when these two people, who were very much in love, look at one another with a mutual respect and awe that is not rehearsed."
Ball and Arnaz revolutionized television, simply by being themselves and inhabiting their core identities in front of an audience. Beyond that, it broke barriers, depicting pregnancy on national television for the first time when Ball became pregnant in real life. Even more impactful, the pair founded their own production company, Desilu, which became one of the most influential forces in the history of television from its infancy until the late 1960s.
Alongside the production team, Arnaz pioneered camera techniques and filming in front of a live audience, improving television broadcast quality for the entire world. Many of the approaches he helped develop are still used in television to this day. But he did it all at a time when TV was still largely an unproven entity, establishing the sitcom as a definitive and unique TV format.
"In the early 1950s, while the rest of Hollywood wondered whether television was more than a passing fad, Lucy and Desi were already breaking the rules, making great art, and building the future of broadcasting," LaPlaca says. "They were innovators behind-the-scenes, risk-takers in business, and masters of the comedic craft. I Love Lucy resonates with us still because of the palpable care, energy, and love that were poured into every minute of its 179 episodes."
Regardless of their marital strife, both Ball and Arnaz had immense respect for each other's talent. Ball trusted Arnaz as a businessman, allowing him to build Desilu into the massive success it became. In turn, Arnaz was in awe of Ball's comedic gifts, specifically making adjustments in their shooting techniques to set her up for success, including bringing in a live audience, which he knew was essential to her timing.
Television has the power to capture hearts and minds in remarkable ways because its characters literally come into your home on a weekly basis. For 70 years, audiences have welcomed Lucy, Ricky, Fred (William Frawley), and Ethel (Vivian Vance) into their living rooms. And they show no sign of being forgotten any time soon. In late 2021 and 2022 alone, Ball, Arnaz, and I Love Lucy have been the subjects of Aaron Sorkin's Being the Ricardos; TCM podcast The Plot Thickens: Lucy; and Amy Poehler's forthcoming documentary, Lucy and Desi.
LaPlaca calls Ball and Arnaz the "first couple of television," citing their many accomplishments both on and off screen. "They were the first international TV superstars; they were the first husband and wife team to helm a TV production company (which made them TV's first millionaires); they were the first to represent an interracial marriage and a pregnancy on national television; and they were the first to perfect the TV sitcom form — setting a high watermark for the genre that persists to this day," she reflects. "They captivated a national audience by presenting a vision of married life that was accessible, multilayered, and joyful."
On I Love Lucy, the Ricardos' love story was tied irrevocably to show business. Ricky was a successful bandleader, playing at his nightclub weekly and eventually making the leap to Hollywood. Lucy was a homemaker, aching for her shot in the spotlight and constantly scheming to get it. It provided fodder for countless ridiculous scenarios, which Ball tackled with a complete lack of vanity and absolutely genius physical comedy.
But it's fitting that so much of this onscreen couple's love and remarkable romantic moments — consider: when Ricky sings "We're Having a Baby" as Lucy's backwards way of telling him she's expecting — are couched in the language of the entertainment industry; Ball and Arnaz fell in love via Hollywood themselves. In a sense, Hollywood (both literally and metaphorically) encapsulated the happiest periods of their ultimately unsalvageable marriage, from their first meeting making RKO's Too Many Girls to the final episodes of I Love Lucy. The entertainment industry gave them the stage and the chutzpah to build careers and a relationship everyone else predicted would fail.
"Lucy and Desi fell in love on the backlot of RKO Studios in 1940; less than 20 years later, they owned that studio and were at the helm of the largest independent TV production company on Earth," explains LaPlaca. "There were no advantages to being female or being Latino in the 1950s TV industry. Lucy and Desi were savvy business partners that had to build their own success — from the ground up and in the face of doubters from every corner."
"They not only created the most popular love story of the 20th century and the most beloved sitcom of all time, but a legacy of innovation and great comedic art that continues to define American pop culture 70 years later," she concludes. "The Lucy and Ricky Ricardo characters are all the more enduring for being the creative expressions of two of the most powerful, influential, and groundbreaking figures in 20th century entertainment."
Sadly, Ball and Arnaz split in 1960, their tumultuous relationship and Arnaz's infidelity proving insurmountable. But their love for each other, on screen and off, created two characters and a television legacy that endures far beyond any marriage. For many, Lucy and Ricky are a picture of domesticity that feels both relatable and aspirational — a couple we can see ourselves in, who squabble and get into spats, but who also lead lives much funnier and more absurd than many of our own.
They set the gold standard for what a power couple could look like, on television and behind the camera — a standard that can be set to music and neatly drawn up and packaged with a black-and-white heart. And that requires no 'splainin.
A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, available on newsstands Feb. 18. Read more from EW's celebration of TV's best romances of all time.