Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our look at Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005, CBS), the best “family” sitcom from the turn of the century.
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.
Let’s start with some good news: Season Two is a significant improvement over Season One… For, if you remember from last week, we discussed how Everybody Loves Raymond’s pilot established a thesis where Ray was stuck between his new family and his old one, and we noted that the series’ best episodes will likely derive conflict from this concept — usually with heavy support from the two most oppositional forces, Debra and Marie. But, as we saw, Season One was mostly unable to satisfy on these terms, seemingly resistant to learning the necessary lessons about the show’s dramatic identity, and by the end of the year — tangentially hampered by Patricia Heaton’s growing baby bump and the qualified usage of Debra — strides made in defining individual characters were still undermined by the fact that Raymond was no closer to understanding itself than it had been after the pilot. In effect, there wasn’t the kind of growth one expects from a 22-episode first season — especially for a series that, with hindsight, we know to be capable of excellence — for the essential core conflict wasn’t regularly addressed in weekly story, and the show therefore wasn’t fulfilling its thesis. And in being unable to fulfil its thesis, the show was also unable to match the comedic heights or dramatic relatability we associate with Raymond based on its peak operations. It was, in other words, a boring, water treading year . . . Again, the good news this time, though, is that Season Two is a big improvement over One, and in fact, the kind of growth witnessed during this collection of episodes compensates for what was missing before — such that, by the end of Two, the show looks poised to meet Three with an evolved awareness about its self and its obligations.
But, again, if you’ll remember from last week, I introduced the analytical notion of trimesters as a way to frame the series’ trajectory and understand why certain years work better than others. The first trimester consists of Seasons One, Two, and Three, meaning that not only is Three still part of this “discovering” era as opposed to the “being” era — for one particular reason, mostly beyond its own control (stay tuned for more…) — but also that Two is still very much in the middle of this first trimester. And deservedly so. Thus, despite the good news mentioned above, I also have some, well, bad news: Season Two nevertheless compares unfavorably to the brilliant material produced during the series’ peak second trimester. And I point all this out now to note that if you expect classic Raymond from these episodes, you’re going to be disappointed, for this great domestic comedy — which would eventually be known for its general qualitative consistency — is not yet there, revealing only flashes of brilliance: moments where everything clicks — the characters are who we know them to be, the drama is centered on the relationships that play to the thesis, and the comedy is stratospheric in tandem with the series’ own self-actualization. Accordingly, the number of true gems is few; if One didn’t have any real classics, then Two has, generously, three (and this is in comparison to some years where there are upwards of seven). And the resulting appeal of the remaining episodes on this list has more to do with show’s creative “leveling up” (in relation to Season One) than with the indulgence of second trimester genius (because, again, Two is just not there yet). So, ultimately, if you can appreciate Season Two for what it is — as I said last week, the most formative year of the entire series — then the year has a purpose and a reason for being lauded.
We’ll talk more about those gems below — specifically “The Letter,” the show’s first genuinely dramatic use of a Marie/Debra conflict that poises Raymond for more high-octane clashes, “Marie’s Meatballs,” which ups their rivalry through a more character-specific premise, and, of course, “Good Girls,” which in addition to fulfilling the thesis, delivers a workable template for future greatness, as the structure enables the theatrical “all-cast combustion” that will become formula in later years — along with other formative entries. But more instructive when studying Season Two is talking about its failures — most of them occurring within the first half of the year — because they prove the point about Two having to make the discoveries we expected from One. . . You see, one of the things telling us that the first year didn’t discover what it needed to discover is that Two gives us more of the same for, well, until “The Letter”: stories that either follow Ray outside the home — in the apparent belief that because “Everybody Loves Raymond,” just catering to him alone is sufficient — or anchor themselves within the younger Barones’ world, usually with a Ray/Debra conflict that doesn’t involve the rest of the family, who should be engaged as part of the thesis. In the first column is an entry like the season premiere, “Ray’s On TV,” a professional story that tries to make the family a collective nuisance but actually keeps Ray an outsider, not putting him in the middle or deriving conflict from within the group; it’s all removed — his character, the comedic centerpiece, etc. We could have seen this in Season One and it establishes Two as needing improvement. In that second column is something enjoyable, yet still imperfect, like “The Children’s Book,” which opposes Ray and Debra — a fine trope; there’ll be great shows in this mold later — but still doesn’t utilize the family as it should, keeping the thesis further out of reach and limiting the humor.
