Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re finally back to original coverage and we’re kicking it off with a classic, Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005, CBS), perhaps the best “family” sitcom from the turn of the century. The entire series is commercially available.
Everybody Loves Raymond stars RAY ROMANO as Raymond Barone, PATRICIA HEATON as Debra Barone, BRAD GARRETT as Robert Barone, PETER BOYLE as Frank Barone, and DORIS ROBERTS as Marie Barone.
With coverage of Everybody Loves Raymond finally commencing on Sitcom Tuesdays, we begin our look at the most seminal domestic comedy of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s — a series whose life in syndication has exceeded the runs of many structurally and tonally similar CBS suburbia shows that were undoubtedly inspired by its success (The King Of Queens, Still Standing, Yes Dear, etc.). There are good reasons for this longevity, and many of the classic series we’ve discussed here share them: Raymond is character-driven and consistently funny (not to mention well-performed by an expertly chosen cast). This is thanks to a strong group of writers, led by executive producer and showrunner Phil Rosenthal, and to an inherently smart structure that’s easy to overlook due its seeming simplicity. Yes, I’m speaking of the low-concept premise, rooted in a drama to which we ALL can relate — family — but also and more precisely to the selection of the series’ core conflict. First though, it’s important to note that, although Raymond falls under that crowded “domestic comedy” category, it eschews two of the most common (and now clichéd) designs in the genre: it’s not about parents struggling to raise kids (Romano assuages all our fears in the first year’s opening credits when he insists that “it’s not about the kids” — THANK HEAVENS), and it’s not about two married couples who have different outlooks on life. Sure, both of those elements exist within the concept, but this isn’t a kiddie TGIF show — despite its initial Friday placement — nor is it a rehash of the Ricardos vs. Mertzes. No, Raymond sets its sights on the adults and makes the two couples family, adding an emotionally potent connective tissue that not only underscores the comedy, but serves as the bedrock for rich relationships, plenty of drama, and more generally, a raison d’être…
Yet when we speak of the show’s smart structure, we must also say how beautifully it takes advantage of the multi-camera format. Playing with few characters and on few sets, Raymond embraces the medium’s intrinsic theatricality — both with a performance style that prizes intimacy and genuine human interaction, and a textual understanding of how seemingly simple it is to satisfy narratively: just put all the regulars together for a second act combustion. Indeed, by the end of the run, it’s uncommon to find an episode without the big all-cast climax, which usually takes place on one of the show’s main sets. However, this textual know-how isn’t yet realized here in Season One, which is still figuring itself out. I’ll talk more about this first year, specifically, in a moment, but I point this out now to introduce an analytical framework that we’ll be using; I tend to split the series evenly into three trimesters, each representing a distinct chapter in its life. The first trimester is about discovering, the second is about being, and the third is about continuing. I’ll tell you already that I think Raymond’s strongest trimester is its middle — Seasons Four, Five, and Six, the “being” phase — when the show knows exactly who its characters are, what the core conflict is, and how to comedically maximize it for weekly story. This intel is key, for in the first three years’ “discovering” phase — in addition to not quite getting, for instance, that every story should bring the ensemble together for a comedic explosion — the core conflict, while acknowledged, isn’t something that the writers know how to embed every week. That is, it doesn’t know yet how to regularly handle its own thesis. And then, in the final years, the “continuing” phase, the show — for reasons we’ll discuss — struggles to exist after its thesis has essentially been fulfilled, thus requiring new ideas that are more episodically predicated, but thematically broader and dramatically diluted.
