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.
Season Four marks the beginning of a new era for Everybody Loves Raymond, and the contrast between the first three years and Four would be obvious even if I hadn’t used the trimester framework as a rhetorical prism to structure this analysis, for the scripts this season are more confident than ever, offering bigger laughs in relationship-driven stories that are heavy on conflict and take advantage of more precise, yet comedically heightened characterizations. Uncoincidentally, real episodic consistency — a baseline of general excellence maintained with regularity — truly exerts itself here, as Season Four holds the greatest number of classics we’ve seen yet from Raymond. And even though “episodic consistency” doesn’t mean an absence of duds — on the contrary, whenever a baseline of quality is established, particularly a healthy one, there are inevitably scripts that fall below the average, with a good portion theoretically at-or-below-baseline — it’s all relative. That is, some seasons, like this one, are of such a high stature that even the bottom 33%, including the “duds,” can be enjoyable. And indeed, one of the other distinctions we can make between this year and its predecessors is that, for the first time, it’s a rarity for an episode to simply not work. Even if a script fails to live up to the year’s baseline, Four has such an understanding of its identity — its comedy, its conflict, its characters — that these disappointing offerings don’t suggest the type of overarching failure of earlier seasons’ duds. Finally, a weaker episode can be merely that — a weaker episode, and a byproduct of the machine, where some weeks are great, and by comparison, others can’t be… Fortunately, most weeks happen to be enjoyable, and with very few exceptions, Raymond’s next three seasons — the series’ second trimester, if you will — all have duds that, just like their gems, basically work. That more than anything else, is the tangible result of a series at its peak functioning.
But before we enter the so-called “being” phase, let’s rewind. As we saw, earlier years had to actively learn about the show’s identity. Though the first two seasons reliably built the characters, it wasn’t until the end of Two that the show zeroed-in on its thesis — the idea that Raymond is trapped between his new family (led by Debra) and his old family (led by Marie). Unfortunately, Three had trouble narratively exploring this now-known conceit due to Patricia Heaton’s second pregnancy. However, upon her return and following a string of not-so-good episodes that nevertheless forced refined depictions of the others, indicating that additional “discovering” had been, in fact, necessary — all the players settled into evolved, elevated depictions, which not only increased the laughs, but also signaled the adoption of traits necessary for the series to go forward with the kind of no-punches-pulled weekly clashes that could honor the premise, while, more generally, bringing about that outstandingly funny character-driven consistency… So, Season Four, having endured its growing pains, is the first where the show can simply BE — it knows itself, and it doesn’t have to strain in order to fulfill its obligations (as the last three seasons will somewhat have to do in order to sustain production of episodic gems) … And key to all this, as we’ve noted, is the recurring narrative utilization of the central conflict, which prioritizes both Marie and Debra, with the latter assuming a newfound comedic dominance — a vitally aggressive attitude that’s better poised her to battle the rest of the family, and especially her structural nemesis. Despite the expected increase in stories that play to the thesis, this beautifully symbiotic evolution within Debra — something discovered at the tail end of Three but workably mainstreamed here — is a credit to both the character and to Heaton, whose work in uproarious entries like “Bad Moon Rising” earned the performer her first Emmy.
This was also the first win for the show, indicating that, while the 1999-’00 season was the second for which Raymond got Emmys nods, its actual gateway to industry respect via awards came from Heaton, whose Debra best reflects the show’s qualitative ascension. For as we’ve seen, the show’s knowledge of how to explore its thesis with regularity is directly correlated to both her prominence and the uptick in baseline quality. Thus, it’s not a stretch to give Debra/Heaton more credit than any other regular for the difference between this year and those preceding (and for the maintained excellence of this entire middle era). And I say this also because the bolder use of Debra is an apt esthetic metaphor for the season at large, witnessed even in episodes that don’t necessarily have a narrative connection to the thesis. Take, for example, the premiere: “Boob Job” (cited as an Honorable Mention). It’s a gaudy, idea-driven story that, generously, could be defined as centering around a Ray/Debra conflict. Less generously, it’s a gratuitously sexual offering with a comedic centerpiece that neither makes use of the rest of the family or is supported by great character logic. And yet the courage of its comic intent, aside from the way it features Debra, reveals the confidence inherent within Four — confidence that not even Three can claim. We also see this chutzpah in entries that hardly concern the leading lady, like the ones that involve Robert, who, as in Season Three, gets a mini-arc that brings him back into his parents’ house. It’s a memorable story — he’s gored by a bull — that both makes use of his career as a policeman (which is specific to his character) and also allows him to indulge in the moping self-pity that matches the general tenor of his position in the family as a result of Raymond’s centricity. (And as we’ve noted, Robert episodes work best when there’s an effect on Ray — or rather, some acknowledgment of the premise.)