By the time the year reaches “Good Girls,” in its last quarter, that first category has essentially been eradicated, for the year discovers, through wise outings like those aforementioned, that the show isn’t just about Ray… it’s about Ray and his family. And while episodes in that second category — the unideal and myopic Ray/Debra story — persist throughout the season (even remaining prevalent for the rest of the run), the most important lesson has been learned: conflicts need to be found within the family unit, and Ray, as much as possible, must be in the middle of their competing interests. (And it’s a good thing, by the way, that the Ray vs. Debra template continues, for aside from the show getting better at injecting the rest of the family into this formula so that the thesis feels more directly engaged, the ongoing cultivation of Debra is also an important reason for, and result of, the mounting identity-fulfillment occurring as the show ramps up its Marie/Debra drama, which centers the show in its peak era and allows both performers, but especially Heaton, to take charge and cement the show as both dramatically viable and comedically exceptional.) So, Raymond looks to leave its second season, going into its third, with the understanding necessary to launch us into the second trimester — the “being” phase — but as I’ve teased, the show wasn’t quite able to get there… Yet that’s for next week. In the meantime, let’s note that Les Moonves smartly moved the show out of its terrible Friday slot and put it on Mondays, behind Cosby, where it retained its “family” aura, but now with the freedom to be more itself — more decidedly for the adults. This placement naturally brought about increased attention and it’s probably a happy accident that the show didn’t become this visible until Two, where, as we’ve explored, the show finally comes to know itself… Okay, so I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s finest.
01) Episode 25: “Brother” (Aired: 10/06/97)
Ray is asked to spend more time with lonely Robert.
Written by Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Michael Lessac
Dedicated to strengthening the bond between Raymond and Robert, played by the one-of-a-kind Brad Garrett, this seminal outing is the only selection I’ve made from the first third of the year, which, as noted above, is otherwise preoccupied with stories that inevitably prolong the needed exploration of the series’ thesis. This one is no exception, but it does serve another vital purpose with regard to the characters, for although Garrett’s unique persona was ably displayed in One, the year had yet to cultivate for Robert a relationship with Ray — his brother, our anchor, and the lens through which most Robert stories should be, in some way, filtered — that moved beyond the surface jokiness suggested by the title. “Brother,” however, sets them on the course for having this needed layered dynamic, and what’s more, it does all this as simply and straightforward as is possible — a contrast to the similarly purposed (but more popular) entry from later in the year entitled “The Ride-Along” (mentioned below), which is heavier on plot and jokes, but less effective than this earlier, more groundbreaking segment.
02) Episode 33: “The Letter” (Aired: 12/08/97)
Debra tells Marie exactly how she feels in a letter.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Highlighted above as one of the most formative outings of the season, this important episode — because of what the first season forced its successor to accomplish — also ends up being one of the most formative of the entire series, for it’s the first to build an entire story around legitimate friction between Debra and Marie, who most vociferously represent the two sides of Ray’s family, and therefore, when opposed, help fulfill the terms of the show’s pilot-born thesis. It’s hard to imagine, but this — the year’s eleventh — is the first in Season Two to meaningfully explore their complicated rivalry. Although, if you’ll recall, the first year was just as negligent on this front, with the closest real clash between the two occurring in my former MVE, “Turkey Or Fish,” which is actually referenced here in “The Letter” because it’s the only precedent for this kind of unflinching, conflict-oriented story. But “The Letter” works precisely because it is unflinching — its simple, relatable, “write a harsh letter and try to get it back” story is more direct than anything we’ve ever seen before on this series by way of episodic tension, and even though the comedy, heightened by Two’s standards, is nevertheless tame in comparison to upcoming classics, its boldness is novel and makes it a true gem of this “discovering” era. (And it’s interesting to realize that the script was originally pitched with a different, much lighter story… with this revolutionary plot taking form instead, almost by accident.)
03) Episode 34: “All I Want For Christmas” (Aired: 12/15/97)
Ray and Debra try to find a moment alone on Christmas Day.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Jeff Meyer
Holidays are great fodder for Raymond because they offer built-in, relatable, and inherently justified opportunities to gather the entire family together for a singular comedic centerpiece. (Not that the show, once in its peak era, will need any excuse to get everyone together…) So, it’s no surprise that this Christmas entry feels like an appropriate fit — especially at this point in time, when the show is beginning to recognize that Ray is not the star, but the center… of a show about his family… Yet, as I note this, evidence of Two still transitioning is apparent here, courtesy of a few essentially unnecessary scenes set at Ray’s office with Andy and a one-off coworker played by Christine Cavanaugh. (In later years, this narrative intel would be given in the home by characters we already know better.) And, as such, even with a mostly un-complex story — a variation of the pilot, to some extent — the show is still “discovering.”
04) Episode 37: “Marie’s Meatballs” (Aired: 01/19/98)
Debra asks Marie for her meatball recipe.