This brings us to the show’s core conflict, which I also consider its thesis: that Ray Barone is trapped between the family he made (Debra and the kids) and the family that made him (Marie, Frank, and Robert). It’s simple, it’s relatable, and it’s a well of dramatic story, particularly with Debra and Marie each representing his two, often competing, interests. Accordingly, the show is at its most fully realized when it utilizes a weekly idea that can play to Ray’s central dilemma, and this usually means a heavy helping of conflict between the two most important women in his life. Even though I said above that Raymond doesn’t quite know how to maximize this conflict for weekly story in its first trimester — which is nevertheless true, primarily compared to what’s ahead — the foundation is there at the start. From the moment Marie first interrupts Ray and Debra in the pilot to the moment where she literally jumps between them in bed in the finale, the triangle consisting of mother, son, and wife is the source of 80% of Everybody Loves Raymond’s most character-based, comedic, and thesis-fulfilling moments. (Side note: it’s imperative that Marie is seen as the intruder here; not Debra. We are in the wife’s house and meet her first, and are therefore supposed to see her as a core, undebatable element. This is a vital choice, for it allows Debra to be a legitimate competitor to the Barone’s blood, familial bond, which, no matter what, is going to be a strong dynamic.) And while other aspects of the series certainly yield extraordinary results — like the nuanced rapport between Ray and Debra, whose relationship sparks several series classics (especially in the latter half of the run), and the sad sack romantic plight of Raymond’s brother, Robert, whose own trauma revolves around Marie’s preference for Ray — the show’s development and commitment to its thesis, and the triangle at the heart of it, ensures that nothing is richer than this key dramatic structure.
However, I don’t want to undermine the contributions made elsewhere. The series is perfectly cast, and while Roberts’ Marie and Heaton’s Debra shine as a result of the premise, it’s their individual performances that help push the show into its second trimester, where they become superstars. And it’s because of Garrett’s portrayal of Robert that the relationship between the Barone brothers becomes as layered as it does, while also allowing the show to follow his own romantic exploits and pivot towards them when it’s no longer able to adequately play to the thesis. Heck, he — Garrett — is such a strong performer that it’s tempting to let Robert’s arc stand alongside Marie/Debra’s, with his resentment towards Raymond serving as another core conflict. Yet this is Raymond’s show. Not Robert’s. Their brotherly back-and-forth will, like Ray/Debra, be responsible for several series classics, but Robert’s dramas only matter to us in how they affect Raymond, who as per the title, is in the center of the ensemble. In this regard, Robert is a tactic, both comedically and dramatically, to deliver the thesis, and even as he’s able to anchor some worthwhile episodes, everybody loves Raymond… But not yet; Season One is the weakest of the entire run — I’ll take the last three years over this one — because it doesn’t quite know where its strengths are. It sets up the aforementioned thesis, but then doesn’t play to it often enough, instead thinking that there’s no “reason for being” other than Raymond himself. Instead of realizing that Ray only matters because of how he’s positioned within the family, the show follows him wherever he goes — with stories that take us out of the home and into his local hangout (Nemo’s) and contend with his job as a sports columnist (enabling some terribly unnecessary cameos). These plots don’t engage the main conflict — we need to stay with the family — and by the end of the first trimester, they will be few and far between.
Again, true to the “discovering” phase, this is a year that, overall, doesn’t know yet how it best functions. And, by definition, it’s the least knowledgeable of all nine (which is why it’s easily the least enjoyable). Naturally, there’s improvement over the course of the year’s 22 episodes, but it’s not a marked improvement. For one, Heaton’s pregnancy unfortunately limits the usage of Debra, keeping the thesis further out of reach (we’ll see this again in Three). Also, even with a greater understanding of the regulars by year’s end, the show doesn’t narratively learn the lessons it needs to learn until Season Two, and if not for Two, which is perhaps the most formative year of the entire series, Everybody Loves Raymond wouldn’t be anything more than a well-acted, but otherwise mediocre domestic comedy — one with a great structure, but a so-so execution… Okay, I’m being harsh, but this year is so comedically beneath the rest of the run, with no real gems — I mean, there are gems by One’s own standards, just not when compared to the real outstanding shows ahead — that I can’t overstate how disappointing this season is if not viewed in a context that recognizes and allows for more years of growth. For that, we’ll need to thank Les Moonves, for while Raymond was always way too adult for Friday night (Ray and Debra’s sex life is handled with surprising frankness, especially for a show where the kids are young), his faith in the series kept it on the air, and he even let it try out on Monday nights, where it would eventually find a home, become an anchor, and create an entire programming line-up… of which it would always remain the best, thanks to its rich characters, simple design, and its ability to emphasize both with earned laughs (of the out-loud variety) and relatable dramatic stakes. Season One might not be there yet, but we’ve all gotta start somewhere… So, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/13/96)
Debra wants a private birthday — one without Ray’s family.
