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.
Although we’ve established that the weakest season of this entire series is its first, and we’ll eventually come to note that the last three years are imperfect because they follow an era that was more thesis-connected and effortlessly consistent, I nevertheless don’t think there’s any season of Everybody Loves Raymond that’s as disappointing as its third. Wait — don’t get me wrong, it’s so much better than the two preceding, development-needing years, but that’s precisely what’s disappointing about Three. Unlike the first two — which had growing pains to endure (Two had a lot because One was surprisingly negligent) — this is the first year that could have been a part of the series’ peak. That’s right. My little trimester framework that I’ve foisted upon you for this coverage might not have existed if Three was slightly better. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to make due with Three being peak-adjacent, meaning that even though it’s not quite at its best, it’s so very close to where we want it to be. And indeed, there’s a moment in the year — a specific, singular episode, near the end — where I think the show actually gets to the second trimester’s “being,” finally ready to fire on all cylinders for a whole season, which will be the series’ fourth — the first of the peak era, the first of the second trimester’s “being” phase, and one of the few near-perfect collections. So, what holds Three back? Well, quite frankly, Patricia Heaton’s pregnancy… Just as we saw to a lesser extent at the end of the first year, when character strides were undermined because Debra’s usage was qualified, Three suffers because it can’t write its leading lady the way it needs to in order to regularly fulfill its thesis. And that’s enough to handicap the whole year because a third of the season (at least) is forced to include her minimally, if at all — essentially reducing the year’s capabilities by 33%.
What makes this event — which is beyond the show’s control, by the way — particularly tragic is that Season Two had poised Three for greatness because it had already learned something vital about the series’ identity, specifically that it wasn’t about Ray; it was about Ray’s family — both sides (Debra being one of the sides) — of which he is the center. To wit, the 66% of Season Three where Debra is used decently is, for the most part, terrific — even better than the flashes of brilliance observed in Two. What’s more: it’s more suggestive of sustainable quality, for unlike its predecessor, which opened with a relatively weak offering that indicated just how little improvement the show was taking with it from Season One into Two, Three gives us a premiere entry — highlighted below — that communicates perfect self-understanding: Ray’s old family is intrusive upon his new family and this is the central conflict, because he’s naturally stuck in the middle (albeit, more often than not, and as in the case of “The Invasion,” he’s more on his new family’s side — Debra’s — because remember, the pilot set their bond as dominant, and this is structurally vital). From there, the show is better able to embed this into weekly plot, even if it’s not an episode’s main narrative, and this is exactly the kind of storytelling know-how that we’ll see on display in the second trimester… Now, if the comedy in the year’s early outings still feels tame in comparison to the upcoming peak era efforts, the entries following Heaton’s maternity leave — even the narratively mediocre ones — are tonally evolved: bolder and more recognizably bellicose. This is because something finally clicks with Debra — see more below (and next week) — as she starts to inhale the healthy fumes of a fully-realized central conflict that has her, like Marie, becoming an even more seminal figure — one that requires an elevated toughness. And with Debra trained for combat, the show is now ready to engage her…
Because, you see, Debra is also benefiting from what’s around her: stronger, more precise characterizations for the rest of the Barone clan… This speaks to the silver lining of Three’s “where’s Debra?” cloud, for although episodes that don’t use Heaton properly almost always fail to delight because they simply can’t address the show’s thesis — meaning that the exceptions, several of which are highlighted below, have an inherently uphill battle in the quest for greatness — they accordingly have to turn their sights elsewhere, giving more play to the other half of Ray’s family: his parents and his brother. As a result, our anchoring Barone finds his relationship with the others — and their relationships with each other — deepening from this increased attention during Debra’s absence. And though these episodes, again, may not be wholly satisfying (if they even work at all — there’s some real turkeys here, folks), they do end up fulfilling a sneakily vital function, for they add nuance to these characterizations, while also strengthening and emphasizing their natural tensions, emboldening them for an increase in conflict, and thus, comedy. In this way, Season Three ultimately earns its place within the first trimester — the so-called “discovering” phase — not merely because it doesn’t spend enough time “being” (like Seasons Four, Five, and Six), but more accurately, because it does still have some things left to discover within its ensemble. And by the time Debra returns to regular usage, we realize that, even though most of the shows in the interim were fairly, well, flat — and, yes, odious enough to make sure that Season Three couldn’t represent the series at its peak — they haven’t been for naught, and some quietly beneficial character-building has occurred . . . just in time for the series to reach its peak in the second trimester.