Written by Susan Van Allen | Directed by Brian K. Roberts
One of the three installments discussed above in my commentary as being among the year’s trio of true classics, “Marie’s Meatballs” is a follow-up to “The Letter” in that it’s another story built around the idea that there’s a comedically potent, but dramatically ripe, rivalry between the two most important women in Ray’s life. While the former was designed simply — using a premise to which everyone can relate — this outing takes the tension a step further by making it more specific to the characters, zeroing in on Marie’s proficiency in the kitchen and Debra’s contrasting ignorance so that, in addition to grounding the conflict in something more personal to the characters, it also cements and encourages traits that can forever be exploited comedically, particularly whenever they find themselves in narrative opposition. In this way, “Marie’s Meatballs” doesn’t just fulfill the thesis — for only the second or third time on this series — it also develops still-gestating characterizations. And it’s funny, too.
05) Episode 38: “The Checkbook” (Aired: 02/02/98)
Ray takes over handling the family finances.
Written by Tom Caltabiano | Directed by John Fortenberry
I consider this offering to be an early take on the peak era “Tissues,” which starts with a similar premise — Ray wanting to assume greater household responsibility — but that one doesn’t have to look so outward for its comedic centerpiece. That is, it’s able to do more with the characters, instead of deriving significant plot elements from non-character-based, more generically humorous notions. For instance, the climax here involves a bit of block comedy with Ray, Robert, and an ATM… It’s, oh sure, funny, and amusingly staged, and yep, it also wisely designs itself so that it can include, with believability, Robert… But I imagine that we’d laugh if any character was engaged in this physical struggle, and this broadness, not fully attached to the characterizations, is another indication of why Two is still “discovering,” for while it does signal — thankfully — that the show is willing to be comedically bolder than its relatively muted debut season was, it also illustrates, by contrast, just how much sharper the show will become when it can better utilize its characters, and spark the comedy more exclusively from them.
06) Episode 40: “The Family Bed” (Aired: 03/02/98)
Ray tries to keep Ally from sleeping in his bed.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
This solid first trimester excursion, with a decent teleplay and a generous helping of laughs, is often overshadowed by flashier or more interesting installments — and I deliberated most over its inclusion. However, what I like about this episode, and why I ultimately found it deserving of discussion, is that it’s the year’s best example of the “how to parent” story, one of the narrative arenas that Raymond will forever visit, but most often in its earliest seasons, where the depiction of a middle class couple raising kids in suburbia (while still being sexually active) is, if not completely fresh, then at least freshened by an honesty and a relatability that’s… well, refreshing. These outings don’t speak directly to the thesis, but they can get the family involved, and as opposed to the earlier but similarly enjoyable “Father Knows Least,” this one doesn’t use the original Barone “clan” as merely a comedic accessory — instead it more naturally envelops them in the story, which is otherwise rooted, like much of the year, in a Ray/Debra core. Essentially, its storytelling is smarter than in most of this era’s similar narratives.
07) Episode 41: “Good Girls” (Aired: 03/09/98)
Debra learns that Marie prefers Amy… for a very specific reason.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Joyce Gittlin
My choice for the finest episode of the season, this one’s appeal was succinctly stated in the above seasonal commentary. I’ll reiterate and then expand. As I said, “[I]n addition to fulfilling the thesis, [this entry] delivers a workable template for future greatness, as the structure enables the theatrical ‘all-cast combustion’ that will become formula in later years.” I mean, as the third in a trilogy of second season shows predicated on the tension between Marie and Debra, mostly on the latter’s perceived ill-treatment from the former, this installment rises beyond the novelty of “The Letter” and the narrative specificity of “Marie’s Meatballs” to show us the type of character-driven, conflict-rich — and very funny — storytelling that’s possible to do with regularity if their now-established dynamic is embedded within the ensemble as a whole. Okay, the thesis-grabbing notion of Ray being caught between his wife and his mother (who doesn’t like his wife for reasons that this script perhaps explains) is definitely the crux of the story; I would probably highlight it no matter what. (It’s fulfilling and indicates an understanding of identity that only few entries so far can claim.) But there’s more to the offering than that — there’s the rivalry between the Barone brothers, Robert’s romance with the recurring Amy (who finally gets some definition here), and the kind of history-building within the family that the show knows it needs but has had trouble implanting organically (see: “Anniversary”) without a stronger sense of the relationships. So, this one builds these relationships by placing the conflict within the show’s weekly universe — thus indicating a way it can be used more regularly — and does so with astonishing skill, climaxing in a well-crafted, multi-cam-lovin’ scene where all the regulars are together in one place at one time, interacting in character and sparking emotional catharses for each other with a comic boldness that, in Two, is hard to find, but will eventually become routine. For all these reasons, it’s the best of the season — and perhaps the only one that can stand alongside peak Raymond and not look underdeveloped.
