When we learned that Aaron Sorkin — celebrated screenwriter, director, and TV creator — was making a movie about the behind-the-scenes story of I Love Lucy, minds naturally got to racing about what we'd see. Would we get a dramatic story about the making of the "Vitameatavegamin" episode? Would Nicole Kidman's Lucille Ball be going through turmoil while filming the chocolate conveyor belt scene?
What's great about Being the Ricardos — Sorkin's best film as a director and a triumph for Kidman and a supporting cast that includes Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy — is that while its deals with some of the most significant and far-reaching aspects of Lucy and Desi's lives, at its center the film is a process story about the making of an episode of I Love Lucy. And not a particularly notable one at that. Sorkin, in all his fondness for perfectionists and the ways in which they frustrate the people around them, has created a process story for one of the great comedic talents of her or any era in Lucille Ball.
But what about that episode they were filming? And what other I Love Lucy episodes figure in Being the Ricardos? Luckily for those of us with streaming subscriptions, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+ all have I Love Lucy available to stream, so you can check out several of the episodes intertwined with this film that's expected to be a major player at the Oscars this season.
Being the Ricardos follows one week in the lives of Lucille Ball (Kidman) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Bardem) as they film the first-season episode of I Love Lucy called "Fred and Ethel Fight." The title pretty accurately describes what happens in the episode, as the Ricardos' neighbors are in a marital spat, and Lucy takes it upon herself to throw a dinner party to try to get them together again. Interestingly, the back half of the actual episode sees Lucy and Ricky in a fight of their own, with Ricky spending the night away from home, something that would have definitely played into Sorkin's narrative of Lucy and Desi's relationship as fraught with tabloid reports that Desi was fooling around.
Sorkin, though, has actually fudged quite a bit when it comes to the timeline of his movie, which squeezes the infidelity rumors, the red scare, and Lucy and Desi telling the folks at the network that she's pregnant all in the same week they filmed "Fred and Ethel Fight." In reality:
Re-arranging the timeline isn't a detriment to Sorkin's film, nor is it at all unusual when it comes to films that depict real-life events. (Alhough it does make a late-film decision to include notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the narrative an incredibly curious choice since it never happened.) Condensed this way, Sorkin gets to explore Lucille Ball under the pressure cooker, and in that context, to watch her take all her anxiety and frustrations and funnel it into her work. For much of the film, Ball is hyper-focused on the joke that kicks off "Fred and Ethel Fight," where Ricky sneaks up behind Lucy, puts his hands over her eyes, and says "Guess who?," followed by Lucy playfully guessing other men's names much to Ricky's dismay.
In the film, Ball relentlessly picks at this scene, unsatisfied that the premise seems realistic (would Ricky really believe Lucy is plausibly entertaining this cavalcade of men). She spars with the writers (Shawkat and Lacy), the director (Christopher Denham), the producer (Hale), and even Desi himself, unable to let go until they get the scene absolutely perfect. In this way, the Sorkin's Lucy would seem to have a lot in common with The West Wing's Toby Ziegler, a perpetually dissatisfied perfectionist whose talent was immense enough to justify his obsession with getting it right.
The film also shows the writers room breaking the episode that would eventually be "Lucy's Italian Movie," where Lucy travels to Italy for a part in a film and, in order to better prepare for her role, engages in some grape-stomping with a local woman. The grape-stomping scene is a far bigger part of I Love Lucy lore than anything that happens in "Fred and Ethel Fight," and Kidman gets to prove her own talent as an actress by stepping into the shoes — or in this case the grape-stomping bare feet — of one of the most gifted physical comedians who ever lived. Once again, Sorkin gets creative with the timeline here, as "Lucy's Italian Movie" didn't actually get made until season five, in 1956.
Another episode relevant to Being the Ricardos is season two's "Lucy Is Enceinte," where Lucy Ricardo's groundbreaking TV pregnancy is introduced. As depicted in the movie, there was huge resistance to letting the Lucy character be pregnant as part of the show's storyline. Even though Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were happily married, a pregnant Lucy would be the end product of — gasp — sexual intimacy. Back in the era when married spouses on TV slept in separate twin beds, this was verboten. But Lucy and Desi fought hard, and as TV history has well memorialized, they won, Lucy ended up pregnant (although they were not allowed to say the word "pregnant" on TV), and the episode in which Lucy gives birth ("Lucy Goes to the Hospital") set ratings records for TV at the time.
The I Love Lucy episodes "Fred and Ethel Fight" (Season 1, Episode 22) and "Lucy's Italian Movie" (Season 5, Episode 23) are both available to stream on Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+. Due to rights issues, "Lucy Is Enceinte" (Season 2, Episode 10) is not available for streaming, but "Lucy Goes to the Hospital (Season 2, Episode 16) is.
Being the Ricardos is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.