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 I hoped to build some suspense around calling Season Six my favorite, I’m afraid that in our look at Everybody Loves Raymond’s previous two years — which comprise, with Six, the series’ peak era — I spilled the beans early, already summarizing why Six is tops. In our Season Four post, I said that the show’s sixth year boasts “an even greater number of gems [than Four], and a thematic know-how that reaches its apex via thesis-fulfillment,” while in our Season Five post, I claimed that Six is “just as loud [as Five], but more thesis-connected, and thus more attuned, overall, to its characters.” Everything you need to know can be extrapolated from those statements, but I’ll expand, and start with the idea that Season Six has the greatest number of gems. We’ve already seen how the differences between the “discovering” years and the “being” years led to an increase in excellent offerings during the latter, and indeed, Four and Five have around seven or eight truly terrific showings — with Four maybe benefiting from a slight edge (because its gems have a shinier quality due to the newfound novelty of “being”). Well, I’m here to tell you that Six has even more gems, for not only do I think all ten outings highlighted below are series classics, but I also think the six Honorable Mentions, all of which were candidates for this list (it pained me not being able to bump three of them up), are as good, if not better, than many of the finest from other, weaker seasons, making for one of those rare cases where choosing to laud ten — typically more than any season deserves — isn’t enough to do this year justice. (For perspective: I have a spread sheet, broken down by TV season, where I keep track of the best of the best featured on this blog. Most Sitcom Tuesdays yield five great episodes, on average. The past two weeks of Raymond had eight. This one? 16. Not since Frasier coverage last year has a season exceeded the ten formally highlighted.) So, Season Six alone shows why Raymond is a classic and worthy of being considered among the genre’s finest.
Thus, as usual, it’s really quite simple: the season with the greatest number of great episodes gets to be the greatest season. But let’s talk about why there are so many great episodes. To begin with, you have to remember that every season — no matter how high the baseline of quality (which, given this year’s success rate, is easily the highest of the entire series) — has duds, for there are inevitably scripts that fall below what we perceive to be the average, or minimum standard for potential greatness. And Six is definitely not perfect. There are several entries here — “Ray’s Ring” being one — that are well below the excursions highlighted and discussed on this list. Yet most of these so-called “duds” come early in the season — produced just before the 9/11 tragedy — and they, just like the duds from previous years in this peak second trimester, still basically work. (Again, “Italy” is the only exception.) In this “being” phase, they don’t fundamentally get the characterizations wrong or change the show’s sense of itself. And that last part is important, for the biggest distinction we’ve made between the first three years and the middle three is the middle’s awareness of the show’s identity, a.k.a. its premise, a.k.a. its thesis, which was built around, say it with me now, Ray being caught between his old family (most often represented by Marie) and his new family (most often represented by Debra). We’ve seen year after year how stories that make use of this central conflict are inherently more satisfying than those that don’t, and we’ve also seen how the adoption of traits that better enabled the show to play to its thesis — namely, bolder and more aggressive characterizations for the players most opposed: Marie and, in particular, Debra — have led to sweeping benefits across the board, as these stronger characters made for heightened clashes, and even better, heightened comedy. Accordingly, it’s hard for something in this period to be without value.
But in Season Five, we saw everything heighten some more, and while this peak-era show still knew how to cater to its characters, we discovered that Five took a figurative back seat within its own trimester because of how un-married this comic heightening was to the thesis. That is, not as many episodes played directly into the core conflict, and though this, again, wasn’t something that worried us — because we knew, unlike in the early seasons, that the show now had a firm command of its identity — it subliminally kept Five from rising as high as its neighbors. To that point, I already spoiled that one of the main causes of Six’s superiority is that it has an even greater number of entries connected to the premise. You’ll see many of them below, but it’s amazing how outings like “Snow Day” and “The Angry Family” can embody the central conflict so well, all the while remaining emotionally relatable and comedically outstanding — with the latter, above all, showing an understanding of the series’ characters, relationships, and core thesis tensions that’s more to the point than perhaps any other installment ever produced. Also, even when the year isn’t as narratively obvious with its central conflict, it embeds the drama in strong entries like “Talk To Your Daughter” and “The Skit,” for as we’ve explored, this is the mark of the peak era, and because there are more episodes that do this and do this well than ever before, it’s therefore easier to appreciate almost everything else in Six, even offerings that are far removed from the primary premise, but engage with the narrative pomp and comedic circumstance that we saw last year. I’m thinking now of uproarious idea-based favorites like “Marie’s Sculpture” and “Cookies,” which we can enjoy more confidently this year than in any other — even though these stories most predict the kind of fare we’ll see in the final trimester, where comedic heights are reached from strong episodic ideas otherwise unrelated to a dramatic core, making them, unsurprisingly, fine when taken on their own terms, but less commendable when viewed as a barometer for the series’ — or their seasons’ — health.