These Robert episodes, which include the flashback finale, are, as usual, not as satisfying as the thesis-related offerings. But, generally, they work. And they’re instructive; as we’ll see, the “continuing” phase (the third trimester) will more formally recruit Robert as a narrative engine in place of a virtually-absent thesis (with some success, relative to those years’ lesser baselines). Yet I don’t think stories centered around his character are ever as smart as they are here both because of his usage — the more “down” Robert is, the riper his comedic perspective is — and because of the show itself, for again, we’re in the “being” years, where even if stories don’t directly involve the central conflict, the show instinctively embeds the tension — in Robert stories, too… Furthermore, the show also has room to occasionally break from its thesis, because we’re no longer worried that its absence indicates a chronic-identity-based issue. (That’s unique to this trimester, by the way.) In Four, if Ray isn’t caught between both sides of the family, stories still place him in the middle — the center of the figurative Venn diagram — which subliminally engages the premise. Also, the era’s comedically bolder characterizations, both a function of and a lubricant for bolder episodic conflicts — thesis-specific or not — are ever clear, meaning that the effects of a show that knows itself can be felt in every story. And that’s another luxury of being within one of Raymond’s peak seasons… Now, as for where the year fits within its own trimester, I’ll say that Four’s selection of gems and the relative novelty of its newfound “beingness” makes it a stronger year than Five. But Six, thanks to an even greater number of gems, and a thematic know-how that reaches its apex via thesis-fulfillment, is sharper, rendering Four the second best season of a show that, in spite of whole eras that aren’t as superlative, generally boasts a commendable baseline… Want proof? Well, I have, as usual, chosen ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 75: “The Can Opener” (Aired: 09/27/99)
Ray and Debra both have different recollections of an argument.
Written by Aaron Shure & Susan Van Allen | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Following a flashy season premiere that didn’t reflect the new era’s narrative interests — aside from accurately embodying its rise in confidence — Four’s second showing is a more laudable sample of what we can expect. It’s essentially a Ray/Debra story that reveals its second semester smarts by using the family to exacerbate the drama between the pair, culminating in one of those all-cast combustions that is becoming a mainstream, regular event… Now, this isn’t the best of its genre, for although I appreciate what it signals about the show’s seemingly effortless projection of its identity (especially in how it features the family), the use of the clichéd Rashomon construct, something we could see on any sitcom, indicates a gimmick that Raymond is typically above. You see, Rosenthal generally refused to use stunts (like dream sequences or fantasies) — the few exceptions in early years are aberrations, and don’t work — and this may be the only post-“discovering” entry to break his rule. (The only sanctioned stunt is the flashback, but those are supposed to be character-oriented — ideally — and confined to once a season.) Yet because Rashomon requires distinct points-of-view, it does end up celebrating character. This, plus the confident hahas and smart ensemble use, shows why this trimester is indeed the peak: it can make anything work, turning a cliché into a near-classic.
02) Episode 77: “Sex Talk” (Aired: 10/11/99)
Ray and Debra get different stories about his parents’ sex life.
Written by Tod Himmel & Lisa K. Nelson | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Despite being one of the must-includes, this is nevertheless one of the list’s average efforts. Okay, hold up; I’m not calling it mediocre — on the contrary, this is a hilarious ensemble piece (with, yes, that climactic design we’ve come to know and love) about subject matter that not only yields easy guffaws (sex), but does so with the benefit of terrific characterizations in support, making this, again, a fine example of why I’ve labeled this period the “being” phase. And, as I said, I knew I had to include it here. However, even though it’s fairly high up above the season’s baseline, it’s in the middle of the list‘s baseline, because there are both more seminal showings (the MVE fare), along with a few — just a few in this strong season — that are definitely NOT classics, but still bring something unique and worth highlighting to the collection… I say all this to emphasize just how solid the installment manages to be, and how easily it showcases the charms of this second trimester, which, like all series television, has lower-rung outings (it’s all relative), but operates at such a high level that an entry like this, which would have been a classic and MVE-contender in any of the first three years, can now, this season, be seen as just run-of-the-mill. That‘s how you know Four is in an entirely different world than Three — these “really goods” are better than last year’s “greats.”