Written by Philip Rosenthal | Directed by Michael Lembeck
None of One’s shows are great — not in comparison to the excellent material in the years ahead, and not in general relation to other series covered on this blog. The pilot is not outstanding either, although it does show promise. For instance, it immediately clocks the core conflict discussed above, as the story has Ray caught between Debra and his parents… in the simplest, most generic and non-specific exploration of this idea as is narratively possible. There’s much funnier and more character-based stuff ahead on this front, which is why discourse surrounding the entry often revolves around the “fruit of the month club” scene — a shining moment of originality taken from Rosenthal’s own life (thus establishing the series’ Reiner-esque true-to-life reputation), even though it’s more of a comedic idea than a character beat… Nevertheless, I can’t understate how important it is that — right away — there’s a thesis and the script gets the five characters together in the climax when Ray has to stand up to his folks (mostly, again, Marie)… which makes it all the stranger that it takes basically two whole seasons for the show to really appreciate how it had already defined itself… As for the episode, it’s otherwise green — the sets are different, the twins are played by other actors, and Ray has a one-off friend (Leo) who was likely intended as a regular, and these details combat the already evident charms — like the relatively novel treatment of sex between a couple with kids, Garrett’s idiosyncratic performance, and, of course, the central dramatic tension.
02) Episode 4: “Standard Deviation” (Aired: 10/04/96)
Robert has Ray and Debra take IQ tests.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Jeff Meyer
Although this popular outing is a “must-include” and indeed among the year’s stronger showings, I must confess that it’s not one of my favorites. You see, the familiar plot, about Ray and Debra taking IQ tests and discovering that one is smarter than the other, is not exactly character-driven; it’s a hand-of-writer scenario that doesn’t arise from character motivations but could (hopefully) inspire character reactions — which is the case here with the show’s central couple, who anchor many of these early episodes, superseding the family (in opposition to the thesis) as the guiding force. The pair’s growing chemistry makes this one notable, as does the attempted incorporation of Robert, who stands in for the “hand-of-writer” when he sets up the premise and then inverses the results. Story, story, story, but most early entries are…
03) Episode 5: “Look, Don’t Touch” (Aired: 10/11/96)
Ray is attracted to a waitress at Nemo’s.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Jeff Meyer
As with the above, this is a Ray/Debra show where the family is an ancillary complication — the Barones raise the stakes by getting in Debra’s ear about Ray’s supposed crush on a waitress at Nemo’s. Again, I can’t say that I like this one a whole lot, but it’s notable for a few reasons. Aside from the interplay between Romano and Heaton, which improves week-to-week (there’s more spontaneity between them now, even, than in the above), it’s also an example of the show trying to live outside of the domestic realm — setting most of the action at Nemo’s, which is posited as a regular hang-out for Ray and his recurring buddies (like Bernie, who makes his third appearance). The narrative isn’t typical of Raymond — it feels like the kind of young-marriage-in-the-’90s story we’d see on Mad About You — but it does more for Debra, and has more laughs, than any of the Honorable Mentions that could have theoretically replaced it.
04) Episode 7: “Your Place Or Mine?” (Aired: 10/28/96)
Marie moves in with Ray and Debra after a spat with Frank.
