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.
There’s an unfortunate thing that happens when I write commentary on a season that is a series’ second best — or in this case, third best — for in trying to explain why it’s not the “#1” best that a particular show has to offer, I end up undermining the very strengths that give the season its relative superiority over the rest of the series. That is, in examining why Season Five isn’t as good as Season Six (or Four), it’s all too likely that Five will end up looking worse than some of the other years that aren’t nearly as sharp. So, I’m going to preface — and conclude — this commentary by reminding you that Season Five is an excellent showcase for Everybody Loves Raymond, and it’s a testament to the series’ high quality that a year like this one, with so many great episodes, can be outpaced not once, but twice by seasons that are slightly better, for in essence, this is one of three superlative years highly capable of representing the series at its peak. And indeed, if you’ve been following our Raymond coverage, you’ll know that I’ve suggested this point with the analytical concept of trimesters — three groups of three seasons that share qualitative characteristics. I’ve called this middle trimester the “being” phase, for it’s the period in the show’s run where the scripts are best able to reinforce the show’s identity — its dramatic thesis — in weekly story, without needing to actively “discover” how to go about this (as Seasons One through Three had to do) or strain to “continue” on (as Seasons Seven through Nine will have to do). Here, the show can simply be itself, and the high number of episodic gems in these middle seasons reveals precisely why an awareness of premise, and an ability, through character, to project said premise, makes the show most able to create classics. Remember, everything we’ve said before about the perks of this peak period — like how stories that don’t even directly engage the thesis can still work (because we’re no longer worried about the show’s identity) — remains true for Five, a great season of a great show.
Okay, now that we’ve agreed to keep in mind Season Five’s excellence relative to the rest of the series, it’s time to narrow our gaze and focus on the year within the context of this trimester. This season has an inherently tough time following Four because it no longer boasts the previous year’s novelty of being. I mean, Season Four was exciting (in large part) because it was the start of the new era — the first year for which the show could maximize its character-driven comedy within stories that understood the show and its premise. The fact that the show finally got to be where it was always meant to be made Four shine even brighter… Well, Five doesn’t have that boost. In fact, it has the unenviable task of being at least as good as Four, if not better. And this is where I think the underlying tension starts, for Five does try to ape Four, and the way it primarily goes about this is by aggrandizement: exerting the show’s newfound security — no longer just a hit, Raymond has become an Emmy-winning hit, and an Emmy-winning hit that’s going to have a life in syndication — through displays of both production grandeur and flashier narratives with increased spectacle. (Now, I’m not going to bother talking much about how the show heightens its characters in search of bigger laughs. That’s something every long-running series endures — and we’ll see this especially in the third trimester, where it’s worse and will have to be discussed briefly, even though I think Raymond, generally, endures this broadening admirably, keeping the relationships defined and relatable, if slightly extended. Harping on this non-fatal criticism then or now would miss the larger point of why the show has to do it, for that’s why the third trimester is less satisfying than the second. Stay tuned…) To put this idea in a more digestible statement: Season Five’s solution for improving upon Four is not through anything earnestly related to character, but through pomp and circumstance.
Of course, I’m thinking now of the two-part premiere for which the show goes on location to Italy, not for great character-driven comedy — the episode itself is Exhibit A — but simply because, as a hit, it can. And while Rosenthal has the Barones’ Italian roots justify the trip, there nevertheless is no real character need to go there… Yet that’s not the problem; the problem is that once we get there, it’s a schmaltzy, over-produced mess with few laughs and not enough character moments. (It’s all story; or rather, it’s light story, heavy spectacle.) There’s little to do with the series’ central conflict or the comedy that comes from these expertly nuanced relationships. So, the premiere is one big MISS — the only episode in this peak era that I think flatly doesn’t work — and again, though it’s a one-off that doesn’t represent the rest of the season, its existence does establish the uptick in swagger that accompanies the year’s enlarged tendencies, which remain on display in classics like “Wallpaper” and “The Canister,” two loud Victories In Premise that overindulge their heightened playing, but wind up among the year’s best — both because the quest for big hahas in this competent peak era delivers them, and also because they’re supported by narratives that perfectly play to the thesis. These entries are as aggrandized as “Italy,” but they’re successful with their humor because they’re predicated on character — something the fifth season, here in this “being” period, does well (with “Italy” being the exception)… However, while the big note above stands about the show turning not to character, but to “pomp and circumstance” to outmatch Four, not all of the year is as delightfully bold as those two classics. To wit, of the entire second trimester, this year has the greatest number of quiet, middling entries at or below its own baseline. (There were so many non-listable Honorable Mentions this year — like ten!) How can that be — how can pomp and circumstance lead to relative quiet? And, more importantly, are those two aforementioned classics among the year’s best because of their supportive character interests… or because of the risk-reward results achieved by their heightened, louder sensibilities?
