Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on The King Of Queens (1998-2007), which, I’m happy to report, has been released in full on DVD!
The King Of Queens stars KEVIN JAMES as Doug Heffernan, LEAH REMINI as Carrie Heffernan, and Jerry Stiller as ARTHUR SPOONER.
Everybody Loves Raymond was the last of Sitcom Tuesday’s tent poles. That is, it was the last show I felt had to be discussed before we moved on from the 1990s, and that’s because, as we explored, it’s one of the finest sitcom offerings of the past few decades. In fact, I went even further in my coverage and suggested that it was both the finest “family” comedy from the turn-of-the-century, directly sparking a trend that consumed the first half of the early ‘00s, and also perhaps the LAST truly great multi-camera classic. I stand by my comments now as we move on to The King Of Queens, which is a multi-camera “family” comedy from the turn-of-the-century with clear ties to Raymond — its stand-up star, Kevin James, had been a guest on Romano’s series, and once he got his own turn to shine in the same Monday night CBS block with a show boasting a similar premise (goofy guy with put-upon wife and an intrusive family), “Ray” returned the favor and appeared several times to help launch the freshman comedy. It’s not a spin-off — James first played a different part on Raymond — but they exist within the same universe, and this, along with the similarity in their designs and the proximity with which CBS scheduled them, ensures that, as viewers, we find Queens a cousin to Raymond. But this relationship inevitably favors the latter, for Raymond is a tent pole series, with all those special qualities we spent weeks highlighting, and so, we go into coverage of Queens already knowing that we’re dealing with a comparatively lesser work, one for which we have to lower our standards of quality (somewhat) in order to appreciate the best of what it has to offer — because, generally, it can’t be analyzed in the same way Raymond was. I mean, Raymond was the cream of the crop and got top-of-the-line (if I do say so myself) analysis because it deserved it. The King Of Queens, no matter how enjoyable, doesn’t warrant the same intensity of scrutiny, which goes to say that the depth of my coverage will mirror the relative depth of the show.
To that point, I want to make this simple. There are four questions I hope to answer — a why not, a why, a what, and a where. Starting with the why not, I want to discuss WHY, on Queens’ end, it’s NOT in the same qualitative league as Raymond. But I have to be general — the episodic support for my claims will speak for itself in later posts — for as far as this initial entry is concerned, the first year, like Raymond’s, is actually rather quiet, with characterizations that haven’t reached their full potentials and a sense of humor that’s relatively muted. So, this list isn’t enough to fully evidence the series’ strengths and weaknesses. Yet with regard to the entire run, the biggest difference between the two shows is foundational: the quality of the storytelling as a result of character. Simply put, Queens isn’t nearly as consumed by its characters as Raymond, for even though the three regulars are basically well-defined (although it’s tentative early on, especially with Carrie), more of Queens’ stories are led by their ideas, making use of Victories In Premise that, on their best days, can only exist because of the characters as we know them, but on their worst days, don’t care. It’s a chicken and egg thing — are the characterizations slight because of the gimmicky storytelling or is the storytelling gimmicky because of the slight characterizations? Watching Season One, I say the writing for character is always slight (relative to Raymond), even with the year’s more earnest story intentions and less broad comedy. (Okay, to be fair, Raymond’s first season was no better…) But keep in mind now that the relationship between character and story also invites other, more pressing concerns, like a tenuous affinity for relatable realism, as Queens accordingly makes due with less logic in its characterizations and its stories, pushing for bigger laughs and establishing an unspoken priority; if everything with Raymond led back to the characters, everything in Queens leads back to its comedy, and both the stories and the regulars are but tools to deliver the hahas. This means, on Queens, relatable realism doesn’t matter more than the gags, and the characters prove it.
