Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing 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.
Although last week we recognized that The King Of Queens was not in the same figurative league as the qualitatively superior Everybody Loves Raymond — for several reasons, the most prominent being the use of character, specifically in story (that is, because Queens is not able to have its regulars be as dramatically dimensional, the series invites more idea-led, logic-lacking material) — it nevertheless must be said that Queens doesn’t take nearly as long as Raymond to discover itself. If you’ll remember from our coverage of the latter, I argued that Romano’s show spent three whole years — a “trimester” — learning about its identity and figuring out how to showcase this understanding in weekly story. (And most of the blame for this relatively slow climb was placed on Raymond’s first season, which didn’t make enough strides with the dramatic thesis, pushing off much of this corresponding, and foundational, block-building until Season Two, which started just as ignorant as its predecessor, but “put in the work” and ended with an obvious grasp of what was important, leaving the audience with an indication that further improvements would be made in Three, where the series strengthened its characterizations so that they could better fulfill the now-known thesis, thus launching the peak era and proving why it was the peak.) Well, in contrast, The King Of Queens starts Season Two knowing exactly what it is: the Doug/Carrie show, with Arthur appearing in four out of every five episodes as a wonderful laugh-booster who supports the series’ persona-based style of character writing, and is therefore a comedic tool, not a dramatic imperative. This is clear right from the year’s premiere, with an outing that puts Doug and Carrie in conflict and lets the series telegraph an evolved understanding of its dramatic intentions, for despite Arthur being a structural and premise-based annoyance, the show’s dramatic stakes come from the central couple, and that’s where its thesis lies. So, unlike Raymond, which learned the equivalent of this info during its second season, Queens goes into the year knowing it and showing it.
This means that the year is naturally able to have more confidence, which in turn means bigger laughs (and this is key because, as we noted, comedy is unquestionably Queens’ raison d’être). And this means, in no uncertain terms, that the second year is a significant improvement over its decent, but otherwise unsure and comedically muted, predecessor. But, while there’s cause for celebration, if this — Season Two — was where the series was going to settle at its peak, it wouldn’t be deserving of being called, as we said last week, “the purest embodiment of [its] genre,” for although the show knows WHERE its best stuff occurs and the year’s scripts are writing to it (by crafting stories that explore it), this season still has work to do in figuring out how to maximize its characterizations for dramatic potency — or more, important for Queens, comedic potency. Specifically, the show has to commit to an answer regarding the central question about the leading couple’s compatibility, for as we’ve explored, society has conditioned us, along with the characters (and the critics) to view Doug, the fat goofball, and Carrie, the hot firebrand, as being opposites whose pairing makes no sense. This is the year that decides that the characters are meant to be, which creates dramatic tension — for the characters often don’t seem to realize that, contrary to what everyone’s thinking (but maybe not saying), they do indeed belong together. And we can see that the year has come to this conclusion by an increase in the number of stories that pair them as collaborators (or co-conspirators), which indicates that they really do function, and function well, as a buyable twosome. However, even with this intention to compare them, never are their differences completely eradicated; they still have to be contrasted in some ways in order to clash, and they’ll still scheme against each other (as opposed to together against others as a unit). Now it’s just that, since we know they’re BOTH capable of such behavior, we subconsciously make the compatibility link. In other words, when Carrie tries to pull something over on Doug, we know she’s perfect for Doug, because we know that he also does (and has done) the same thing to her. They’re two peas in a Queens pod.
To that point, the real takeaway from this season is that it equalizes Carrie; it’s the year to first discover that she, the hot firebrand, has to be just as flawed as her fat goofball husband in order for us to understand their pairing and support the thesis’ claim that, despite all opposition, they belong together. You see, just as Debra at the end of Raymond’s third year had to toughen up to handle the central conflict’s exploration in the upcoming peak era, Queens’ ability to relish the dramatic tension and comic opportunity inherent to its defining relationship is reliant upon this evolution within Carrie’s persona — for if we find that this hot babe is saddled with a terrible temper and a wavering moral fiber, we’re less likely to think she is too good for Doug (which is what both characters believe, and what we have been primed to assume). Thus, an entry like “Fair Game,” in which Carrie is revealed to be a competitive, lying cheat, is a game changer, vitally diminishing the audience’s faith in her superiority — and this speaks both to an answer for the central dramatic question (again, they DO belong together), and to an increase in the comic possibility that comes whenever any sitcom character is allowed to embrace a flaw… Yet, while it’s true that Queens emboldens its leading lady a whole year before Raymond did, we’ll find that its third season isn’t quite the obvious AHA! that the latter’s fourth was. There’s still something of a building quality to Queens next year, despite the thesis being regularly explored. A lot of this has to do with the ensemble, which is still being refined; although Two wisely uses Deacon/Kelly as a secondary couple (forcing the Heffernans to pair as a unit) and continues to offer material for the well-drawn Spence, the year remains saddled with the go-nowhere Richie, who’ll give way soon to someone no better defined (Danny), but on whom the series is more determined to settle. Also, we’re still waiting for Holly the dog walker to come in and give Arthur a reliable partner for his subplots, as there’s not always room for him in the Doug/Carrie thesis. So, Queens, in Two — and Three — isn’t yet fully formed, even though the most vital pieces (with Doug/Carrie) are known and coming together before our very eyes… On this note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’s strongest.
