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, MONICA HORAN as Amy MacDougall Barone, and DORIS ROBERTS as Marie Barone.
Season Eight is to the third trimester what Season Five is to the second, for although it, like Five, genuinely represents its era, it’s overshadowed by the neighbors. It’s flanked on one side by the flashy start of the trimester, which has the novelty of introducing its charms — or in the case of Seven, both its charms and its weaknesses. (That is, Seven has the distracting but exciting narrative engine of Robert/Amy’s pending nuptials and the devastating purposelessness that underscores a series now unable to project its central conflict in weekly story.) Then, on the other side, it’s bordered by a seemingly gem-laden, episodically notable year crescendoing towards some kind of dramatic apex — which, in Season Six, was the resolution of the thesis, but in Nine, will be the resolution of the entire series… Thus, it’s easy to see how Eight, like Five, is overlooked. But unlike with Five, for which there are definite reasons to prefer its neighbors, I’m more reluctant to call Eight this final era’s weakest. Now, I suppose a lot of this is due to my inability to claim superiority for the other two seasons. For instance, while Seven has a higher number of gems than any of these last three years and I credit it for crafting the means by which the show was able to “continue” on — oh, just to remind you, the decision to marry Robert/Amy, and the introduction of her family as a recurring episodic boost, is exactly what enables this final phase to be unique, giving these last years some sort of raison d’être — I nevertheless couldn’t excuse that season of the glaring aimlessness that came from having a virtually unusable thesis, because that inspired some shockingly empty shows. And, as for Nine, though I think it boasts a higher ratio of gems than any of these last three years — not to mention a surprisingly smart series finale — the corresponding idea-driven nature of its stories, which are larger than ever before (and force their characters to enlarge, too), keeps the year’s underlining sensibilities from being truly commendable, let alone preferable.
In other words, it’s hard to fully embrace the idea that Eight is worse than its neighbors because its neighbors don’t deserve to be more fully embraced. Truthfully, they each have their own pluses and minuses, starting with two givens they share as members of this “continuing” phase — namely, an aforementioned inability to make regular narrative use of the thesis or the core conflict that reflects it, and a penchant for heightened idea-led stories that are unattached to a worthwhile dramatic core and instead employ contrived, not-so-character-specific fare that we could theoretically see on any sitcom. (The best, or worst, example of this in Eight is the overrated “The Model,” a plot-driven show that could be anchored by almost any character on almost any series. Don’t bother looking for it below. It’s not Raymond.) Then, from these shared foibles, each year handles things differently. While Seven wanders around before starting the narrative engine of Robert/Amy’s wedding, Nine turns even more episodic, hoping that individual Victories In Premise can provide compensating resolution as the show marches towards its conclusion. Eight, meanwhile, has neither the luxury of a narrative engine and the diversionary momentum it provides — for now Robert and Amy are married — nor the self-awareness of an approaching series finale for which idea-led material can be excused. This means, unlike the other two, there’s nothing plotty towards which this year can build… However, it does get to explore the result of last year’s narrative engine, for now there’s a genuinely new ensemble dynamic — with six characters instead of five — and that’s a good font of story, even though they won’t be as satisfying as the thesis-filled tales of old… Ah, but the year has its own workaround for that too, or so it thinks: a change of thesis.