Speaking of what’s ahead, there’s another big reason Six is the peak of the peak era: it includes an actual, as premised, peak. It comes from an emotionally grounded storyline in which Debra and Marie face off in a conflict that, for a change, can’t be resolved in one episode, extending through the year’s last three (not to mention Seven’s premiere). It’s their most earnestly dramatic quarrel ever — leaving Ray (and all the men) stuck in between — and it represents an exploration of the thesis that won’t ever be, and couldn’t ever be, topped, for by stretching out a singular snit typical of the duo, the show gives this particular snit extra meaning, letting it embody the entire foundational tension that has existed between the two women, per the thesis, since the pilot (even before the show regularly played to it). We’ll talk more about the arc below (and definitely next week), but it’s important to note that, aside from the decision to use their falling out as a cliffhanger, their naturally premised opposition is essentially fulfilled here, for the use of it in such a direct and comprehensive narrative leaves their dynamic with nowhere as dramatic to go. This is the apex of their animosity, and once it’s resolved, nothing else can ever be as satisfying. In this regard, Six doesn’t just feature the best use of the series’ premise in weekly story, it also features the resolution of the series’ premise in weekly story, for as we’ll see next year, the show has to soldier on with a muted, if not altogether absent, central conflict, taking us from the “being” to the “continuing” phase, where episodic tricks and an arc for Robert are the chosen distractions… As for Robert, he doesn’t have a through-line in Six — no new apartment, no bull injury, no Italian indiscretion for which he must pay — and yet he gets the best show of his tenure: “Lucky Suit,” a Robert entry that mirrors the thesis more easily than anything, and the one that, with “Raybert,” served as the funnyman’s gateway to Emmy recognition, as he, along with Roberts and Romano, took home statues — a more all-encompassing validation of the show at the peak of its peak era… So, before we get ahead of ourselves, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 123: “The Angry Family” (Aired: 09/24/01)
The Barones think they’re the subject of Michael’s story, “The Angry Family.”
Written by Philip Rosenthal | Directed by Gary Halvorson
As my selection for the finest episode from Everybody Loves Raymond‘s finest season, I think this is the best encapsulation of the series as a whole; if you’ve only got time for one Raymond, this should be it, because it gives you everything you need… and so simply. With a script by creator and showrunner Phil Rosenthal — reportedly based on an incident from his real life — there’s a wonderfully relatable quality that harkens back to the series’ early days, where stories were more “slice of life,” only now it’s matched with the second trimester’s heightened comic energy, brought about by characterizations that have been primed for heavier relationship-driven conflict. This makes it a top ambassador for the series, and particularly this sixth season, where the boldness of these comic pursuits is well-married to character interests that are aligned with the premise. Indeed, although the title and the superlative use of the ensemble suggests a certain third trimester vagueness regarding identity — where Raymond seems to only be about a contentious family, with no more precise dramatic focus — the script itself reveals a keen understanding of the series’ specific central conflict, for after an on-the-nose moment with Debra where she vents about the intrusive nature of the Barone clan, we cut to a therapy session — with the always hysterical Father Hubley (Charles Durning) — in which every member of the family voices his/her concerns and reinforces two key points: that Marie and Debra are the characters in the most overt opposition, and that Raymond is the center, both of the family, and the drama. It’s such a straightforward recognition of the series’ premise that it’s almost staggering… especially because it comes in a funny teleplay with a great true-to-life plot that nevertheless doesn’t outshine the outstanding characters, all of whom excel here and contribute to the offering’s era-requisite heightening (as opposed to it coming from the plot). So, again, I don’t think there’s any finer — the thesis is stated, the plot is relatable, and the characters are at the fore. And, oh yeah, it’s hilarious — the best of the best.
02) Episode 127: “Marie’s Sculpture” (Aired: 10/22/01)
Ray doesn’t know how to tell his mom that her sculpture resembles something unintended.