01) Episode 26: “Queasy Rider” (Aired: 09/20/99)
Doug buys a motorcycle against Carrie’s orders.
Written by David Litt | Directed by Rob Schiller
As noted above, The King Of Queens‘ second season premiere is an excellent contrast to Raymond‘s sophomore debut, for while the latter series went into its year still showing little awareness of a dramatic thesis, this episode makes it crystal clear that Queens is already committed — not to the pilot’s premise of familial intrusion, but to the Doug/Carrie relationship specifically, and how this plays into the genre of show that this show was helping to develop. In other words, Queens, unlike Raymond, knows right from the beginning of Season Two what it’s going to be for the rest of its run, and for that reason, “Queasy Rider” is not just a hoot — with Doug buying a motorcycle after Carrie sternly forbids him from doing so in front of his friends (it’s a growing play towards her adoption of traits that could make her seem just as flawed and comically unappealing as Doug) — it’s also a revealing indication of the series’ learned self-awareness about its strengths, which is what fuels the thesis that we’ve been able to pinpoint. This makes it an MVE contender — a strong start to a solid, show-knowing, show-building, year.
02) Episode 28: “Assaulted Nuts” (Aired: 10/04/99)
Doug accidentally staples himself in the testicles.
Written by David Bickel | Directed by Rob Schiller
Unlike most of the outings highlighted here — you know, the ones that show the series’ growing Doug/Carrie interests and/or progress Queens‘ overall narrative evolution — this much-beloved fan favorite is something much simpler: a good ol’ Victory In Premise that we could almost buy happening to any harebrained male sitcom character of the era. This is the entry where Doug accidentally staples himself in his, to quote the title, “nuts.” It’s the kind of story that, again, isn’t necessarily specific to him, and it’s also the type that could have been done on any of this series’ nine seasons, making it not something that represents the second year, in particular, very well. And yet, as we discussed last week, the nature of Queens‘ character writing invites a relatively high number of Victories In Premise, with comic ideas that propel episodic plot (as opposed to the characters and their dramatically humorous choices), and in this regard, “Assaulted Nuts” is a perfect example of the show’s overarching storytelling efforts, especially in contrast to, say, Raymond‘s, where, because of Rosenthal’s character-based consistency, such a narrative would seem out of place. Here, this is perfectly in-keeping with Queens‘ style, and so, I recommend just appreciating it for what it is: a funny, unique idea.
03) Episode 31: “Doug Out” (Aired: 10/25/99)
Doug takes Arthur to a baseball game after insulting him.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
Although stories featuring Arthur and the effects of his intrusion upon the lives of Doug and Carrie are no more dramatically satisfying than straightforward conflicts between the Heffernans alone, the series’ construction and its persona-based comic interests ensure that episodes that make good use of Jerry Stiller in the A-story (where Doug, naturally, resides) are almost always comedically noteworthy, if nothing else. Accordingly, even though I don’t think this is a stellar showing — the whole bit about Doug ending up on the baseball field is eye-roll-worthy in all its idea-led single-cam glory — I wanted to include this one because I think it stands as the year’s best example of this kind of premise. That is, it’s the best of the “annoying Arthur” stories, and that’s because it’s really about Doug and his mistakes. (He calls Arthur “a demented old circus monkey” behind his back.) Also, there’s a suggestion of Carrie’s growing flaws as her attitude at the ballpark gets her, along with Doug, punished — making for a nice Seinfeld-ian dovetail, and a reminder of what remains Queens’ guiding concern: the couple.
04) Episode 33: “Dire Strayts” (Aired: 11/08/99)
Doug insults Carrie right before they’re getting together with Ray and Debra.