I worry that I’m speaking too generally, but I trust that the episodes (if not this week, then later on) will make the case so I don’t have to. For if we just accept that the characters on The King Of Queens are not as well-drawn — not as nuanced, not as deep, not as realistic — as those on Everybody Loves Raymond, and that this both causes and stems from the less-than-ideal nature of the storytelling, then we can move on to answer the why: WHY is Queens worth highlighting at all? Well, if Raymond is the best of this type, then Queens is the second best — although, actually, it may be better than that, for if the jump between “best” and “second best” is as steep as it seems, it’s then true that Raymond, despite sharing many things in common with Queens, may actually be TOO GOOD to belong in this “family in suburbia, led by a goofy husband and his angry wife” category; after all, as our coverage indicated, it was so much more than Ray/Debra. Queens, on the other hand, isn’t too good for this category. And, hey, that’s a compliment, for Queens then gets to be the purest embodiment of this genre, with the goofiest guy and the meanest wife — not to mention the largest physical disparity between the two (he’s fat, she’s hot — traits derisively used as shorthand to define this early ‘00s genre). In this regard, I think Queens, even more than Raymond, is the best ambassador for this trend of show — which includes mediocre efforts like Yes, Dear, According To Jim, and Still Standing — and, so, by the standards of this genre within a genre, there’s something approaching perfection about Queens. It may not come in its characters or its storytelling — both of which are nevertheless solid when viewed in comparison to the shows above and are only lamentable when asked to stand alongside a gem such as Raymond, meaning, I’d take the distinct personalities of Doug, Carrie, and Arthur, and their laugh-seeking hijinks, over much of what this era has to offer — but that’s secondary to the fact that no show does this type of show better than this one. It IS the genre.
But “personalities” is the key word, for there’s no separation between the core trio’s characterizations and their players’ inherent personas. We can view this as a weakness — after all, Raymond truly had CHARACTERS, with dramatic wants and unique perspectives, all of which were ingrained within the text (and the structure), and simply brought to life by the cast, while Queens isn’t strong enough to have so much within its foundation. But it does have Kevin James, Leah Remini, and Jerry Stiller — three watchable, funny, memorable performers — and they give everything life. They are the reason for watching. They are the reason this is the best of the genre. They are the reason that this show deserves to be covered here. For while we may credit the writing for some episodic stories (its Victories In Premise) — especially for Arthur, who must be serviced in plot, even though it’s a chore to integrate him into the typical Doug/Carrie A-story — the character work is only commendable as a function of how well it caters to the three stars, who elevate material by providing, if not dramatic wants, then at least finely tuned comic perspectives — perspectives that not only help the show in its obvious pursuit of laughs, but also procure some of the relatable realism (the humanity) that the writing doesn’t immediately offer. I’m thinking now of Doug/Carrie specifically, and I believe — more than anything else — this is what Queens has that sets it apart: a central couple of two outstanding, evenly matched funny stars (both of whom can handle the humor and storytelling), and whose chemistry is so great that it anchors the series with a degree of honesty — or rather, definable authenticity — which acts as a counteractive force to the heightened nature of the writing’s laugh-seeking, logic-defying sensibilities, particularly within plot. To wit, even with weaker writing all across the board, I’ll go so far as to say that the James/Remini chemistry is AS good as Romano/Heaton’s. We buy it, we love it, and we love them.