To that last question, I’ll say both, for though there is such a thing as too loud — this year has some broad physical comedy that’s not always motivated (see: the flashback finale) — the year’s best outings certainly pull no punches, and that goes along with what we saw when Four adopted conflict-conducive traits to better handle the thesis… And yet, character always matters; Five knows this, but its augmented comedic and narrative pursuits, yielding louder episodic clashes, sometimes drown out the core dramatic premise (see: “Net Worth,” among others). There’s abundant tension, for sure — but it comes from a less potent or perceptible emotional source. From this, we find the cause of Five’s “peak era” position: even though it comes in the “being” phase and has a laudable ability to support its characters through weekly conflict, the year nevertheless isn’t as successful, compared to Four and Six, at linking its now larger narrative particulars with the dramatic thesis. And the increased pomp and circumstance isn’t why Five can’t be #1; the year’s relationship with its thesis is why Five can’t be #1, for as we’ll see, Six will earn its superiority while being just as loud, but more thesis-connected, and thus more attuned, overall, to its characters. That’s the difference between Five and Six… However, again, it’s all relative, and while we had to talk about Five’s shortcomings to delineate it from its neighbors, I have to say, generally, my criticisms are minor (“Italy” notwithstanding), especially regarding character, because there’s good stuff here. Take, for example, Robert, who gets several scattered episodes — a “mini-arc” — about his dating troubles. These outings are great, and they work better than those from last year’s bull storyline, for in dealing with his love life, they end up less story-driven and more connected to his overall independence arc (which we’ve been following since Three). So, Five is a winner, and the show’s critical profile was accordingly rising. In addition to a technical award, Emmys were given to both Heaton (again) and Doris Roberts: the two figures who best embody the series’ main conflict, which, even in Five, shows why “being” is best… And I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this point.
01) Episode 100: “Wallpaper” (Aired: 10/09/00)
Frank and Marie drive their car into Ray and Debra’s house.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Following the terrible two-part premiere that we discussed above, Raymond‘s fifth season returns to its usual sets and stories for the year’s third half-hour, an equally gaudy outing that hopes to justify its bigness by implying that the 100th episode deserves to be something special. Fortunately, as noted, the outrageousness of the narrative — with the elder Barones literally driving their car into the younger Barones’ living room — is grounded by how well it plays into the central premise, for this is the ultimate example of the parents intruding upon Ray and Debra’s life, with the car in the home being the loudest metaphor. Yet it’s made even more interesting by the fact that, although it acknowledges the typical Marie/Debra beef, the story offers a variation, as it’s Ray who views this as “the last straw,” using the non-matching wallpaper replacement as an excuse to vent his pent-up frustrations at being stuck week after week in this comedic conflict. This tweak on the norm, while also keeping Raymond central, counters the bigness of the story with a character relevance that not only pardons the premise, but also makes the 100th just as special as it wants to be — not from story, but from character. Like we said, this character stuff + that extra comic boldness = one of the year’s classics.
02) Episode 101: “Meant To Be” (Aired: 10/16/00)
Robert’s recent indiscretions lead to another break-up with Amy.
