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Being the Ricardos is in cinemas now and is available to stream on Amazon Prime. 

In the 1950s, the screwball domestic comedy series I Love Lucy was easily the most popular show on US television, pulling in some 60 million viewers per week. It was produced by the show’s stars, married couple Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, for their company Desilu – the first time a woman had headed an American TV production company. The couple they played, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, were – like the actors themselves – respectively Cuban-American and white, an unprecedented mix for US TV.

The tone of I Love Lucy, which often centred around Lucy’s lovable ditsiness, was light and bubbly. Aaron Sorkin’s film is emphatically neither. It focuses on a week in 1953 when the show, the careers of its two leads, and indeed their marriage, comes under threat from columnists and the tabloid press. With the hysteria of the Red Scare still seething viciously, Walter Winchell has revealed that some twenty earlier, at age 24, Lucille signed up as a member of the Communist Party, while gossip writer Hedda Hopper has latched on to rumours of Desi’s tomcatting.

As portrayed by Nicole Kidman, Lucille is far from ditsy. A tough perfectionist, she homes in on the smallest details at rehearsal, often to the exasperation of the production team, her fellow cast-members, and of Desi himself. For his part, Javier Bardem brings a precarious mix of vanity and vulnerability to his portrayal of Desi, though he lets rip with infectious Latino exuberance in his bandleading scenes. Likeably dry cynicism is fed in by Nina Arianda and JK Simmons as actors Vivian Vance and William Frawley, wearily resigned to their second-fiddle roles as the Ricardos’ neighbours Ethel and Fred.

Some elements feel superfluous. A mockumentary framing device, in which older actors portray members of the production team talking to camera about the show years later, adds little. And flash-forwards and flashbacks from the crucial week are abruptly shovelled in, even when they convey pertinent information. But there are some richly revealing exchanges with the top brass at CBS (who broadcast the show) and Philip Morris (who sponsored), as when Lucille announces she’s pregnant and intends to make Lucy’s pregnancy a key element in the on-screen story. “You can’t have a pregnant woman on television!” splutters one horrified CBS executive, “we come into people’s homes!”

Given that, as is well known, I Love Lucy chuntered on successfully for a good many more years past that rocky week in 1953, we might expect Being the Ricardos to be all set for a comfortable happy ending. Don’t be too sure, though. This is Aaron Sorkin after all…