Now it’s time for the what — that is, WHAT we’re looking for when determining the series’ best: episodes that make the finest use of Doug and Carrie as a couple. The series is at its best when highlighting their chemistry, reinforcing the performers’ intrinsic comic energies — which are heightened once the show begins writing FOR Remini, allowing Carrie to be as flawed as Doug — and illustrating why these two, despite the physical differences that critics love to point out, make sense together. At its peak (when the characters are best used), Queens’ innate comic interests are married to these make-believe, but seemingly real, marrieds — think Mad About You, but with a lower-class, Queens bent — and, as we’ll see, the type of story that works best is the one that has both leads, from their flaws, scheming: either against each other, or together against some outside force (even Arthur). Here, though, it’s important to note that there’s nothing satirical about their often-contentious dynamic — this isn’t Al and Peg Bundy, the anti-Cosbys — this is a couple that, because of the sincerity within the performers’ dynamic and the series’ textual framework, which writes them sometimes subordinate to easy story but rarely malleable to it, are stabilized by these players’ set personas. We’re supposed to BELIEVE them, just as we do Raymond’s, even if, here, we’re missing a comparable dramatic core… Speaking of which, you may be wondering about Arthur. Naturally, Stiller (who replaced Jack Carter before the pilot got to air) is another star with his own style, and the show writes to it. It’s easy to think, based on the premise of him moving into the house — that the show, like Raymond, has some kind of dramatic thesis about familial intrusion. But it doesn’t. While stories will often work for the characters because they play upon this idea — primarily in One, where these plots are more prominent (even after the disappearance of Carrie’s sister, who was deemed a premise-based complication that got in the way of a more simplistic design that favored its strengths: the trio) — they’re, unlike Raymond’s thesis efforts, not, as a category, better or more enjoyable.
This is because Arthur offers no real dramatic conflict. Oh, yes, there’s a premise — Doug and Carrie are forced to take in her father, who often functions as a replacement child — but Doug makes the choice in the pilot, and there’s no active struggle, in the same way there was with Debra and Marie. This gets to the structure; Raymond was brilliant because its lead was trapped between two forces, constantly having to take sides, yet because Doug is Queens’ lead, not Carrie, there’s no dilemma — no more choices to make. Instead, Arthur is but a worthy episodic complication for Doug (and Carrie) when, as with Doug/Carrie alone, the material is allowed to showcase Stiller’s unique persona. So, again, there’s no central conflict there — at least not a specific one. WHERE is it? Well, if the best stories are built around Doug/Carrie, then the thesis has to exist somewhere with them. Thus, I propose that the central conflict is merely their conflict, the clash of how the world views them (not meant to be) vs. how they really are (meant to be), meaning the drama of The King Of Queens is the genre it best typifies (and helped create) — fat goofball and shrill babe, the clash of opposites who are actually temperamentally compatible, even though the world has forced them to doubt it. It’s a broader scope — and the lack of a specific, more easily defined dilemma is certainly another answer to the earlier WHY NOT question for Queens not even being in Raymond’s league — but it’s still interesting, and there are many amusingly dramatic scenarios to explore with a duo that doesn’t fully know just how perfectly suited they are. And, ultimately, we adjust and go to where the quality is. That’s what these early years, in particular, are about finding, like figuring out how Arthur fits into a show that so clearly wants to be about Doug/Carrie alone. Fortunately, Queens will develop a decent ensemble of supporting players — there are a few nebulously defined duds (Kevin James’ brother, of course, is one of them), but they can mostly carry story, often times helping Arthur in his subplots. This is another answer to the WHY (cover it) question, for Queens is a smarter, luckier show than most… but right now, we’re waiting for the show itself to realize it… In the meantime, I’ve selected ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s best — and caution, more than usual, my picks may go against “the fandom’s” grain.