This brings us back to that episode I mentioned earlier — the one that launches us into the “peak era.” It’s the year’s penultimate outing, “Robert Moves Back,” which I’ll talk more about below. What’s important to know now is that — requisite finale flashback notwithstanding (which, incidentally, is without Frank due to Peter Boyle’s heart attack) — caps off a season-long arc given to Robert. (Let’s note that every time the series needs a temporary seasonal focus, particularly when it launches its third trimester following the fulfillment of its thesis at the end of Season Six, Robert finds himself with more to do, usually in the form of an arc — and the first time we really see this is here, in Debra’s forced leave. Generally, his arcs are worthwhile, for Robert’s own liminality is a comedically rich “cousin” to Ray’s primary thesis.) This entry climaxes with everyone in the kitchen for one of those theatrical and soon-to-be commonplace all-cast catharses, where we come to realize, finally and for real, that every character is defined, the core tension is known and acknowledged (even when it’s not itself driving the A-story), and the show can craft situations that enable heightened dramatic stakes and comedic moments based on these now conflict-heavy familial relationships. This is the moment where the show enters its “being” phase, culminating in a recognition of self that’s been three-years-in-the-making, the last of which (this season, the third) was spent as CBS Monday’s important 9:00 anchor, and taste-maker (inspiring, for sure, The King Of Queens, which exists within the same “universe”). And because of the year’s arrived-at understanding, critics were also beginning to pay more attention to the series, finally recognizing it with Emmy nominations… No wins though. Not yet, not until the second trimester. But thanks to Three, that’s just around the corner… So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.
01) Episode 48: “The Invasion” (Aired: 09/21/98)
Ray and Debra are forced to temporarily move in with his parents.
Written by Ellen Sandler | Directed by Will Mackenzie
What a difference a year makes! If Season Two opened with an installment that scared us because it illustrated just how far the show remained from its promises, then Three should inspire confidence, for this outing perfectly communicates the central conflict and utilizes a story that maximizes the established relationships within this narrative framework. Only a show that knows itself can pull off a premise predicted on the inverse of expectations; while usually it’s the elder Barones (and Robert) intruding on Ray and Debra’s lives, this time the opposite occurs, when the younger Barone couple is forced to move in with his folks across the street… With the intrusion theme well-engaged by this Victorious Premise, the episode then goes about putting Ray in the middle, as Debra decides to take advantage of the scenario by showing the family — especially her nemesis, Marie — exactly how difficult unwanted guests can be, marking a strong start for a year that finally knows what it should be doing (we can rest easy now, kids), even if there’s still room for bigger clashes and heartier laughs…
02) Episode 52: “The Visit” (Aired: 10/19/98)
Debra finds herself frustrated with her visiting mother.
Written by Susan Van Allen | Directed by Richard Marion
As with the above, this entry signifies an understanding of the show’s paramount dramatic interests and the relationships that fuel them. And once again, it does so with a reverse of the anticipated, when Debra finds herself telling her mom (played by the always wonderful Katherine Helmond) that she wishes she could have a mother more like… Marie. It’s a shock to everyone involved — including the delighted audience — because we know of the relationship between wife and mother-in-law, and the tension that’s already underscored the series’ best conflicts. Although previous shows with Debra’s folks (or just her mom, who occasionally appears by herself) have been about playing up the contrast between the Whelans and the Barones, this one shifts its focus more specifically to Debra, so that a more important dynamic can be serviced: the one that typically is the most fraught (Debra/Marie). This comic know-how looks forward to the more regularly applied narrative capabilities of just “being.”