Written by Jennifer Crittenden & Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by Michael Zinberg
This is the weakest of the three “Robert episodes” on this list. You see, Five is one of those seasons where a majority of its candidates hover around the figurative baseline — at the year’s basic, average level of quality — meaning, there’s a lot of fodder for Honorable Mentions. In fact, I found as many Honorable Mention options as “must-includes.” Yet with only eight or nine of the latter, I had to dip in the former pile to fill out this week’s list, selecting “Meant To Be” because, simply, I think it’s funnier than all the entries honorably mentioned below, with several great scenes for Robert with Amy, Joanne, and most particularly, Debra, who spills the beans to Amy about Stefania, after Robert had only come clean about talking again to Joanne. Honestly, though, it’s just a funny teleplay where Garrett gets to anchor and shine. Now, this typically isn’t the design I prefer, and there’s not enough core conflict here to truly satisfy dramatically, but again, Robert’s relationship foibles are a better arc for him than anything bull-related, and one does feel that his character benefits from such an amiable outing — even if it’s more story-driven and less thesis-connected than his stronger “must-includes” below.
03) Episode 105: “Young Girl” (Aired: 11/13/00)
Debra is outraged when Robert dates a much younger woman.
Written by Tom Caltabiano & Aaron Shure | Directed by Michael Zinberg
A popular offering, this is the second of the list’s three “Robert episodes,” but prior to this survey, I used to consider it among his weakest, for it engages a gaudy and “typically sitcom” premise that we could find on almost any show with a single character — you know, a regular dates someone much younger. And I didn’t believe it tried to be more than a theoretical Victory In Premise (as a source of easy laughs — not narrative originality), especially regarding Robert’s character. But after analyzing the series for these posts, I’ve come to appreciate it along with the majority of the fan base, not for its story (which I still don’t like), but for its construction, which shrewdly decides to move away from Robert, and instead have the drama be about Debra’s disgust. This is not only a fresh comic angle for what we’ve already said is an unfresh story, but it also puts Raymond in the middle, and this is shockingly brilliant, for it then becomes an outgrowth of the central conflict, only this time, instead of Ray’s old family being represented by Marie, it’s represented by Robert (which, by the way, doesn’t happen often). Accordingly, I find this one of the fifth year’s most fascinating — an ostentatious, lame story with a so-so script, but a character-forward construction that serves the series and offers something genuinely new.
04) Episode 106: “Fighting In-Laws” (Aired: 11/20/00)
Ray learns that Debra’s parents are having marital problems.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by Michael Zinberg
There’s something almost too easy about holidays on Raymond, for they provide a built-in excuse to congregate the family when every other story has to get them together through narrative machinations (which, actually isn’t too difficult because they live right across the street from each other). As a result, I think these shows have to go the extra figurative mile to earn their place here, for construction alone, while commendable and conducive to character moments, doesn’t ensure their presence. (We were more forgiving on this front in the “discovering” era because smart story construction signaled the series coming to understand its thesis. But by now, we know the show knows its thesis.) So, what makes this installment special, aside from an above-baseline teleplay that’s loaded with funny bits (many coming from Raymond, who is smartly kept in the center of the drama), is that it’s the series’ best use of Debra’s folks — as a pair — for the revelation of their marital strain gives them more sharply comic material to play and is also quite effective for their expected contrast with the Barones, who behave worse but don’t have the same fatal problems. And with a family secret pulsating through the holiday before an inevitable combustion, I think this is a seminal Raymond Thanksgiving. Not the best — that one’s coming — but definitely the best with the Barone/Whelan combo.
05) Episode 108: “Christmas Present” (Aired: 12/11/00)
Ray schemes to buy Debra a better Christmas present than she buys him.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Another holiday show, this Christmas outing isn’t as definitive as the above entry is for Thanksgivings, but that’s only because I think all three years in this “being” phase have fun and unique Christmas or Christmas-related showings. While last year had a delightful near-real-time excursion that brought together the Barones and the Whelans (as this year’s Thanksgiving does) to fulfill the thesis in an expert manner, this one deviates from the central premise by focusing more on Raymond, who schemes to pull one over on Debra. In this way, it’s something closer to a Ray/Debra show — with a heady dose of Robert in support — proving what we noted before about the year not being as thesis-oriented as other years in this peak trimester… However, it benefits from the season’s comic boldness, for Ray’s desire to buy Debra a present so terrific that she’ll let him have a weekend away is a pungent exploration of his character’s lesser qualities, which really come out later when he’s suspicious about what she wants when she buys him a terrific gift. It verges on the kind of human unpleasantness typical of Susan-era Seinfeld, but in pulling no punches, this story actually does reveal some things about character, like in the end when Ray accuses Debra of liking to play the martyr. Also, there’s some perhaps superfluous physical comedy, but hey, that’s characteristic of Season Five too, adding yet another reason for why this is an authentic representation of this particular year.