Now that Amy has come along and these scripts want to examine her effect on the ensemble, the series has to be about more than just Raymond caught between two forces. It’s got to be less specific. It now has to be about a volatile family (with Ray somewhere in the middle). This is a broader identity that, on the surface, seemed sanctioned even by the peak era, with shows like “The Angry Family.” But of course, that’s only on the surface; at a closer look, that classic featured one of the most straightforward takes on the original thesis, with a clear understanding of the central drama (Deb-Ray-Marie), and this watered-down premise can’t ever replace what the show is meant to be — for a warring ensemble is a result, not a conflict. And yet, this era has to pretend what it has to pretend as a matter of self-preservation. To that point, you’ll find that the best stories in Eight tend to be the newer ones: the material that only exists because of this change in the ensemble, because Amy and Robert are married, and because we know we’re seeing something that earlier years, however objectively better, couldn’t have offered if they tried… like the freshly premised “The Bird,” which explores, better than any other this year, what the Barones’ blended family looks like now that Amy’s part of it. And it could only happen with participation from the MacDougalls, a brilliantly cast and well-defined reward exclusive to the third trimester. You see, we have to let this uniqueness — what the season/era has that no others do — be the standard of excellence this week, for Eight, with its projected new focus, wouldn’t work without it. And, frankly, we should make an effort here, for unlike in Seven, where the show waffled and distracted, Eight is straightforward and asks to be met on new terms… But this makes for a mixed bag too, for its new terms allow for many varying story ideas — and that means increased mediocrity. (Not everything new is good!) Narratively, this also brings both more prominence to Robert (because he’s attached to the shiny new object — Amy — and therefore, to keep Ray engaged, their brotherly relationship has to be often invoked), and, more surprising still… occasional traces of the original, as premised, central conflict.
These traces are most visible (and best handled) in the year’s second entry, “Thank You Notes,” where the series uses its newfound ensemble structure with Amy to suggest a possible way that the primary drama between Debra and Marie could be narratively resumed… We’ll talk more about it below, but suffice it to say, the show doesn’t (I think because it really couldn’t) hitch these new dynamics to the old dramatics… And so, with the show expanding its focus to be more ensemble-geared, the Marie vs. Debra stories that we do get — like “The Ingrate” and “Slave” — along with the ones that use their contention more incidentally, like “Whose Side Are You On” and “Debra At The Lodge” — are run-of-the-mill and decidedly NOT new, meaning they’re not fresh, which makes them more unfavorably compared to efforts from finer seasons. Thus, these opportunistic nods to the original premise remain generally unsuccessful — or rather, they deliver much of that mediocrity — because once the series’ most important conflict reached its dramatic height (at the end of Six), there remained nothing new to explore. What’s more, these Marie/Debra shows in Eight tend not to be great because they pull their punches, and it’s not just that they’re less bold than their previous clashes, but also, they’re not as courageous as most of the newer stuff here in Eight. Accordingly, both on the series’ terms, and on Eight’s own terms, these stories come up short. Here, once again, this thesis conundrum exerts itself as the guiding criticism in this final era, for if the show had a utilizable thesis that was specific, and it didn’t have to widen its lens to invite in a larger variety of story ideas (including episodically predicated narratives — many of them idea-driven), there wouldn’t be so many middling outings with “good-but-not-great” character moments, and a missing dramatic core that’s directly attributable to the show’s use of story in this era.
In this way, by being more dramatically inclusive, Raymond‘s eighth year accepts more failure, or at least, mediocrity. And even though we celebrate the decisions that were made, because they basically worked, I think Season Eight, in particular, suffers as a result, for without the gaudier story interests of Seven and Nine, Eight’s lack of a dramatic core is more obvious, no matter how hard we try to accept its pivoted thesis (which, again, isn’t a dramatic premise — it’s a result, not a conflict). It then becomes easier to overlook its successes (as the Television Academy did when they were handing out Emmys)… Nonetheless, Raymond’s final years are still much better than those of its contemporaries, and so even when we make era distinctions that are unfavorable, note that these years manage to exist at a baseline that, outside the show, is seldom achieved. In fact, while I can say that Eight, like Five, is one of those years with more Honorable Mentions than “must-includes” — and fewer true “gems” than both Seven or Nine, suggesting a weaker overall quality — this isn’t a full indictment of the year, for I’m not calling Eight bad or even weak. After all, I’d take these last three years over the first two, for at least now the show knows its characters and is pretty good at catering to them — even inside problematic stories that aren’t as naturally attuned to the series… No, Raymond is still Raymond. And just as the company realized in January 2004 (when the crew decided that it could go on for one more abbreviated season), there were stories left to tell with this group of characters, even if the thesis wasn’t around to spark them so easily… So, never fear, there’s still some good stuff here, and I have as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 173: “Thank You Notes” (Aired: 09/29/03)
Amy argues with Marie about when she’ll send out “thank you” notes.