Story by Kevin James | Teleplay by Rock Reuben & Gary Valentine | Directed by Rob Schiller
Okay, this isn’t a great one, but it’s, on balance, the best of Ray Romano’s four crossovers as Ray Barone. Here, he makes his only appearance in Season Two and his only appearance alongside Patricia Heaton’s Debra. Now, after having enjoyed nine weeks of Raymond coverage, I can tell you that it’s blatantly obvious how much superior the material on their own show was not just to what they get on Queens (which doesn’t know their characters as well), but also to what everyone gets on Queens, for while this is theoretically a strong outing for Two, with a nice premise that puts our central couple in conflict by acknowledging some of HER flaws and then carves out a nice physical centerpiece for Kevin James, the presence of Ray and Debra makes us more conscious of the series’ relative disparity in both comic proficiency and dramatic substance. Fortunately, Queens will get better once it reaches its peak, but the difference is never fully erased, and this notable Sweeps stunt, by its design, points it out… That said, it’s got the right idea, and again, if you’re looking to enjoy one of the crossovers, I think this is your best bet — because all the others separate Doug and Carrie, which is a no-no for Queens, and also, incidentally, Heaton raises Romano’s acting chops; he is never better on Queens than here.
05) Episode 34: “I, Candy” (Aired: 11/15/99)
Doug is excited after a waitress inquires about his availability.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
One of the season’s smartest character-led entries, this story is built around the thesis we’ve been discussing, for when Doug discovers that a flirty waitress asked about his “situation” (whether or not he’s single), he suddenly starts to feel better about himself, which is a great jumping off point, of course, for comedy, and also, for a dramatic discussion about the contrasting ways society views him vs. how it views Carrie. While Carrie is used to being flirted with and hit on by guys, this is a new phenomenon for Doug, and this deals precisely with his insecurities and the central dramatic question, inherent to the series (and the genre that it created — with help from the critics who derisively gave it a label based on these physical descriptors), about the pair’s suitability for each other despite these obvious surface differences. Naturally, Queens, for all its irreverent comic tonality, has romance at its heart, for Carrie does become jealous of Doug’s new admirer and this is yet another validation from the series that, contrary to whatever anyone thinks, this is a couple that we’re intended to see as meant-to-be. So, again, it’s a smart character-led show and another MVE contender.
06) Episode 37: “Net Prophets” (Aired: 12/13/99)
Doug and Carrie invest his Christmas bonus in volatile internet stocks.
Written by David Litt | Directed by Rob Schiller
This popular offering (with both the fans and the company — it gets a commentary on the DVD release) isn’t the classic that its favorability might suggest, because it isn’t nearly as funny as this series’ baseline has conditioned us to expect. And also, for our purposes, seeing as it’s more of an idea-led excursion without as many of the character interests elsewhere on this list, there’s less incentive to hail this one as a gem when it asks for more without providing it. That said, it’s a perfectly affable half-hour and I DO enjoy it, for two reasons. One, it subconsciously reaffirms the thesis, for with Doug and Carrie acting as a unit while conspiring in what is essentially an old-fashioned get-rich-quick scheme, the show is quietly commenting on their rightness for each other, which, again, is exactly where this series dramatically lives. And secondly, but less instructively, its premise — about the Heffernans suffering as a result of volatile internet stocks — is VERY of its era, late 1999, and as such, this is a time capsule, locking the series into a specific moment (which is what TV does better than anything else).
07) Episode 41: “Fair Game” (Aired: 02/07/00)
Doug is shocked to learn that Carrie cheats at games.
Written by Marc Sedaka | Directed by Rob Schiller
My choice for the strongest episode of the year (MVE), this distinction shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how I introduced it above in the seasonal commentary. I rightfully called it a game changer, for although earlier outings this year (see several of them above) have used the idea that Carrie is flawed (and maybe almost as flawed as Doug) as part of their comic plottings, this is the first to craft a whole story around her shortcomings and to do so in a way that rivals how these initial two seasons have built ideas around Doug and his buffoonery. This makes it the first to truly commit to the notion that, from here on out, Carrie is going to be JUST as unappealing and imperfect as Doug, and whether they’re exhibiting this behavior by conspiring together, or conspiring against each other (yes, he’ll still be buffoonish and his flaws will often drive story independent of hers), the fact remains: they’re both awful, and thus, despite everyone’s thoughts to the contrary, they belong together. So, this is, at the least, an important show in the series’ cultivation of its dramatic viability — and sustainability — for it allows the writing to play towards the thesis that its known right from the beginning of Two, but hasn’t been able to explore brilliantly. Now, with Carrie’s persona falling into place, things can really take off… Sure, there’s still some heightening to be done — even throughout Season Three — but, by and large, no installment is as bold at cementing this new, but necessary part of the series’ identity, and as this effort indicates, it’s not only beneficial for the characters and their relationship, but also for the series’ overruling comic interests too, for this is one of the year’s funniest. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no coincidence.