06) Episode 111: “Ray’s Journal” (Aired: 02/05/01)
Ray learns that Marie read the private journal he kept as a kid.
Written by Jennifer Crittenden | Directed by Kenneth Shapiro
Although this well-liked offering was always a “must-include” because of its character value, it isn’t one of my favorites here, for it stops short of trying for the season’s requisite big hahas through thesis-adjacent combat-ready machinations, and instead indulges some character sentimentality that, never completely foreign to Raymond, nevertheless reflects a tonal element that’s best when modulated by the ripe motivated acrimony that better embodies the series at its peak. To be more blunt, this isn’t among the season’s boldest, and therefore, it’s also not among the season’s funniest… And yet, I think it gives something beneficial to the characters, for in engaging with a somewhat trite and familiar story about Marie having read Ray’s childhood journals, it gets to explore and strengthen the bond between mother and son, while specifically reaffirming the pull she has on him — and that’s vital in the regular enforcement of the series’ thesis, which necessitates that Ray be caught between the wants of both sides of his family (with Marie almost always representing one side). Because this story is one of the best indications of the emotional hold she has over him, it’s expressly valuable. (Also, Roberts won her Emmy for both “Ray’s Journal” and the odd “The Sneeze,” mentioned below.)
07) Episode 113: “Fairies” (Aired: 02/19/01)
Ray is upset when the twins are cast as fairies in the school play.
Written by Aaron Korsh | Directed by Gary Halvorson
If you’re surprised to see this one, rest assured that I am too, for this is among those at-the-baseline episodes that I thought was more typical of the Honorable Mentions. To a certain extent, that remains true. However, after my recent survey, I came to consider this a “must-include,” not necessarily because it’s qualitatively on par with Five’s classics, but because it’s far more narratively keen than any of its middling competition. For, you see, in being one of the few outings this year to explore Ray’s parenting — the other notable example is “Pet Cemetery,” a well-written show (a de facto HM) that sadly doesn’t quite manage to overcome its clichéd story and the non-character-based aggrandizement emblematic of the year — “Fairies” surprisingly ends up offering a slight variation on the thesis, as the premise of Ray having trouble accepting that his twin boys want to play fairies in the school play aligns his line of thinking with his old family’s, particularly Frank’s, and puts him in opposition with Debra’s contrasting tolerance. Now caught between what he was raised to think, and what Debra thinks, Ray is thus in the middle of his two families, and with this smart design, it becomes even easier to enjoy the comedy and appreciate the smart exploration of his character.
08) Episode 115: “Humm Vac” (Aired: 03/19/01)
Debra tries to teach Marie a lesson after buying a fancy new vacuum cleaner.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Gary Halvorson
One of the few fifth season excursions that directly plays to the thesis as we usually see it (i.e. the Marie vs. Debra construct), “Humm Vac” is an easy offering to enjoy and recognize as being among the year’s best. It takes its premise from well-established character traits of both Debra and Marie — the latter’s obsession with cleanliness, and the former’s relative domestic inferiority by comparison — and comedically maximizes those givens through a story that allows for a couple of truly hilarious and character-motivated beats. One is that Debra, who resents Marie’s superiority and the treatment from her that it inspires, desperately wants to have the upper hand and show up her nemesis where it really counts — cleaning. That’s wonderful fun, and takes Debra from put-upon to vengeful — a genius characteristic of hers in this trimester (and, to an extent, the one following) that’s endemic of the work done to make Debra more aggressively able to benefit the premise. The second great beat is that not only can Marie not be reproached for her cleaning skills, but also that she’s so compulsive about it, the very notion of sitting on the furniture without plastic is an ordeal for her and the entire family… So, there are primo comic ideas here, and they all stem from character. Raymond does this well.