Written by Philip Rosenthal | Directed by Kenneth Shapiro
Likely intended as the season premiere before Brad Garrett’s contract negotiations necessitated a mediocre replacement script with a Ray/Debra focus, this sophomore outing is the rarity discussed above: the only time this year where the show’s newfound ensemble-geared thesis, led by the introduction of Amy into the regular cast, is allowed to legitimately connect with the show’s previously well-featured, but now dramatically muted, central conflict — typified by Debra vs. Marie. The plot puts Marie and Amy in opposition, giving the latter a taste of the former’s manipulation. Yay — a new story! But, funnily enough, most of the comedy comes from Debra, who realizes that Amy can be an asset in her ongoing, albeit back-burnered, rivalry with the Barone matriarch — leaving the men, Ray (and Robert) caught in the middle. (Sidebar: much is often made of Debra’s heightened depiction in this era, but I think this one illustrates that when motivated by the central conflict, her mania is justified. And because few are now able to serve her with the kind of thesis-drama she was designed to play, the character is not only denied as many great comic showcases as before, she’s also without a grounding dramatic relevance beyond her proximity to Ray. As such, this is her best showing in Eight.) Sadly though, this delectable blend of old + new never materializes into anything more than, like everything in this era, an episodic wonder. (Another installment, “Security,” comes close with a similar narrative clash, but it isn’t as comically bold, so it doesn’t work nearly as well.) This could have been a candidate for MVE if it was a better representation of Eight.
02) Episode 175: “Misery Loves Company” (Aired: 10/13/03)
Ray and Debra are annoyed when Robert and Amy give them marital advice.
Written by Aaron Shure | Directed by Gary Halvorson
In contrast to the above, which used its new asset, Amy, to explore the original central conflict in a manner familiar, but fresh, this episode is a more straightforward sample of what’s new in the new dynamic, which is what the bulk of this season ends up supplying. (And this is why our standards when looking for the best in Eight have to revolve around the material that is sincerely different, unique to this era — while still being good for the characters, of course — because it’s the only thing Eight does better than the others.) Now, I don’t consider this one of the best in the exclusively “new” category, for the idea of pitting the newly married couple against the older married couple (now Ray/Debra, who assume the middle position, between Robert/Amy and Frank/Marie) feels pejoratively conventional. That is, this type of conflict feels like something we could see on several of the run-of-the-mill Raymond knock-offs. But I had to include it here for two reasons. One, after a few establishing scenes, the entry plays essentially like a one-act with all six regulars together in the apartment. Raymond does this wonderfully, and we celebrate the show for its ability to be so simply structured, allowing character to lead. And secondly, I think this is one of those stories that almost had to exist — it had to contrast the optimistic new couple with the pair now assuming the central, moderately embittered, position. Thus, this isn’t tip-top Raymond, but it’s Raymond doing what it has to do by way of the new ensemble, and using inherently strong, and quintessentially Raymond, story structures in the process. And this makes it a great representation of the year, if not one of the year’s greats.
03) Episode 178: “Liars” (Aired: 11/10/03)
Ray and Debra find their lies to his parents snowballing.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Kenneth Shapiro
There’s a templated quality to this outing that honors what we know of this theatrically staged series, while also revealing the era’s storytelling shortcomings. Remember how we watched as the series slowly discovered that the best structural thing it could do week-to-week was get all the regulars together at the same time and place for a combustion? Well, now this formula is becoming formulaic, and I think this is partly a function of the show’s old age, for it’s inevitable that this design would be fresher in say, Season Four, than Season Eight. But I think it’s also less exciting now than it was early on because we’re missing the central dramatic conflict being reinforced regularly as a fulcrum for these encounters. For instance, “Liars” essentially attempts to embed this tension into its plot — as Ray and Debra concoct a lie to avoid him having to spend time with his mother — and, on paper, it’s a fine starting place for a web of lies to spin out of control, even engaging the same characters who are most important to thesis-fulfillment. Yet the storytelling belies the era’s errors, for with the central triangle no longer as dramatically relevant, the show intuitively knows to divert attention to something else: a rift that develops between Debra and Ray, as the two realize they can’t trust each other. And while that’s interesting, and funny, and we love Ray vs. Deb fare, it’s instructive of the series’ overall dramatic health that it isn’t just using more clichéd plots (and make no mistake — this plot is a sitcom chestnut; it’s only by the grace of Raymond‘s specific character charms that it passes muster), it also needs diversions within them. So, I consider this a hallmark of this last era, and I tend to conceptually link it with two other “web of who-told-who-what” combustion-built entries — the below “Blabbermouths” and next week’s “Favors.” In terms of quality, this is the best of that trio (thanks to Cawley’s script, which is the most character-laden).