03) Episode 53: “Halloween Candy” (Aired: 10/26/98)
Ray buys condoms and Frank accidentally gives them out on Halloween.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Because of Raymond‘s simple, character-rich, relationship-driven design, the show doesn’t have to rely too often on heavy plot interests. (Typically, if a story is ostentatious, it’s generally because it’s trying to compensate for something character-based that isn’t present.) As such, most of the Victories In Premise that we’ll observe — ideas that appeal, regardless of how they’re actually executed — deal with narratives that do relate to the characters and the thesis (like “The Invasion”)… However, that’s not the case with this one, which is predicated on a singularly comedic idea — something the show couldn’t do until it moved to 9PM — of Frank mistakingly giving out condoms as Halloween candy. It’s a hilarious, unique notion and it’s the reason this offering is easily favored, no matter the outcome, which is, incidentally, fine — at this season’s comic baseline. But the truth is, there’s plenty of room for a show like this on the list, because while this script does toil to hook its premise, no character is stretched in the process. This means we can appreciate the ensuing laughs for what they are — the welcome result of a fresh comedic premise — and note that they don’t come at the expense of character, which remains the priority, even when story is gaudy. That’s an important distinction.
04) Episode 54: “Moving Out” (Aired: 11/02/98)
Robert decides to move out of his parents’ home.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Will Mackenzie
It’s around this time that Debra stops being used normally. The next few entries — including the two featured directly below — include her in the big scenes as best they can. But storywise, the year can no longer wait; it has to pivot away from Debra. The diversion — just as it will be every time the show needs to back away from its thesis — is Robert, who gets his first ever seasonal arc, beginning here when he finally decides (thanks to Ray) to move out of his parents’ home. Although we’ve talked before about Robert not being a thesis-fulfilling engine — that is, he’s best used as a tactic to help engage the central conflict, via his effect on Ray — I have to reiterate, from above, that his own liminality, the fact that he’s stuck between his parents and his own independence, is a comedic younger cousin to the premise, and I think this does make him a worthy distraction. It’s not as truly satisfying as the thesis, but we welcome his episodes when they come, particularly because of Garrett himself… This one, however, is most notable for a comedic idea: Robert is so messed up from living with Frank and Marie that his idea of striking out on his own means… moving into a house with an elderly couple who are their Jewish equivalents. It’s another Victory In Premise — funny on paper, regardless of the execution — but Robert’s characterization grounds it, validating this as a mini-arc.
05) Episode 56: “The Lone Barone” (Aired: 11/16/98)
Ray is blamed for Robert’s break-up with Amy.
Written by Tom Caltabiano & Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Continuing the Robert arc, this entry introduces his apartment. But the new setting, and his accompanying freedom, is more prominently featured in an installment noted below (among the Honorable Mentions). This one, similarly using Robert as the spark of its story, actually has a different intention: extricating Robert from the relationship he’s had with his recurring girlfriend, Amy. We know what’s to come on that front, but at this point, making his character single again is a way of opening up story avenues, which is vital now that Debra won’t be providing them. What I like best about this offering, though, is how it’s really anchored by Ray, whose inadvertent “words of wisdom” seem to inspire Robert’s choice, thereby angering the rest of the family (particularly Debra and Marie), who gather in the kitchen for a loud and prescient example of what we can expect more often with the ensemble in future seasons. Accordingly, while the below mentioned “The Apartment” is a Robert story that’s also smartly led by Ray, this one is more forward-looking, with better stuff for the ensemble.
06) Episode 57: “No Fat” (Aired: 11/23/98)
Debra and Marie decide to have a healthy Thanksgiving.