01) Episode 2: “Fat City” (Aired: 09/28/98)
Doug convinces Carrie that she should go on a diet.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Robert Berlinger
Following a mediocre and comedically subpar premise pilot that had to establish the injection of Arthur into Doug and Carrie’s happily married life (along with Carrie’s sister Sara, who appears in only three entries following the premiere, including this one, and is fazed out with nary a mention), the second broadcast excursion is the first to indicate how the series will exist on a regular basis. It’s also funnier than its predecessor, for while the pilot acknowledged the “elephant in the room” regarding the series’ premise — that is, Doug’s weight, which is code for the disparity between how society views him vs. how it views Carrie — this is the first episode to build its entire story around it. For here, hypocritical Doug, worried that his bride will one day end up bigger than him, tries to coerce her into a diet… something that’s too difficult for himself to follow. This is a great idea because it, again, speaks to the underlying thesis we discussed above, and uses Doug’s flaws (insecurity) as he schemes against his wife, who’s nicer here than Carrie should EVER be, but, as with Raymond, we’re taking baby steps…
02) Episode 3: “Cello, Goodbye” (Aired: 10/05/98)
Doug is threatened when Carrie enjoys working with her boss at her new job.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn & David Litt | Directed by Gail Mancuso
The second script credited to the series’ two creators, this installment further corroborates the show’s semi-conscious drift from the intrusion premise seemingly established in the pilot by zeroing-in on where the series will actually live: within the Doug and Carrie relationship. As with the above, the story is sparked by Doug’s insecurity, which itself is predicated on his fear that Carrie is too good for him and that they don’t belong together, but the action takes an interesting turn, dropping the jealousy angle early enough to wrestle with the notion of their compatibility. The show will eventually decide that they are meant for each other (whether the characters know it or not), but at this point in the run, the scripts are as doubtful about this as they are, for the centerpiece has Doug trying to enjoy something that he hates but Carrie loves — classical music — which reinforces their differences. Thus, even though this only looks to be an excuse to get to a terrific Your Show Of Shows-esque pantomime fight that the two have during the performance — which is a very early example of the show’s broader physical sensibilities — there’s deeper character stuff underneath. Also, because there are no stellar offerings in One — meaning there’s no obvious MVE to choose — I’ve decided to pick the one that, time after time, leaves the strongest Doug/Carrie impression. This is it.
03) Episode 6: “Head First” (Aired: 10/26/98)
Doug starts spending time with Arthur because Carrie rewards him sexually.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn & David Litt | Directed by Pamela Fryman
With a clever premise that relishes in the more permissive sexuality that domestic comedies were enjoying in the late ’90s (and we certainly saw this employed on Raymond, as well), this memorable outing is notable for both managing to successfully integrate Arthur into the Doug/Carrie A-story, and also for moving the show closer to the comedic temperament that will define its upcoming peak seasons. Now, I maintain that because the series doesn’t have a dramatic thesis with Arthur, stories that use him as a complication are no more successful than anything else — they have to prove themselves episodically, too. But there is something to be said for utilizing the trio within one narrative, for not only does this put the series’ strengths all together, but it also is more efficient, mitigating the need for potentially disappointing subplots. So, I like the way Arthur is used here — a thorn in Doug’s side that he then realizes can be used to get, ahem, favors from Carrie. This raunchy premise, another Doug scheme, captures the spirit of the couple’s upcoming interplay — their scheming is often a tactic that shows their suitability, and though it’s not yet collaborative or equal (Carrie’s still too nice — in later years there’d be some turnabout from her), it’s another step in the right direction.
04) Episode 8: “Educating Doug” (Aired: 11/09/98)
Carrie enrolls herself and Doug in a literature class.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
Truthfully, I debated about whether or not to include this entry, for it’s one of the season’s most shamelessly idea-led affairs, offering a premise-driven story that isn’t just ostentatious — it’s also something that we could see on almost any series and with any set of characters. However, I ultimately feel that it, more than the many notable Honorable Mentions highlighted below, has some series-building elements worth noting. First, it’s the first broadcast episode credited to Rob Schiller, who quickly became the series’ in-house director. Second, despite the premise’s inherent independence of character, its existence actually tells us several things about the main couple and their relationship — namely, it suggests their suitability for each other, because they’re BOTH not-so-bright (as the opening scene with the dictionary hilariously illustrates), while also recognizing Carrie’s perpetual pining for something more in her life, a trait that speaks to both their fears about each other and is a perennial source of upcoming conflict. And, lastly, it’s a jokey script that again looks ahead, with fun character…y material.
05) Episode 11: “Noel Cowards” (Aired: 12/14/98)
Doug and Carrie scheme to get rid of a car that Arthur buys them for Christmas.