04) Episode 180: “The Bird” (Aired: 11/24/03)
Thanksgiving at Amy’s parents’ devolves into an argument about a dead bird.
Written by Tucker Cawley & Mike Royce & Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Kenneth Shapiro
My choice for the finest episode of the season, “The Bird” warrants this distinction because, as noted above, it’s the year’s boldest example of a story that could only exist because of this final era and its particulars. More specifically, it’s only because of Robert’s marriage to Amy — and the introduction of the wonderfully funny MacDougall clan — that such a construct is possible, for earlier years spent this holiday more focused on the Marie/Debra tension, or even the contrast between the Barones and the Whelans. Naturally, the Marie/Debra tension is no longer potent enough for an outing as important as the annual Thanksgiving — which, as we’ve seen, typically makes for quintessential Raymond — and the Whelans, meanwhile, have effectively been replaced by a couple who is, like the era itself, designed more audaciously, for maximum laughs and constant conflict. You see, the Whelans were contrasted against the Barones in class and parenting styles, but the differences between the Barones and the MacDougalls are more foundational, based on temperament and fundamental beliefs, which is why a segment like this poises itself to not only be a gem on Eight’s terms — where, remember, we’re looking for material unique to the era — but also within the category of Thanksgivings, for here the holiday’s historical tradition of two different peoples breaking bread, as seen in the annual MacDougall play (a brilliant device, by the way), is mirrored in the very premise of these much more disparate families, with opposing points-of-view, having to conjoin.
And as discussed, this is what the show has to be about in Season Eight with Amy and a new ensemble, so even though it’s not as dramatically engaging as other thesis-related shows — to wit, the script doesn’t even try to put Raymond in the middle; he’s more squarely on the Barones’ side, while Debra is kept out of the action long enough for her not to matter much — it’s an exact reflection of the year, its intentions, and what it does best. Furthermore, with an original plot about the demise of a bird, which inverses our expectations by having the barbarous Barones NOT be the ones responsible for its death, it’s a classic that stands out as the most memorable of Raymond‘s Thanksgiving forays — idea-driven, perhaps (like the era from which it hails), but with big character hahas, a theatrically ensemble-geared design, and thematics that are appropriate for the year and for the holiday, in support. The choice was easy.
05) Episode 185: “Lateness” (Aired: 02/09/04)
Ray leaves Debra behind after complaining about her never being on time.
Written by Steve Skrovan | Directed by Jerry Zaks
My personal regard for this installment has diminished during this recent survey, for I realized that my initial attraction hinged around its concept, for this is indeed a show with another Victory In Premise, which guides its overall appeal. However, with ten slots on this list and not nearly as many “must-includes,” I felt it mandatory to highlight a Ray/Debra show, for this is one of the primary narrative categories in this (and every) season. And in comparison to the year’s other entries in this pile — like “Fun With Debra” and “Whose Side Are You On,” both of which feel like they could exist within any season of the series, let alone Eight exclusively — “Lateness” stands out as being the most connected to this era and its own specifics, both with its use of Robert/Amy, and also with the comic largeness of its idea-based conflict, for Ray leaving Debra behind is… well, would YOU want to be on the receiving end of Debra’s ire? Plus, with the premise’s refusal to pull any punches — it lets its title character do the big, out-of-the-ordinary thing (while still motivating his decision) — this story gains additional points beyond just reflecting its era, but for also having the courage to step away from the year’s many middling, rote, and risk-averse offerings that are lesser both dramatically and comedically. This one does something unsure, but because it’s fresh and basically character-driven, it works.