Written by Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Howard Storm
The Barone clan across the street, represented most vocally by Marie, has been an intrusive presence in all of the previously broadcast installments. But with the exception of the pilot, the thesis concern — of Ray being caught in the middle of his two familial obligations — hasn’t really been explored. This entry, which was broadcast in a special Monday slot behind Murphy Brown, doesn’t quite address the core conflict, but it comes closer than ever before, by recognizing that the central drama in Ray’s life involves his family and episodes don’t even need to leave the two homes in search of story. In some ways, this is another good introductory point for the series (after the pilot and its follow-up)… Additionally, there are growing ensemble dynamics, specifically between Debra and Frank, a nuanced and sparingly used combo who are structurally in opposition, but not personally in competition (like Debra is with Marie).
05) Episode 8: “In-Laws” (Aired: 11/01/96)
Debra’s parents come to visit.
Written by Philip Rosenthal | Directed by Alan Kirschenbaum
It’s terrific casting when TV stalwarts Katherine Helmond and Robert Culp debut in this offering as Debra’s parents. Naturally, Rosenthal defines them as a marked contrast to the Barones — which can be distilled as the difference between lower middle class and upper middle class — and even though this is typical sitcomery, the performances are A-one and this clash of characterizations forces better definitions for everyone, including Debra and Ray, the latter of whom is appropriately put in the center of the story when he explodes and insults his in-laws while at a fancy restaurant. This is a good use of his character and by opposing him with Debra’s folks, we have a proxy version of the thesis, with the in-laws standing in for Debra, and Ray being caught between them and his own birth family. As expected, the show will get smarter and funnier in how it uses Lois and Warren, but this is a great starting point and a great family-based story for the first season — one by which it could set its compass.
06) Episode 10: “Turkey Or Fish” (Aired: 11/22/96)
Debra wants to host a Thanksgiving meal… with fish.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Michael Lembeck
This is my choice for the strongest episode of the season (MVE). There’s another installment below with a simpler premise and an even better understanding of character, and it likely would be most fans’ pick for the year’s best. But I’ve selected this outing as Season One’s most vital because it’s the year’s best representation of the series’ much-discussed core conflict, established in the pilot as its thesis: that Ray is caught between his new family (Debra) and his old family (Marie, Frank, Robert). The story is set at Thanksgiving, a time when familial conflicts are all too common (and from which several of the show’s funniest segments will draw their own premises), and it includes many of the peripheral family members that we’ve met so far in the run, including Phil Leeds as Uncle Mel and Debra’s parents, who were just introduced in the successful offering discussed above. For those who know the series, this is the Thanksgiving where Debra decides to host it… and cook a fish as the main course. This is a brilliant way to externally symbolize the difference between Debra and her rival, Marie, who of course, thinks she knows best and comes to the dinner with a turkey. In setting up this conflict, which puts Ray in the middle of a turkey and a fish — his mother and his wife — the season makes its most obvious and effective utilization of the Debra vs. Marie narrative template that best enables the show to meet its dramatic promise to the audience. And, as is often the case with these scripts, it’s loaded with laughs — including some fun physical gags where Heaton, in particular, shines. Accordingly, no other excursion here — not even the proto-classic below — recognizes the show, and its strengths, better. If only the rest of the year did…
07) Episode 12: “The Ball” (Aired: 12/20/96)
Ray learns that Frank lied to him about an autographed baseball.
Written by Bruce Kirschbaum | Directed by Jeff Meyer
I must admit that I think, of all the regulars, Frank is the one who’s least conducive to anchoring satisfying stories that will make these lists. This is because, as touched upon above, he’s not a threat to Debra, and though they clash from time-to-time, it’s really only his position as part of the Barone clan — literally by Marie’s side — that makes him representative of the core conflict. That is, Frank isn’t as able to motivate stories that play to the thesis, and while the same can be said of Robert, Garrett’s performance and his own positional liminality — which will be called upon more often later (especially in the “continuing” phase) — make him a little more ripe for story than Frank… I say all this now to note that this entry, which is good-but-not-great, is a cut above some of his character’s other showcases because its narrative is able to call upon the thesis, as Ray’s new family — his parenting skills — are influenced by what he endured from his old family, when he was growing up. It makes this list as a result.