Written by Jennifer Crittenden | Directed by Randy Suhr
From a Victory In Premise, above, whose comedic idea prioritizes the characters, to a Victory In Premise whose comedic idea can’t be bested, no matter how hard the characters try, this installment is one of the more unashamedly premise-driven entries here. And yet, I don’t want to make any bones about it, for there’s room in Season Six to celebrate stories that are as naturally funny as this one, in which Marie takes up sculpting and presents a piece that, to everyone but her, clearly looks like a specific part of the female anatomy. You see, we’re going to laugh and remember this one no matter what (especially the scene with the two nuns — it’s killer funny), and to that extent, it’s one of a few on this list that presage the bold idea-based fare we’ll see with more regularity in the third trimester, where the series is more likely to episodically goose itself to keep quality high… But, as will only sometimes be the case later, these peak era shows don’t come without some kind of character rewards, and this script smartly keeps Raymond in the center, reinforcing the premise and letting his relationships dictate the reactions. Therefore, I can recommend this one in good character conscience, too — not just for its V.I.P — for it’s a testament to Six’s baseline, illustrating why gems like these can be gems. (Also, you may want to know that Roberts won an Emmy, in part, for “Marie’s Sculpture.”)
03) Episode 135: “Tissues” (Aired: 01/07/02)
Ray insists that he be allowed to make more of the household decisions.
Written by Mike Royce | Directed by Jerry Zaks
Ray Romano won an Emmy for his work this year and although it’s silly to look to the Television Academy as a barometer of quality, I think it’s absolutely true that the sixth season takes great care of him, the eponymous anchor. Of course, this should be obvious, for I don’t think a season that didn’t make fine use of Raymond could be considered its finest (because his centricity is part of the thesis, and it’s vital that this be well-explored). But interestingly, his two best showings on this list — “Tissues” and “The Breakup Tape,” below — don’t engage with the thesis directly, instead centering themselves more exclusively around the younger couple. This offering, which is the comedically bolder of the two, celebrates some big hahas through sight gags and physical comedy, and in this way, it most sets the table for the elevated hijinks of the Ray/Debra shows in Season Seven (which, incidentally, are probably the best from this narrative genre). However, this one’s counterbalanced by a relatable premise; it’s a variation on Season Two’s “The Checkbook,” a show that boasts a similar idea and some — for that second year — big physical comedy, but is without this one’s strong sense of character, which exceeds its narrative predecessors’ and actually allows it to be a seminal Ray showcase.
04) Episode 136: “Snow Day” (Aired: 01/14/02)
Debra inadvertently insults Frank when the family is snowed in together.
Written by Kathy Ann Stumpe | Directed by Gary Halvorson
A simple ensemble show — which also includes Amy, thus resembling some similarly designed installments from the years to come — “Snow Day” is one of my favorites on this list. Constructionally, it’s an uncomplicated, near-real-time affair that throws all the characters together at the same time and place, and lets drama pop off from there… On any other series, this would be something of an annual novelty, but because Raymond tries to do this every week, we tend to take it for granted. And yet, when it’s done as well as it is here, it truly bears mentioning, for this kind of episode really takes advantage of the multi-camera format and the intimacy of humanity that it provides. To that point, what I like best about this outing is that, in giving its characters space to play, it both indulges one of the lesser explored relationships — the one between Debra and Frank — and also ruminates on the thesis while deepening her character. The premise has her inadvertently insulting Frank, which leads to Marie (and Ray) dressing down Debra and accusing her, essentially, of thinking she’s superior. It’s, naturally, a great acknowledgement of the central tension between the two matriarchs, but also the deeper structural differences between the characters who best represent Ray’s old family and his new one. Also, most stories in this vein focus on Marie’s perceived supremacy (usually in domesticity), yet this one takes on the equally valid opposite perspective, not only bolstering Marie’s point of view, but further digging into Debra’s own weaknesses, which are mineable for both comedy and drama. And in the meantime, every character shines — even Amy. If you need another example beyond the MVE of Six’s intrinsic character smarts, take a look…
05) Episode 137: “Cookies” (Aired: 01/28/02)
Ray finds himself at odds with the leader of Ally’s “frontier girl” group.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Once again, this list offers a study in contrasts. If the above is a great character-oriented showcase, this is a pure, unadulterated Victory In Premise built around a slapstick centerpiece. In the same way that “Marie’s Sculpture” could be celebrated for the strength of its idea alone — because Season Six can afford as much, based on the character riches delivered elsewhere — we can’t pretend that “Cookies” is anything but an idea-led Big Haha show (with hahas so big that they dim the laughs and charms of the potential replacements in the top-tier Honorable Mentions). Okay, like the above, I suppose the script does try to find some character interests — via Raymond and his relationship with women — and there’s no denying that the source of the comedic tension is his rage, mania, and fear of Peggy, “the Cookie Lady” (Amy Aquino)… But all we really remember at the end of the day is the scene where Peggy beats Ray up and Debra has to save him. So, it’s a broad centerpiece and nothing more. Still though, true to Season Six and this peak era, it works for the characters, Debra included. And I think if we’re digging to find some guiding character value to the offering, it comes from the reason that none of the future Peggy entries work as well: they focus on her effect on Ray, without supplying the “Cookies” Ray/Debra dynamic, which is what contextualizes these laughs.