06) Episode 189: “Crazy Chin” (Aired: 03/22/04)
Amy wants to break Robert’s habit of touching food to his chin.
Story by Adam Lorenzo | Teleplay by Tom Caltabiano & Mike Royce | Directed by Gary Halvorson
With a premise built around a character quirk of Robert’s that dates back to the pilot, this entry is one that seems like it could have existed within any era. And to a certain extent that’s true — in fact, Robert used to touch his chin more often in early years, so by the time we reach Season Eight where he no longer does this regularly and it’s more of an occasion whenever he does, this almost feels as if it doesn’t belong, looking better suited for an early season where this was a more prominent aspect of Garrett’s portrayal. However, I think the change in the show’s purview after Amy’s entrance in the ensemble has led to more dramatic prominence for Robert (sometimes even at the expense of Raymond — and the series, like in “Peter On The Couch”). And so it’s actually fitting that this idea should come now, when the series is (and has to be) more interested in Robert, and has outsiders in Amy and the MacDougalls to raise questions about him anew. Fortunately, the teleplay also lays out a perfectly logical reason as to why he does what he does — rooted in what we know of Robert’s relationship with Marie and his distress over her favor for Ray — and it’s fun that Debra, sometimes serving as a proxy Ray, is used as the central character who pieces it all together. So, this memorable episode finds some good moments and completely justifies its placement here. A near-gem.
07) Episode 190: “The Nice Talk” (Aired: 04/19/04)
All sides of the family are in an uproar after Ray and Pat bond over a puzzle.
Written by Steve Skrovan & Aaron Shure | Directed by Brian K. Roberts
Another excursion that could only come in this era, following the introduction of the MacDougalls, I think this somewhat underrated outing is among the series’ most effective utilizations of Amy’s family, and primarily Georgia Engel’s Pat, who always gets the most to do of her entire clan (aside from Amy) because her demure persona is the MOST different from the loud-mouthed Barones. (Also, with matriarchal drama being the previous law of the land, it makes sense that the new family would also lead with its mother…) And yet the cause of this one’s success is even simpler: it recognizes the importance of putting Ray squarely in the center of the drama, which is both what we want as a result of the initial thesis, and also generally what we want under this year’s more ensemble-focused lens, for as the title of the show suggests, Ray still has to be at the heart of this contentious cast and its episodic conflicts. So, by having him form a relationship with the funniest member of the new side of the family, the show then gets to explore the myriad of objections that explode from the others, including those who are jealous that she would take a liking to Ray, like Robert and Peter, and those who resent that Ray, as usual, has found another “mother figure” in Pat, like Debra and Marie. There’s lots of great character stuff from this idea, and although it’s not quite pitting two sides of the family against each other, which would simulate a semi-thesis (as last year’s “Meeting The Family” managed to do), it’s probably the best example this year of how the season’s new particulars can still be used to reinforce Raymond’s centricity. Don’t overlook this one — it’s quite smart.
08) Episode 191: “Blabbermouths” (Aired: 05/03/04)
Ray doesn’t like Debra sharing secrets about him with her friends.
Story by Susan Van Allen | Teleplay by Leslie Caveny & Jeremy Stevens & Mike Scully | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Similar to “Liars,” which we discussed above, this entry builds to an all-cast combustion, where secrets are revealed and the characters learn new things about each other. As I said, I link this one conceptually both with the aforementioned and with next year’s “Favors,” for they all share a similar design that culminates in a templated combustion (which is common in a majority of shows from this era), after stemming from an ensemble-forward premise where the “web of who-told-who-what” mounts tension. By definition, these shows are plotty, and even though they use the relationships to justify each narrative beat, this kind of “conventionally sitcom” form of storytelling isn’t ideal for a show that prizes relatable realism. And I especially object in this case, for this one happens to be the biggest violator, from this trilogy, of the medium’s rule to “show not tell.” (That is, I much prefer learning character stuff in action, not from other characters shouting out secrets about each other. It’s lazy…) However, the theatrical design is conducive to Raymond‘s own sensibilities, and despite considering this the most story-led and least original of this narratively-linked trio, I like that there’s a Ray/Robert core — as that’s something Eight, and the end of Eight specifically, relies upon frequently — along with a comic focus on Amy, which is certainly unique to this era. Accordingly, this is a typical eighth season show with a familiar design, but a well-applied ensemble-focus.