03) Episode 81: “Debra’s Workouts” (Aired: 11/15/99)
Ray worries that Debra’s libido is being stoked by a teacher at the gym.
Written by Tom Caltabiano & Ray Romano & Mike Royce | Directed by Will Mackenzie
From a “really good” to a simple “good” — and one of the aforementioned offerings on this list that I definitely couldn’t classify as being among its roster of classics — you’ll note I’m still calling this one of the best samples from one of the best seasons, and that’s mainly because it takes good care of Raymond (who, not surprisingly, is credited as one of its authors). For although the show has come to realize that just servicing its titular protagonist isn’t enough to fulfill the terms of the thesis — it should be servicing Ray as the center of a familial ensemble, which means crafting stories about the entire family — he undoubtedly is our anchor, and giving him the opportunity to clown is essential, especially since, now in the peak era, the show can afford to do so without threatening our understanding of the premise. That is, the show can afford to have stories that are less family-focused and take their comedic centerpieces from Ray’s silliness specifically — like here, in the exercise class — while basing their conflicts almost exclusively around his own neuroses. This is because the show’s conflict is already embedded in every teleplay — like, for instance, when he goes over to his parents’ house and instead of assuaging his fears, they compound them; it’s a show-knowing scene from a funny “Ray episode” — his best of the season. And this genre had to be represented today.
04) Episode 82: “No Thanks” (Aired: 11/22/99)
Debra tries to pretend that she’s not bothered by Marie.
Written by Tucker Cawley & Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Will Mackenzie
I seldom see this installment listed among anyone’s favorites, even when discussing Four in particular, and this surprises me, because in addition to being as funny as most of the year’s gems, it’s narratively uncomplicated and driven by relationships, primarily the one between Debra and Marie, whose natural tension fuels many of the series’ most thesis-fulfilling outings. By design, “No Thanks” falls neatly into this esteemed collection, acknowledging the dramatic premise by inverting the traditional modus operandi — for Debra decides that instead of letting on how annoyed and bothered she is by some of Marie’s snide remarks, she’s just going to pretend like it doesn’t faze her. The comedy then comes from the effect this change in behavior has on the rest of the family (including Amy, whose presence here makes this feel like a companion, of sorts, to Two’s classic “Good Girls”) and also from the results — when Marie, who had heretofore seemed to embrace this change in Debra’s demeanor, reveals that she’s seen right through it the whole time, thus angering Debra and returning their relationship to the status quo. Furthermore, while the ensemble is well-serviced, Raymond is kept in the center (because of his perspective on Debra’s new tactic), making this quintessential Raymond.
05) Episode 84: “The Christmas Picture” (Aired: 12/13/99)
Ray buys Marie a family picture for Christmas… but Debra decides to include her parents too.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Even though I can’t claim this was a legitimate contender for my Season Four MVE — there were only two excursions that I felt could possibly warrant that title — I think this is nevertheless equally seminal: a classically brilliant rumination on the series’ thesis, as Raymond is literally caught between opposing interests, those of his mother, who wants the family picture that he gifted her to only include the Barones, and those of Debra, who decides to invite her folks to participate in the special event… The text does a great job of establishing why both parties feel the way they do — plus, in the “being” trimester, our cultivated understanding of the core relationships helps support these episodic conflicts — and this naturally turns the figurative screws to Raymond, who as the center of the show and the drama, manically tries to make things right for both sides (which, as we know, is futile). This simple and pitch-perfect narrative is also aided by a theatrical structure, which, following the first introductory scene at home, plays in real-time — y’all know how I love real-time! — as the entire family goes to the studio to take the picture, climaxing, of course, with the picture itself. With all these players together at one place and at one time, the show has nothing to rely on except their established relationships, and this episode’s success is a testament to the series’ well-defined regulars, its easily understood dynamics, and its recognition of how to best structure a story so that it maximizes conflict — and laughs — while keeping character in the fore.