06) Episode 138: “Lucky Suit” (Aired: 02/04/02)
Marie embarrasses Robert during a job interview with the FBI.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Gary Halvorson
One of the most popular episodes of the entire series, I think this is the finest story ever thrown to Robert Barone and his portrayer, the very funny Brad Garrett (who, along with Doris Roberts, won an Emmy, in part, for this excursion). And, again, it’s notable that it comes from a season that, unlike the previous three, doesn’t give him any semblance of a story arc. Nor is it part of the third trimester, where his character gains increased prominence as the show tries to use his relationship with Amy as a narrative engine and virtual thesis replacement. No, it comes here in Six, which — for Robert — is episodic, because many of the stories are dealing with the characters who best enable the thesis. However, I think this installment works because it has thesis interests too… indirectly. Remember how we noted that Robert’s own quest for independence was a “thematic cousin” to Ray being caught between two sides of his family, since Robert is caught between his family and his ability to have one of his own? Well, this story, about Marie being so intrusive in her son’s life that it’s impossible for him to find any success, is a play to that thematic mirror image, for Robert can never escape his old family — Marie, being the loudest ambassador… Now, mind you, even with my attempt to provide some dramatic relevance, there’s no way I can pretend this is as satisfying a story template as the traditional premise-fulfilling shows that center around Ray, employ the central conflict, and make good use of the rest of the cast — because Everybody Loves Raymond, not Robert (which is part of next trimester’s tension, by the way). But as far as Robert’s character is concerned, this is his crucial showing — funnier and more earnestly heartfelt than anything with Amy and the more explicit thesis-mirroring the series attempts in future years. And in Six, there’s more than enough room for a primo Robert vehicle, especially one with this much dramatic weight.
07) Episode 139: “The Skit” (Aired: 02/25/02)
Ray and Debra do a sketch at a party parodying Marie and Frank.
Written by Lew Schneider | Directed by Gary Halvorson
The classics keep coming — seriously, have you noticed what an impressive stretch of episodes Raymond was able to produce this season? — and this offering is another favorite. It’s a creative variation on ye old roleplaying segment, which usually comes about because characters are in some kind of therapy setting (after some contrived fight) and are forced to “play” each other, usually to caricatured extremes. Raymond finds a less contrived way in, by using particulars about the characters (like Ray’s career) to enable the “sketch at a party” premise, which thereby gives the entry license for Ray and Debra to spoof his parents. It’s ingenious and inherently speaks to the premise, for we know exactly how intrusive Frank and Marie (especially) have been, and we know exactly how Ray and Debra (especially) feel about it. But then there’s the inevitable turnaround, when the elder Barones decide to imitate the younger Barones, thus taking the comedy to the next level, for here, we get something more instructive: an even better idea of what Marie and Frank think of their junior counterparts. And Marie’s impression of Debra is a bullseye as far as the central tension goes, and in my mind, it’s worth the figurative price of admission alone. This one’s fun and surprisingly smart (given the story).
08) Episode 140: “The Breakup Tape” (Aired: 03/04/02)
Ray and Debra share momentos from their past relationships.
Written by Tom Caltabiano & Aaron Shure | Directed by Jerry Zaks
As noted, I think this entry, with “Tissues,” is Ray’s — both Barone’s and Romano’s — best of the season, and the actor actually won his Emmy for this particular installment, which, as opposed to the broader and more physically-inclined “Tissues,” allows for quieter and more contemplative moments. It’s also another Ray/Debra show, but while the aforementioned is more predictive of the kind of fare we’ll see ahead with them (by way of the next trimester’s comic interests), this one’s a bit of a throwback, for we’ve got another relatable premise that, unlike “Tissues,” doesn’t strive for the same aggrandized centerpieces as most stories this year do. Additionally, it resembles something we might have seen in the first trimester because it doesn’t labor to involve the family much (beyond a terrific scene where they descend upon the bedroom), and although in early years, this would have been a flaw, it isn’t here; we’re so confident in the show’s identity at this point that we can appreciate the necessary focus on Ray/Debra and their relationship. In fact, I think this may be the most honest and sincere outing for their characters, and though some of the Honorable Mentions below are funnier and/or more relevant to the dramatic premise, such humanity — with intuitive writing and well-rounded performances — has to be recognized for its superiority.