08) Episode 42: “Meet By-Product” (Aired: 02/14/00)
In flashback, we see how Doug and Carrie first met.
Written by David Litt | Directed by Rob Schiller
Further justifying Queens‘ comparison to Raymond is the use of flashbacks. Now, regular readers know that I find these to be a narrative, idea-led gimmick, where humor is derived from hindsight knowledge about the characters — something that isn’t actually resulting from their own present flaws/choices. (But that’s an obvious concern, for we’re in the past, and the characters’ active choices are past-ive, if not passive.) I excused it sometimes on Raymond because this was that series’ only gimmick and it was contextualized as only being an annual finale event, but because that show was usually so character-driven with its storytelling, I worried that it didn’t fit. However, since I have lowered my standards for Queens, because I know that much of its material is idea-led (including some of its best stuff), I’m less automatically bothered by flashbacks, especially this one, which is the funniest of them all — perfectly balancing the show’s unsentimental sense of humor with the romantic inevitability of Doug and Carrie, whose first meeting is the subject of this likable entry. (Also, I appreciate that Richie is part of the story — for the show usually struggles with how to use him and here he has a definite purpose.) Not a favorite, but right for Queens and this particular season.
09) Episode 48: “Restaurant Row” (Aired: 05/08/00)
Doug begins visiting a restaurant behind Carrie’s back.
Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
Another of the year’s MVE contenders, this installment takes the progressive assumption boldly insisted upon in the aforementioned “Fair Game” — namely that Carrie is just as flawed as Doug — and routinizes its usage within a story that makes note of this fact but is otherwise more narratively concerned with the title character and his flaws (which is to be the case more often than not going forward). In this way, the episode attempts to show what the series will be like now that it’s learned some of what it needed to learn over the course of this season — and, while the show will certainly become funnier ahead in its peak years (duh), this is a very good sign, for this amusing offering has Doug loving a restaurant (food — an obvious weakness that speaks to both his physical appearance and the central drama) so much that after Carrie makes a scene there (her hot temper, one of her primary flaws, is on full display — no matter how much support the script gives to her POV) and demands that he never return, he breaks his promise to her and goes back anyway. You see, it’s a great exploration of both their shortcomings, with the subtext of the central question (and answer) residing underneath, and, by Two’s standards, it’s not just a dramatic success but a comedic one, too. Things will get better from here, but this one, a seasonal favorite, shows us how it will be done. Revealing, fun, memorable.
10) Episode 50: “Whine Country” (Aired: 05/22/00)
Doug and Carrie have different ideas of where to go on vacation.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
Season Two ends with another outing that showcases the leading couple’s rightness for each other via their matching pettiness, for although they have contrasting ideas (about where and how to spend their upcoming vacation), they boldly engage in a childish tit-for-tat when neither fully gets their way. For after a coin flip determines that Carrie and Doug will be spending their vacation his way, in an RV, she decides to get back at him by inviting Arthur — a smart development that relates to the pilot’s initial intrusion premise and also beneficially gets the wonderful Stiller into the A-story. And then, following Carrie’s move, Doug makes one of his own and invites his obnoxious friend, Spence, to tagalong, too, and this has the same effect on Carrie that Arthur’s inclusion had on Doug. So, neither decides to go, letting the two nuisances travel alone… It’s a great idea, making use of the show’s premised belief in the Heffernans’ romantic suitability by suggesting how they react similarly when opposed, meaning that, even in comedic conflict, the show can reinforce the dramatic heart at its center. This is the perfect way to go into Three, where the comedic ante (and the dramatic heart) is upped…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Frozen Arthur,” the year’s second finest Arthur intrusion story, “Get Away,” the season’s best attempt at a plot that contrasts Doug and Carrie against Deacon and Kelly Palmer, which then allows the Heffernans to appear as an imperfect but made-for-each-other unit, and “Tube Stakes,” an early, but not-bold-enough example of a story built around a mistake that Carrie makes. Meanwhile, of more Honorable Mention quality are “Roamin’ Holiday,” with an amusing scheming Doug story, “Parent Trapped,” a rowdy Doug/Carrie entry that misses this list only because of a very broad comedic centerpiece that is totally out-of-place within Season Two — especially during a storyline that’s supposed to be character-based, “Soft Touch,” which features the return of Cranston and Rescher and offers a fun Victory In Premise, and “Surprise Artie,” which has funny moments for Arthur, but is otherwise too enamored of its stunt casting.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!