06) Episode 85: “What’s With Robert?” (Aired: 01/10/00)
The family worries that Robert might be gay.
Written by Cindy Chupack | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Most of the offerings that feature Robert as a central character this year are related to the forthcoming arc in which he’s gored by a bull and forced to move back home — all for the general effect of, beyond providing story, kicking him when he’s down and spiraling him into an increased depression, which is where the character most comedically thrives… This outing prefaces Robert’s beleaguerment by splitting him from Amy, yet again, and I enjoy it because it’s less about story and more about the character (Robert’s, even though the action is led by Ray — which, frankly, I prefer). Yet, I consider this to be a lot like “Robert’s Date” in that it’s very funny, despite featuring a subject about which we are culturally sensitive — in this case, sexuality. And I think it’s easy, as with last year’s installment, to mistake the characters’ views on an issue with the show’s — after all, this is a character-driven show — and I’ve heard from some fans who dislike this one because they feel that the leads, with whom they identify (and love), are less open-minded than they’d like. Yet I think this criticism is off the mark, for not only does everyone come around in the end, but also, I don’t think we actually expect anything else from these characters — in their questioning of Robert being gay or their initial reactions to the possibility. (Heck, did you think Frank would be accepting?) So, I find this a great exploration of every character — maybe even better for the ensemble than for Robert.
07) Episode 89: “The Tenth Anniversary” (Aired: 02/14/00)
Ray has to renew his vows after Debra learns he taped over the VHS of their wedding.
Written by Aaron Shure | Directed by Will Mackenzie
It would be foolish to try pretending this is one of my favorites; it’s actually one of those that I referenced above as being definitely not a classic, and I say this knowing that many feel the opposite — it’s popular both among the fans and among the company (partly because it’s another story taken from real life, which is always appreciated)… But, you see, it’s the kind of story-led fare we could find on ANY of the CBS domestic comedies of the era — you know, the lesser ones that Raymond‘s success inspired — and I think its narrative has less to do with these characters than with the general husband/wife concept, for although Raymond is a sportswriter, taping over his wedding VHS is something that could happen to any guy. Sure, I suppose we could say this speaks to the idea’s universality, but still, it’s unideal: we’re being led by the idea, not the character… And yet, I also think this holds an important place on this list, not just because it takes comedic care of Raymond, letting him drive the action, but also because of this so-called universality, which represents why Raymond is so above its competition. For even with a gaudy idea, the quality of the writing — with its strong sustaining characterizations — can sufficiently compensate, making for a Victory In Premise, no doubt, but one that shows how this series’ character work makes it a character-rooted series.
08) Episode 91: “Debra Makes Something Good” (Aired: 02/28/00)
The family is in an uproar when Debra finally cooks something tasty.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by Will Mackenzie
My choice for the best episode of the season (MVE), “Debra Makes Something Good” earns this distinction for a simple, yet familiar reason: it’s the year’s best exploration of the series’ thesis. However, unlike past MVEs and MVE-contenders that catered to the core conflict by pitting Marie and Debra against each other and making sure Raymond was firmly wedged in the middle, this “being” entry reveals its own smarts by engaging a more nuanced story construction, one that could only be utilized within a year that has a healthy understanding of its thesis and how to narratively deliver on behalf of it. For the story is actually about what happens when the family’s perception of Debra changes, when she is able to make something in the kitchen that’s, gasp, delectable… after formative shows like “Turkey Or Fish” and “Marie’s Meatballs” have thoroughly defined her culinary ignorance (particularly in contrast to Marie’s proclaimed expertise). This sudden change has ramifications for the entire family, primarily Marie, whose relationship with Debra is predicated on a sense of “I know better” that’s hinged entirely around Debra’s domestic capabilities… What’s more, Marie’s superiority in that department is how she defines herself, and in this regard, we don’t merely have a story where Debra and Marie are in conflict, we also have an ensemble story that challenges both Marie’s characterization and Debra’s characterization (along with her relationship with Ray — that’s half the episodic drama). It’s narratively brilliant — all for character — and still another indication of the difference between a show that’s “developing” tools in order to tell stories effectively, and one that’s simply able to tell them… Now, it may not be the funniest from Season Four (that honor goes to a show highlighted below; you know the one) — but there’s none better for character. And there are very few outings that I can think of that better embody the excellence of this second trimester, showing how character is king and why Raymond is, too.