Written by David Bickel & Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
Holidays on The King Of Queens aren’t as seminal as they were on Raymond, because this series has a much more limited family dynamic. But Queens‘ relatively irreverent comic style is JUST as conducive to holiday shows, for this allows stories to deflate some of the unearned sentimentality that tends to run amok on sitcoms during this time of year. I think we see early signs of the irreverence here — it’s still being built this season (and the next) — as the story has Doug and Carrie scheming TOGETHER, for possibly the first time in the entire series, and as noted, this is important because it’s a shorthand narrative way of suggesting that the two are really more alike and suited for each other than they, we, and the world might think. (But, of course, because her depiction hasn’t yet taken full advantage of Remini’s persona, Carrie is much milder and more tentative; we could imagine that if this story came a few years later, she’d be leading Doug in the charge.) Also, this entry gains points for having Arthur be the one against whom the duo is collaborating, making for another dramatically efficient story.
06) Episode 13: “Best Man” (Aired: 01/11/99)
Doug learns that he’s going to the wedding of a man with whom Carrie once had sex.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
Another premise-heavy show, this is precisely the kind I only tolerate because it’s within the series’ wheelhouse, even though it’s not my preference. It’s only because I’ve adjusted my purview — and my standards (but only somewhat; there are still lines that I draw for what seems acceptable by way of these characters and what doesn’t) — that it could be included here. You see, this is a gaudy show, which has a Victory in Premise of Doug learning from Deacon (who appears with Kelly, making her debut) that they’re about to attend the wedding of a man with whom Carrie once had sex — a fact that she purposely hadn’t revealed to Doug. And the big climactic centerpiece takes place at a wedding where our two leads make fools of themselves. It’s all very LOUD, and I easily could have picked, instead, one of the Honorable Mentions that claims more of a thesis-connected dramatic footing. But this matches the show’s growing comic sensibilities, and because Carrie is allowed to be the flawed one, there’s something surprisingly forward-thinking about the story, for the growing prominence of her shortcomings is essential to Queens in nearly every facet of its identity. (Also, Peter Tork appears.)
07) Episode 15: “Crappy Birthday” (Aired: 02/01/99)
Doug has to plan a birthday evening for Carrie at the last minute.
Story by Kevin James & Gary Valentine & Rock Reuben | Teleplay by David Bickel | Directed by Mark Cendrowski
As the show goes through its first year still figuring things out about itself and its characters, it also wrestles with its tonality, especially as far as the relationship is concerned. That is, how romantic are Doug/Carrie? Are they lovey-dovey or are they embittered battle-axes? There’s undoubtedly a happy medium between the two that the best offerings will find — one that, comedically, is closer to the latter. However, that doesn’t discount the aforementioned lovey-doveyness either, as this forms an essential bedrock; our belief in their underlying love for each other, and their meant-to-be-ness, is what grounds some of the loonier comedy. So, I appreciate an entry like such, which is about Doug, the bumbler, trying to pull together a last-minute birthday surprise for Carrie with obstacle after obstacle thrown in his way (some of which are clichéd, some of which are fresh). And I think the story only works because we understand just how much Doug wants to please her, and this hints not only to their love, but also to his fear of losing her… which, again, goes back to the dramatic thesis that we established.
08) Episode 17: “Court Date” (Aired: 02/15/99)
Doug persuades Carrie to date a traffic cop so that she can get out of a ticket.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
In keeping with many of the qualities that earned outings above their place on my list, this installment, with a morally indefensible — but highly comedic — premise where Doug persuades Carrie to casually date a traffic cop that likes her so that she can avoid another ticket and all the accompanying punishments, is exactly the kind of scheming storyline that the show will often use, again, to illustrate their rightness for each other. However, although the pair is in cahoots, Doug is really the active agent, forcing Carrie to go along with the plan against her better judgment. We’ll see the two alternate having the greater number of scruples later on, but generally speaking, this is another story that, if done in future years, probably would have seen Carrie more eager and involved in pulling the wool over the traffic cop’s eyes. As it stands here, the show, like the characters, is viewing her as clearly different from Doug, and while that’s not typical of Queens, the tension is interesting, primarily when explored in such a deliciously nasty plot: a good sample of future peak storytelling within this year’s take on the couple.