Written by Ellen Sandler & Susan Van Allen | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
In crafting this list, I realize that Season Three has several episodes led by visual comedy, like Robert dancing in the club in “Robert’s Date” or, here, in “No Fat,” when Marie comes out with a disgusting, jiggly tofu mold shaped like a turkey, with paper extensions meant to resemble legs. It’s an iconic sight gag, and as with several of the comic notions within other memorable shows this year, I believe the entire narrative is built around the inclusion of this singularly, naturally funny idea… Admittedly, this isn’t my preference; it’s a little more story-based than the show’s character-rooted intentions, forcing us to believe that Marie, who was so traditional two seasons ago that she wouldn’t have fish on the holiday, would now be in favor of tofu. You see, it’s a bit of a leap, and because story is leading character, this can’t be among my favorite Raymond Thanksgivings… That said, I appreciate Marie and Debra once again being on the same side (this inversion, by itself, is an indirect reference to the thesis), and I can’t deny the quality of the performances, which help elevate an already amusing script.
07) Episode 59: “The Toaster” (Aired: 12/14/98)
Ray is shocked that his parents exchanged a special toaster he bought them.
Written by Philip Rosenthal | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Creator Philip Rosenthal once again uses events from his personal life for this superlative Christmas offering that builds to one of the funniest character centerpieces of the season, with Frank and Marie descending upon a department store to exchange a coffee maker that they only recently traded in for a personally inscribed toaster Raymond had bought them as a present. It’s more than a Victorious Premise, for although the idea of these two relatable, but larger-than-life nuisances wreaking havoc on others out in public is something we haven’t really seen before (surprisingly enough), it’s so rooted in their characterizations that it goes beyond the idea to actually become an excellent exploration of them. Their dismissive attitude towards Raymond’s gestures has already been established as far back as the pilot (with the “fruit of the month” club), so we completely understand why they would exchange the gift without even looking at it… but then we also get why, when Raymond explains what it means, they’re determined to get it back — after all, as Robert knows, he is their favorite child — and this then fuels their desperation at the store, where they do indeed, as we expect, wreak havoc. Additionally, this bit at the store, the first time the two elder Barones are carrying a scene both heavy in story and comedy, gives us a chance to see them independently of the other regulars, and allows the duo to exist as fully fledged people on their own — not just extensions of the conflict. It’s part of that sneaky “discovering” that occurs with them this year, in Debra’s stead.
08) Episode 62: “Robert’s Date” (Aired: 02/01/99)
Robert fears that he may be dating his police partner, Judy.
Written by Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Frankly, this one inspires mixed feelings. As noted above, it’s one of the shows this year that’s well-liked because it’s blessed with an iconic comic centerpiece that stays in our collective head: Robert dancing in the club with his partner Judy (the very funny Sherri Shepherd) and all her friends. It’s the type of broader physical comedy we discussed last week in relation to “Traffic School.” But this time it’s more from his character, as we come to understand that Robert’s dancing, and his adoption of a new persona — which is defined, but perhaps not explicitly in this word, as “black” (the performance of racial identity is an often uncomfortable subject matter and one I’m not sure the teleplay handles well, although I have to admit, I think there’s more comedy to be mined from this topic than some would care to admit) — is rooted in his own insecurity about fitting in, which both works for the character as we know him, and also ties into his arc about finding independence. Thus, the gag of him dancing and then later, wearing the ugly mustard suit — while broader than I’d like — has something truthful and worthwhile grounding it. As a result, the comedy lands, and instead of worrying about the broadness — or what this piece of entertainment from 1999 is trying to say (or not say) about race — I’m thinking about what the show wants me to think about: the characters.