09) Episode 94: “Someone’s Cranky” (Aired: 05/01/00)
Debra steps in to snap Robert out of his cranky spell.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Steve Zuckerman
This is a comedically middling installment that I used to find narratively underbaked (while I am a champion of low-concept plotting, story is a foundational necessity, for it’s the means by which we explore character). And yet, this became a surprising must-include, for it’s the strongest of the trilogy directly dealing with Robert’s injury — which is otherwise solid… I know you’re confused; you prefer the others, for the first has the comic novelty of the attack itself and the dramatic import of Ray’s own guilt, while the concluding offers some emotional resolution. But here’s why this one is the best: that aforementioned sense of narrative thinness becomes an asset, for this script is removed from the bull attack itself and has to set its sights more on Robert’s changing attitude. (And you realize the plot is underbaked only because it’s already got story from earlier weeks.) Accordingly, this offering doesn’t have any BIG IDEA to rely on and must instead contend with deeper, more interesting truths, which come out in an uncomfortably loud and nasty confrontation between Debra and Robert where she helps him realize that his real fear is having to stop being dependent on his folks. It tells us more about him than any other entry this season, and although I like the others better for laughs and heart (“Robert’s Rodeo” especially — it’s a good Ray showing), I think this one — which is also more Debra-heavy — is the only one that truly does something for Robert.
10) Episode 95: “Bad Moon Rising” (Aired: 05/08/00)
Ray believes that Debra’s mood swings are due to PMS.
Written by Ray Romano & Philip Rosenthal | Directed by David Lee
As the only true rival to my MVE, “Bad Moon Rising” is undoubtedly the funniest episode of the season and the one that best showcases Patricia Heaton’s development into a comedic dynamo — in fact, she won an Emmy for her work here. It also supports an argument I made above in my seasonal commentary: that the surge in the show’s comedic boldness during this “being” phase is best reflected within the characterization and usage of Debra, whose heightened definition has not only poised her for more frequent thesis-fulfilling conflict with figures like Marie, but has also primed her for the type of high-octane laughs that have since come to define the show and its brand of comedic consistency in its best years. In other words, this is the best example of the era’s simultaneous pull-no-punches attitude and Debra’s complementary aggressive characterization, which developed concurrently and are mutually beneficial. And while this isn’t exactly a thesis-fulfilling story — it’s a Ray vs. Debra plot with a situational Victory In Premise (unique, amusing) that nevertheless doesn’t engage the rest of the family — its tone and tenor, along with its hilarious results, make a persuasive case as to how the show’s adoption of traits that could better enable it to honor its thesis have led to larger benefits across the board. And to those who blanch at the way the story treats Debra and her mood swings, I’d remind you not to ignore the unflattering portrayal of Raymond either, as both characters behave hyperbolically, yet with foundational motivations that are understandable (thank goodness). Yes, it’s big comedy, but Raymond couldn’t be among the great sitcoms if it wasn’t capable of this… It is, and for that, we’ll thank both the thesis, and Debra.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Will,” a solid excursion that starts from a generic any-domestic-sitcom premise but is enlivened by great character moments (akin to the above “The Tenth Anniversary,” yet less memorable), “Robert’s Rodeo,” which, as noted above, benefits from the comic novelty of Robert’s bull injury and also offers some surprising sincerity between the brothers (making it a good show for Ray, and the second most character-wise entry of the bull trilogy — but more unideally situational), and one I’m sure you thought you’d see above… “Robert’s Divorce,” the popular finale flashback that boasts an appearance from Suzie Plakson as the venomous Joanne (aka Cinnamon) and a hilarious confrontation between her Marie. Like all gimmicks, the finale’s fun to watch, I just wish it had more thesis-related character interests to justify its stunty existence — the way the first flashback had — for no one’s really served by this except Robert, and he’s only being set up for something situational: another arc… Of more Honorable Mention quality are the previously discussed “Boob Job,” along with “Alone Time,” which belongs in the Ray-driven category next to the slightly funnier “Debra’s Workouts,” and “Hackidu,” the best and most original of the year’s three “Ray as a parent” offerings (all of which, by the way, are decent).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
“Debra Makes Something Good”
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!