09) Episode 21: “Hungry Man” (Aired: 04/05/99)
Doug is starving at a fancy party thrown by Carrie’s boss.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller
Boasting a big comic centerpiece — the kind we can expect to see with more regularity in upcoming years — this is the episode that most looks like the second season, during which the show is a little more boldly confident with its comedy, and has officially come to understand that the Doug/Carrie bond, more than the triangular Arthur premise, is the most important aspect of its identity. That’s certainly implied here, as the story has Doug, who’s famished, making a fool of himself at Carrie’s fancy work party, as he searches for something to eat. It’s broad, but it’s built on what we know of Doug — and how he’s defined within the genre/conflict — so it works. Additionally, this entry resembles the second season because, even though the couple will gain more prominence and strides will be made within both their characterizations to accentuate their flaws, Carrie, like in Two, isn’t yet depicted to be AS imperfect as Doug, for the show is still highlighting its star by making sure that he is 100% the doofus — a distinction that magnifies their differences, as opposed to their similarities. While they’ll never be the same — thank goodness — the gap between them will close (and often alternate), and this is to the show’s benefit. So, an offering like this, before such evolution can occur, isn’t fully formed. But it is another part of the process in getting there…
10) Episode 22: “Time Share” (Aired: 04/26/99)
Doug and Carrie are forced to humor their neighbors in order to enjoy a time share.
Story by Nancy Cohen | Teleplay by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith & David Bickel | Directed by Rob Schiller
Bryan Cranston and Dee Dee Rescher make their second of four appearances here as the Heffernan’s bizarre neighbors. I get the impression that all their segments tend to be well-liked among the fanbase; I think that’s because there’s an inflated affinity for Cranston, who’s become a much-beloved figure in the time since he was a Queens guest star. I can tell you right now that I’m not interested in premisy, typical “life in suburbia” shows about difficult neighbors (unless they’re truly unique or excellent). As noted above, I’m interested in the Doug/Carrie relationship, and that’s why, for the purposes of this season, Cranston and Rescher’s first appearance isn’t as worth highlighting as “Time Share,” which is one of the first installments — if not the first installment — to make Carrie the “driver” in a Heffernan scheme, as she persuades Doug to humor the couple, who are splitting up, so that they can receive access to a beach time share. An added complication has Richie (the least narratively usable member of Doug’s posse) hooking up with Dee Dee, something that, for several reasons, threatens the Heffernans’ claim on the time share. Now we’re talking; this story-heavy big laugh plot — motivated by the mutual scheming of the central, well-matched couple — is, as with the above, starting to look like The King Of Queens that we’re going to know and love…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two with premises that play to some aspect of the Doug/Carrie relationship conflict but fail to “stick their landings” or, really, be as boldly confrontational and comedic as, even in this first year, we expect the series to be — “White Collar” and “Train Wreck,” the latter with Julie Benz. I also like “The Rock,” which builds James and Remini’s chemistry, but is a little too sentimental for Queens, and “S’Aint Valentines Day,” which commits the series’ cardinal sin of separating its primary couple, but enacts three notable stories, one of which includes Spence’s mother (played for this time only by Grace Zabriskie), and another of which includes the future Spence’s mother, Anne Meara… Meanwhile, of more Honorable Mention quality are “Where’s Poppa,” which introduces Danny, “Art House,” which is a bookend to the premise established in the pilot (but, as we discussed, it isn’t inherently satisfying), and “Rayny Day,” the second of two episodes with Ray Romano crossing over in character as Ray Barone. Generally, despite being well-remembered, all of his appearances are mediocre — this show doesn’t write him (or anyone else from his show) very well, and the stories that use him often separate Doug and Carrie to their own detriment. From Season One, this is the funnier of the two and features Doris Roberts as Marie, the only Raymond regular whose voice feels consistent between both series.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!