09) Episode 141: “Talk To Your Daughter” (Aired: 03/18/02)
Ally questions the meaning of life — forcing the Barones to do the same.
Written by Tucker Cawley & Ray Romano | Directed by Jerry Zaks
This is yet another favorite, but I have to tell you that I nevertheless do think its seminality has been overstated by some. (Many scripts co-penned by Romano tend to have an inflated sense of greatness, either in the text or through their external perception.) Frankly, I don’t think “Talk To Your Daughter” is among the best character showcases here, and even though there’s a case to be made about how the writing embeds the thesis into the premise (because Ray’s insecurity is absolutely the result of his upbringing, once again putting him at odds with Debra and making life difficult for him within his new family), it’s also not a core conflict show. Accordingly, this one simply couldn’t be the best Raymond episode ever; it’s not built to be, no matter how highfalutin its intentions… And yet, I still find it quite valuable, because the grounded, relatable premise — based on real life, reportedly — makes time for an earnest discussion about the meaning of life, which is poignant and funny (thanks to these expert characterizations) all at the same time. And it becomes reminiscent of the very theatrical Norman Lear shows, like All In The Family, where regulars would often espouse their character-specific ideas about similarly conceptual questions… It’s this kind of dramatic association that makes Raymond feel deserving of an exalted status, and while the offering isn’t as important as it wants to be, it does support the idea that this series has a place among other multi-cam classics.
10) Episode 145: “The Bigger Person” (Aired: 05/13/02)
Robert is outraged when Ray and Frank begin exploiting Marie and Debra’s feud.
Written by Tucker Cawley & Lew Schneider | Directed by Gary Halvorson
In the seasonal commentary, we discussed the year’s last three shows, in which Debra and Marie have a feud that, because of its scope, holds an elevated prominence that makes it the apex of exploration for the thesis’ central conflict. Yet given these intentions, one also has to worry about story interests overtaking the characters. Fortunately, I have to say that I like the entire trilogy and think it does right by both the core conflict and its players. The first part has the unenviable task of teeing up a fight that will last longer than a half-hour, but it manages to do so through our understanding of the primary characterizations. The final part, meanwhile, has a choice flashback — in fact, it’s the funniest of all six flashback finales — with some actual (for once) dramatic relevance. So, I almost highlighted both (particularly the latter)… But this, the middle in the trilogy, is undoubtedly the best, and because Six is so good and I only had ten slots, I’m glad this installment was allowed to be the arc’s representative, for it has the most fun of the trio, mitigating the drama of the ladies’ animosity by comedically maximizing the scenario through an ensemble-focused lens. Also, it most ably reflects the thesis, for Ray finds himself caught between his mother and his wife as, along with Frank, he decides to use their feud to his benefit… much to the chagrin of Robert, who tries to play peacemaker. This makes fine use of everyone, and more than any other episode in this thesis-fulfilling dramatic peak, it illustrates WHY the exploration of said thesis is good for character, comedically beneficial, and something we’re going to miss when it’s no longer as regularly functional…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include the three that it pains me not to include above: “Raybert,” a farcical show of the Victory In Premise variety where Ray and Robert switch identities to meet women (the combustion in the middle is the best part; Doris Roberts really sells it), “Call Me Mom,” which has the distinction of being one of the most explicit narrative explorations of the thesis, when Debra and Marie find themselves in conflict over mothers-in-law being called “mom,” and “The First Time,” the flashback finale and third in the year’s Debra/Marie feud trilogy, which boasts the most laugh-out-loud funny flashback sequence (courtesy, in part, of Charles Durning) and one of the few that justifies its existence through a dramatic relevance to the present-day contretemps. (It’s also the last flashback finale. The end of an era… not to mention a trimester… and a thesis.) Three other outings that I like a whole lot and would love to cite from this season are: “Older Woman,” “Season’s Greetings,” and the first in the thesis-fulfilling trilogy, “Mother’s Day.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
“The Angry Family”
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!