08) Episode 17: “The Game” (Aired: 02/21/97)
The Barones play a board game when the cable goes out during a storm.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Jeff Meyer
Okay, this is the proto-classic referenced above — the one that I almost made my MVE and the one that you likely expected to see selected. And I get why — it uses what is perhaps this low-concept series’ most low-concept premise ever: the Barones decide to play a board game. This idea forces the show to put all its figurative chips on the characters and their interactions, and given that this is later in the season, the writers and actors now have a stronger collective understanding of who everyone is and how they relate to one another. Indeed, it calls upon some of that seminal Debra/Marie drama, and generally makes time for all the big relationships. Furthermore, this premise enables the show to embrace the theatricality associated with the multi-cam, which is one of the things that makes Everybody Loves Raymond so special — a worthy addition to the hall of great sitcoms, sharing company with shows like The Honeymooners and All In The Family, the latter of which feels most invoked here… As for why it’s not my MVE, I don’t think it’s as funny as it promises, I don’t think it earns the sentimentality it simultaneously employs, and I don’t think it truly understands what its conflict needs to be… which all goes to say that, while everyone is together, the show doesn’t fully know yet what to do with them together, crafting blow-ups for the sake of ’em (instead of actually motivating ’em), and thus, the great low-concept premise is let down by a show that isn’t ready for it… If this came later, it’d be a classic. As it stands now, however, it’s a prototype for a classic. A proto-classic.
09) Episode 18: “Recovering Pessimist” (Aired: 02/28/97)
Ray tries to have a more optimistic outlook on life.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Jeff Meyer
Even though I said above that Raymond alone isn’t the show’s engine — meaning that just following him around to the various parts of his life (home, work, friends) isn’t going to satisfy more than the thesis — I appreciate this episode because it zeroes in on him more specifically, getting far more introspective than any other first season excursion. You see, in having Debra label Ray a pessimist, the show validates some of the characteristics unique to Romano and his character as previously displayed, while also establishing for itself a template for future conflict, where Ray’s own neuroses and inability to be truly happy will remain a character flaw. The show wisely uses the Barone family as an explanation for Ray’s inner workings and that scene in the parents’ kitchen is the entry’s highlight. Yet, what’s most interesting about this one is that everybody loves Raymond — just ask Robert — and the dichotomy of Ray being the favorite and still having his successes undervalued makes for nuanced depictions of all.
10) Episode 22: “Why Are We Here?” (Aired: 04/07/97)
Ray and Debra remember how they moved across the street from his parents.
Written by Ray Romano & Tom Paris | Directed by Jeff Meyer
Season One ends with a flashback, sparking a tradition that will maintain throughout the first six seasons — the first two trimesters (“discovering” and “being”). Generally, I’m not a fan of flashbacks on any series, because they arise inorganically from the action and are essentially a gimmick, as comedy is derived from the audience’s hindsight knowledge of what’s to come storywise for the characters, not actual character comedy. However, Raymond, like The Dick Van Dyke Show (another classic comedy that Rosenthal clearly admires) does them with surprising success because the series’ premise is about family, and families inherently have histories. To that point, this flashback finale is probably the best of the lot; it’s not the funniest, but it’s the most narratively worth having, as it explains exactly how the show’s structure was established — how Ray and Debra ended up across from his folks. And this is, yes, an excuse to employ that shameless hindsight humor, yet it’s also an indication that the show has already been around long enough to be so self-referential with regard to character dynamics. In fact, had the show not been renewed following its Monday night move, this would have been a fitting finale. But, as we know, Raymond went on… and fortunately, it would improve tremendously.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “I Love You,” the sophomore entry that is centered around Ray/Debra, defines the characters a little more, and gets the family involved, and “Who’s Handsome?,” which introduces Amy, and represents how a Robert story best works: when it’s more about Raymond. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “The Dog,” “Neighbors,” and “Fascinatin’ Debra,” which all have good ideas but so-so executions.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
“Turkey Or Fish”
Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!