09) Episode 116: “The Canister” (Aired: 04/09/01)
Debra tries to return a canister that she told Marie was already returned.
Written by David Regal | Directed by Gary Halvorson
My choice for the finest episode of the season (MVE), this farcical affair is definitely atypical for the series, offering an example of the comedically light, yet plotty storytelling we’d expect more to see on Frasier than Raymond. But even if its genre feels somewhat out-of-place, this entry engages a familiar narrative formula that underscores most of the series’ best: a play towards Raymond‘s thesis via a story built around the dramatic tension between the most oppositional sides of Ray’s family, Debra and Marie. And true to this second trimester peak era, which finds a lot of its comic boldness within developments in Debra that make her more capable of supporting such stories, “The Canister” derives its worth from more than just the Debra/Marie rivalry (which certainly motivates the action and serves as the bedrock for the entire plot). There’s also the mania (character flaw) subsequently manifested in Debra, who is so determined not to be proven wrong to her emotional enemy that she’ll go to great, outrageous lengths to prevent it. This naturally drags Raymond into the thick of things, along with the rest of the family, for they are as versed as we are in Debra/Marie and are equally as invested in not seeing Debra take another hit from the Barone matriarch — a sentiment that delivers a thoughtful and unique moment between Debra and Frank, who ultimately takes the fall for his daughter-in-law, allowing for a relationship dynamic that’s typically under-explored (in favor of more contentious combos). Needless to say, the comic boldness of the premise, rooted again in character flaws stemming from the series’ satisfying central conflict, excuses anything atypical, for this is EXACTLY what we want from Raymond. And, just as we saw last year, Debra is key. It’s no surprise that this was the show for which Heaton won her second Emmy, as she’s the greatest tool for thesis-fulfillment, enabling said boldness. Lots of fun.
10) Episode 118: “Let’s Fix Robert” (Aired: 04/30/01)
Marie gathers the women in Robert’s life to figure out how to fix him.
Written by Jennifer Crittenden & Mike Royce | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Of the three “Robert episodes” on this list, this is my favorite, and I admit that, yes, I am charmed by the Victory In Premise of having Marie gather Robert’s ex-girlfriends, the well-crafted Amy and the one-joke Stefania (who nevertheless is good here because she doesn’t have to push story, as she does in “Stefania Arrives”), together with his cop partner, Judy (played by Sherri Shepherd, who’s funnier than this show ever lets her be), for a conference to discuss all of Robert’s flaws. It’s an inherently hilarious idea that draws upon the character’s history, and his mini-arc this season (the only thing we’re missing is Joanne), to create a conflict between Robert and Marie about his relationship troubles, which ties indirectly into his larger arc of finding independence. We’ve talked before about how Robert’s arc can be seen as a mirror to the thesis, for like Ray, he is caught between his old family and his new one (which doesn’t yet exist), so these stories are tangentially relevant. This installment works simply because it’s ideal for Robert, though, and while it tries to involve Ray by having him fall a little bit victim to the women’s annoyance at his brother, this is again, a “Robert episode,” with a focus on Robert/Marie, setting the stage for an even better outing in this category next season…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Sneeze,” which is a fascinating and RARE case of the show playing directly into the Debra vs. Marie conflict (note: Roberts won her Emmy partly for this performance), but still not turning out a winning entry — mostly because the script keeps us too much on Debra’s side, so even the comic turnaround in the end isn’t enough to make the clash seem even mildly legitimate, along with “Frank Paints The House,” an interesting Ray vs. Frank story with some gaudy physical comedy and an emotional core that, like so many this year, is okay for the characters without being great for them (not to mention, unrelated to the thesis), and two installments that really embody the “heightened-conflict, but no real character-based purpose” concern of the season, the above cited “Net Worth,” and the ensemble-driven “The Walk To The Door.” Of more good-but-not-great quality is everything else (except “Italy” and maybe “Super Bowl”). I couldn’t list all the decent ones here — even though I have thoughts on, as usual, everything.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
Come back next week for Season Six! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!