08) Episode 42: “T-Ball” (Aired: 04/06/98)
Ray and Debra sign up to bring snacks to T-Ball.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Jeff Melman
Dan Castellaneta — better known as the voice of Homer Simpson — guest stars in this well-liked episode that, as with “The Family Bed,” takes its premise from something with which most middle class households can identify: the conflicts between parents whose kids share extracurricular activities — in this case, T-Ball. It’s a great, down-to-earth idea enlivened by a funny understanding of these fraught dynamics (and some delicious casting). But the reason I include it here is that it’s actually, more than “The Family Bed,” a Ray/Debra story — in fact, the rest of the family isn’t used as well as I’d typically want. You see, it’s not about Castellaneta or the kids (it rarely is, thank heavens) — but about the parents, for the two have contrasting ideas about how to handle the rules of T-Ball snack-bringing, making this, in essence, one from a category of frequent Season Two stories that we discussed above, using the less successful “The Children’s Book” as a study. Because there are quite a few of these in Two, it was important that one be highlighted. This is the best — the funniest, the most original.
09) Episode 43: “Traffic School” (Aired: 04/20/98)
Robert leads the family in traffic school.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by John Fortenberry
A fine showcase for Brad Garrett, a beloved presence (and ultimately, a frequently used source of story outside the typical thesis-connected fare) because of his expert clowning, this popular outing is one with which I struggle. Yes, I’m afraid I find it abundantly broad, and, again, it’s not as rooted in character as I’d like. I’m speaking now of Robert and “Traffic Cop Timmy,” the ventriloquist dummy that he invents to teach the rest of his family the rules of the road — the first two leaps here being that A) Robert is now teaching traffic school and B) several members of the family suddenly need his expertise. It’s all a bit “hand-of-writer” for my tastes — with a couple of big leaps to make, too — and as far as Robert-heavy entries go, I much prefer something with less narrative finagling and more character (like “Lucky Suit”). But I do genuinely enjoy this one… Aside from being funny, the ensemble as a collective shows a nice rapport when stuck together for Robert’s traffic school (their interplay is much easier, and yet richer, than it was in last season’s “The Game,” for instance) — making those scenes a delight from a show-building perspective. And of course, it’s always nice when Garrett shines, and this segment, more than any other in Two, indicates just how capable he’ll be at handling BIGGER comedy . . . something we’ll see more often (and more adroitly) next season.
10) Episode 47: “The Wedding (II)” (Aired: 05/18/98)
Ray has cold feet on the day of his wedding.
Written by Ray Romano & Phil Rosenthal | Directed by Jeff Melman
Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about flashbacks on the sitcom — I find them often a self-indulgent and unnecessary gimmick where comedy is too often derived from hindsight story knowledge as opposed to character and their behaviors. But, as noted, Everybody Loves Raymond does them well and sparingly — once a year, for the finale (in the first two trimesters, that is). This is the only year that makes the flashback a two-parter, and oh, thank goodness for that, for as Part I indicates, if we’re flashing back to an important moment in these characters’ lives — and that’s the purpose, right? — then the build-up is inherently “fat,” something immaterial to this already story-driven narrative, revealing the self-indulgent gratuitousness of the idea without the hook of the actual spectacle. (And Part I, frankly, isn’t as comedic as it needs to be either…) That’s to say, I think this finale could have dropped in at Part II, which is a big spectacle, but a riotous one — starting with a terrific scene where Ray and Debra meet with the hysterical Father Hubley, played by Charles Durning in his debut — and climaxing with a great, unique wedding sequence where we’re led to believe that Ray is drunk. It’s broad, but it gets its laughs and we accept it because it’s motivated by his well-developed cold feet. Plus, since it’s largely well-crafted — Part II, I mean — the unappealing bigness of the story becomes less of a concern, and as so much of this year featured couple stories and had a heavy Ray/Debra bent, I think it’s fitting that this season ends with a romantic flashback otherwise focused on them. (Fortunately, Two has also done enough work to let me know that this shouldn’t be its guiding focus going forward, so I’m not worried…)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Father Knows Least,” which is a fun parenting show that boasts some good laughs (but doesn’t use the family for anything more than a gag), “Anniversary,” which has the right idea regarding some history-building for the Barone family, but isn’t as funny as it needs to be (and is weighted down by gaudy flashbacks that don’t help), and “The Ride-Along,” a Ray/Robert show that is narratively quite ostentatious and no more emotionally revealing than its ancestor, “Brother.” Of more Honorable Mention quality are two late-in-the-season shows that illustrate the growing family design, “Six Feet Under” and “The Garage Sale.” Also, I’d be remiss for not citing the great scene between Romano and Peter Boyle in the otherwise too-serious “The Gift.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!