09) Episode 193: “The Mentor” (Aired: 05/17/04)
Ray and Robert are shocked to learn that there’s a man who considers Frank his mentor.
Written by Tod Himmel | Directed by Gary Halvorson
If you’ve been following our coverage, you’ll know that episodes centering around Frank haven’t been well-represented on these lists, and as I’ve explained, it’s generally because stories that revolve around him tend not to be as dramatically compelling, because they aren’t putting Ray in the middle of anything. Ray’s usually in conflict with his father, or jockeying with Robert for approval, and while those can be individually notable, they’re not what Raymond does best. However, in this era, the change in focus has opened up the aperture and allowed more Frank-heavy plots to be contenders. The rule here, though, is that we’ve gotta get something that we haven’t seen before, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to feature a popular show like “Jazz Records,” which I find emotionally obvious and thematically redundant (we’ve seen that Ray/Frank dynamic often). But this overlooked story is rarer, for it allies Robert and Ray against their father, allowing for a final combustion where the women — who, thanks to Amy, are now a narratively strong triumvirate — lead a wonderful final scene where they physically push the Barone men together to engage in some type of intimacy, thus laying the groundwork for a more classic and ultimately seminal outing in this vein from Season Nine… In the meantime, though, this offering, which feels like it could only come in this new era, with the bolstered men. vs. women dynamic, gives us something we haven’t seen before with the Barone men.
10) Episode 194: “Golf For It” (Aired: 05/24/04)
Ray and Robert get into an argument about who loves their mother more.
Written by Tom Caltabiano & Tucker Cawley & Mike Royce | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Eight’s finale is an atypical showing that doesn’t play in real-time, but is comprised of a long, uninterrupted car scene with the Barone brothers. Although it initially looks to be a way-out-of-the-show’s-interests excursion with Ray, Robert, and their friends, the entry quickly becomes about the brothers and their feelings regarding their mother. The premise, which is rather light and is essentially built to just be a conversation between two well-developed characters, concerns who will assume responsibility for her when Frank dies (they’ll golf for it), which then turns into a dramatically interesting discussion about who loves her more. As I suggested above, the eighth season really zeroes in on the brothers’ dynamic as it reaches the end — with the last four or so episodes especially (including the dreadful “The Model”) seeming to assert their bond as the most seminal. Obviously, it still isn’t — Ray’s ties to both Debra and Marie remain more important, even in this era — and such attempts to convince us otherwise (this installment structurally and dramatically tries to invoke Frasier/Niles and their central drama over their father) aren’t entirely persuasive, even if this one’s good enough to make us appreciate the temporary implied focus, which, of course, is a function of the year’s unique wider lens. In other words, Robert’s increased visibility is a third trimester happening, and something that we have to celebrate here, and indeed, with a premise that recognizes the conflict-providing force that is Marie, “Golf For It” truly is one of the richest Ray/Robert shows of the entire series. So, even though this feels a bit out-of-place because this season is supposedly more ensemble-focused, and because, in any era, Raymond typically needs more comedic combustibility — the food fight is a nod towards that — the heavy Ray/Robert scene is something new and therefore valuable, with strong character dynamics utilized in necessary support.
The rest of the year is mediocre. What else can I say? Whether they attempt to use the old thesis but pull their comedic punches, like “Slave,” “The Ingrate,” and “Security”; try to predicate themselves on the particulars unique to this era, but fail to keep Raymond central, like “Peter On The Couch”; or represent the type of middling fare that we could have seen six years ago on the show, like “Surprise Party,” “Jazz Records,” and “Whose Side Are You On”; nothing else is great. Heck, even an entry I enjoy, the premise-led “Debra At The Lodge,” which has a sweet Debra/Frank core, isn’t worth pretending was anything more than a V-I-P.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
Come back next week for Season Nine! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!