09) Episode 70: “Be Nice” (Aired: 05/03/99)
Ray and Debra try to be nicer to each other.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Of all the episodes on this list, you may be most surprised to see this one (in place of another more popular offering like the year’s flashback finale, “How They Met” — which, don’t worry, is mentioned below). But “Be Nice” is a crucial show-builder because, as we discussed in the commentary, Heaton’s return to full-time use not only reunites the year with its ability to address the thesis (which it now knows it can routinely explore), but also comes packaged — finally — to the more conflict-focused, comedically bolder, energy that defines the show through both its best seasons and those thereafter. In other words, this is the moment where the show adopts its more caustic point-of-view, and the key to all of this is, not surprisingly, Debra… Now, we’ve seen episodic indications of Debra’s growing temper earlier this year (like in “The Lone Barone”), yet this outing, from this seminal post-leave stretch, cements her heightened attitude as endemic of the character, like when, for example, Debra’s penchant for calling Ray an “idiot” is highlighted and then called out as a fundamental part of her persona. It then becomes so… And with Debra now defined as ever-ready to battle — typically Marie, but sometimes Ray — the show can engage its main conflict with the heightened hahas and dramatic fire with which we, thanks to the peak years, have come to associate it. Essentially, this is when Debra Barone truly becomes Debra Barone. (Note: this original broadcast played into a CBS crossover stunt with all four Monday comedies. The special scenes were only seen once. Do you have them?)
10) Episode 72: “Robert Moves Back” (Aired: 05/17/99)
Robert moves into Ray’s basement after he and Amy are publicly shamed.
Written by Lew Schneider & Aaron Shure | Directed by Brian K. Roberts
I went into detail above about my preference for this installment, which is, of course, my MVE, when discussing why it’s finally “…the moment where the show enters its ‘being’ phase, culminating in a recognition of self that’s been three-years-in-the-making…” You see, this excursion starts out looking like nothing more than the year’s culmination of its forced-but-beneficial Robert arc, as he reconciles with Amy and has sex with her in his apartment, thus consummating, not just their relationship, but also the quest for independence that has propelled all of his stories this year… Yet when the narrative rightfully curves to involve the show’s anchor, Raymond, by having the couple stay in his basement, the smart teleplay builds to the moment in the kitchen, which, as I said above, is “…one of those theatrical and soon-to-be commonplace all-cast catharses, where we come to realize, finally and for real, that every character is defined, the core tension is known and acknowledged (even when it’s not itself driving the A-story), and the show can craft situations that enable heightened dramatic stakes and comedic moments based on these now conflict-heavy familial relationships.” As with last season’s MVE, “Good Girls,” we have the entire regular cast and Amy — who will become a regular, long after this design goes from templated to formulaic — in the same room at the same time, and as we know, it’s precisely what this multi-cam-poster-child does best. Last season couldn’t do it regularly, and this season was simply unable to do it (because of matters beyond its control), but at long last, it’s becoming something we can expect to see with frequency. Why? Because, for the first time, it looks so simple. Oh, yes, we have the flashy gag of Amy and the pants — and the necessary arc-ending moment for Robert, which reveals that the show is pulling no punches when it comes to character conflict (YAY!) — but other than that, it’s just everyone behaving as we expect them to behave, with a couple of beats thrown in to ensure that Raymond is still stuck in the middle and that his primary oppositional forces, Debra and Marie, are as opposed as ever… even if they’re not the exact focus… So, this is it. After three long seasons, we’re ready for the second trimester, the “being” phase, the peak era…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “How They Met,” the flashback finale that includes a very funny scene where Ray and Debra first meet, but otherwise doesn’t justify its inherent gimmick with character beats that can rival those in the selected outings above (and also, for a season that turned more to the ensemble for support, a myopic Ray/Debra story doesn’t seem appropriate), “The Apartment,” which is another amusing, but less ensemble-geared version of the superior “The Lone Barone” mentioned above, and “Getting Even,” the best of the year’s Ray/Debra conflicts, thanks to a funny script and a decent exploration of Ray’s neuroses. Of more Honorable Mention quality are two Frank-led shows, “Driving Frank” and “Ping Pong,” both of which help flesh out his relationships with the other members of the ensemble, and “Move Over,” which I note because it boasts a great scene with Ray and the ever-hilarious Charles Durning as Father Hubley.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
“Robert Moves Back”
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!