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.
Based on The King Of Queens’ second season, we go into Three expecting the start of a peak era, for now that the series knows itself (it’s the Doug/Carrie show, proving their compatibility to a world, an audience, and even characters who doubt it) and understands what it must do to be the best version of itself possible (it has to make Carrie as imperfect and unappealing as Doug), there’s no longer anything major keeping it from its own definition of optimal comic performance. After all, once its “cousin” Raymond was able to figure similar things out about itself (at the end of Season Three), that series went right into its finest era… Unfortunately for Queens, while there are several episodes that seem to validate our expectations, and Three indeed ends up being an improvement over Two, it’s not as big a difference as we’d expect, and the disparity between this year’s quality and Four’s is so great that it becomes impossible to deny the latter’s superiority, for it’s not until then that things actually “click” and the series begins producing gems with frequency and consistency. Here, quality remains more variable… Oh, to be fair, we can still call Three “one of the series’ best” (its third or fourth, depending on how broad you like your comedy), but that’s only because the “peak era” isn’t as definitively wide as Raymond’s; it’s not big enough to sustain three whole seasons, and it’s only if you open up your purview to include one of the two bookends to the two peak years that you get a period of excellence that’s commensurate. And if you choose to be so generous (I won’t), it’s equally valid to lump Three with the peak years of Four and Five, as it is to lump them with Six, for Three is still taking us to the top — continually moving, via exploration, towards the most exciting regular use of the thesis. To that point, I’d also caution you from too closely associating the third year of Queens to Raymond’s; though both can be described as “building” to their peaks following a season of self-discovery, remember that Queens did in Two what it took Raymond to do in both Two and Three (because of Raymond‘s rougher first year).
That’s why the third season of Queens is so uniquely fascinating, for it’s got everything important figured out… yet it still isn’t the best sample of the series. I’ve thought a lot about why this is, and to be sure, some of it can be explained using the inherent definition of “building,” for the progression of traits most conducive to peak functioning is slowly becoming more fully realized. For example, the depiction of Carrie as a hothead with an occasionally porous moral fiber continues to become more pronounced, gaining increased exposure this year, but without being as prominent or well-applied as it will be in the peak, which benefits comedically from this increased boldness. Additionally, the show is still figuring out its ensemble, and Three is the most active in attempting to explore changes on this front. Yet this sense of “we need more” speaks to a larger question that I think hangs over the year: Is that all there is? Yes, after Two came to its conclusions — conclusions reinforced in the peak years — Three, while better than ever before, also seems to be having a quiet identity crisis, as it’s determined to prove that there’s more to the series than what last year suggested: Doug/Carrie fighting, scheming, and doubting their rightness for each other — with comedic support from Jerry Stiller. Surely, that’s not all there is to Queens; I mean, Raymond had more… Of course, as we noted, Queens is dramatically and structurally lighter than Raymond, and instead of mourning this fact, we should be celebrating that it’s able to be so perfectly iconic with the elements of its identity that are present and well-used. But this third year isn’t ready to celebrate, for it’s still building. That’s why we’re subjected to Ricki Lake as Stephanie, Doug’s unmarried gym teacher sister, who appears six times this year before disappearing into the sibling ether… Okay, this reminds me of a confession I have to make: I hate Doug’s family. Every single member introduced over the course of the series. I don’t think any of them is terrifically well-defined or relevant to the Doug/Carrie thesis — and not even in the way that Arthur can sometimes be, given that Carrie’s foibles can be contextualized by an understanding of his.
Stephanie is a great case study of why Doug’s family is blah, for throughout her six appearances, the series gives her scenes with Doug where a fairly routine sibling dynamic is formed (nothing special, nothing memorable). But it outright FAILS to define her in relation to Carrie, who remains half the series’ thesis. Sure, “Hi-Def Jam” gives the ladies shared screen-time, but it’s all for story — and it’s not enough to intuit a relationship, let alone one that’s as clear as it needs to be. Thus, whenever Stephanie appears, it’s usually for the sake of plot, and for plot that has nothing to do with Doug/Carrie… rendering her moot. In contrast, I suppose Doug’s parents (played by Dakin Matthews and Jenny O’Hara) — who are introduced in Three and will recur throughout the rest of the run — have more of an impact on Carrie. But still, because, on the spectrum of sitcom parents (including Arthur), they’re relatively bland and nondescript, they might as well be moot, by this series’ standards, too… As for Doug’s cousin, Danny (played by James’ own brother, Gary Valentine), who guests twice this year (once with Gavin MacLeod as his father — it’s shameless) before becoming an official cast member in Four, he’s nothing but “Spence Lite,” and even though he replaces the equally extraneous Richie, who appears just once this season (his last), Danny’s never a real provider of story beyond the silly “mock gay” routine he develops with Spence. So, again, none of the family works. (Also, the show adds Lou Ferrigno, who plays himself, to the recurring cast, and doesn’t know what to do with him.) That said, some things with the ensemble do work: the same things that worked before, like Deacon/Kelly, who allow the show to pair and explore Doug/Carrie as a unit, particularly this year when the Palmers separate. (Merrin Dungey is soon to take a two-year hiatus, courtesy of Alias.) Plus, Spence remains funny, and this year discovers that he’s a great partner for Arthur, who otherwise won’t be fully satisfied in his B-stories until next year’s introduction of Holly the dog walker (which is one of the things that helps make Four “click,” allowing it to be, for more than just Doug/Carrie, a peak). This means that — with the ensemble, anyway — while Season Two, in fact wasn’t “all there is,” Three’s solutions (with the family) don’t fill the perceived void.
And this brings us to the most important part of the show, Doug/Carrie, whose relationship was set last year. Instead of taking what worked and running with it (as next season will do), Three walks slowly, and doesn’t overly commit to their depictions — primarily Carrie’s. That is, even as Three continues to use the thesis in story, and actually embeds both characters’ flaws better (read: she’s meaner now), it’s still holding back, and I think that’s because, well, is that all there is? Meaning, is this all the show is going to be from now on: two stereotypes, with hit-and-miss support from an ensemble led by Stiller? From this apparent concern, the year refuses to sink its teeth into Carrie — never mind that there’s still comfortable room for heightening, especially given Queens’ comedic objectives. (This is how an entry like “Fatty McButterpants,” the year’s best thesis story, STILL is not peak-ready, for it decides to make up fake flaws for Carrie, while avoiding the big ones that we already know exist, such as her temper…) Additionally, the year attempts to add depth to these rather shallow characters by exploring them in more dramatic scenarios, like the separation of Deacon/Kelly, and later, the year’s two-part finale, in which Carrie and Doug grapple with an unexpected pregnancy and miscarriage. We’ll talk more about it below, but here I’ll say that the show is using a baby as a symbol of growth (and it is thesis-connected, for it’s an affirmation of the pair’s compatibility). Yet a baby is a comic liability, and despite setting up an arc for next season, Four is going to decide that the series has to thrive before it can afford to settle down with this growth-providing, but also growth-ending, development… As for adding depth, the show’s already created expectations with its comedy, and so it’s almost “too little, too late”; at this point, we’d rather Queens be the most perfect version of what it already is, instead of a mediocre version of what it isn’t. And once the series stops thinking there’s more to Doug/Carrie than what’s already there, it can truly commit to exploring them in a way that better serves the series. That’s what’s going to make the peak the peak… First though, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
01) Episode 51: “Do Rico” (Aired: 10/02/00)
Carrie likes it when Doug role-plays as one of his coworkers.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
Season Three opens with a terrific thesis-connected offering that gives evidence to the fact that, despite some self-doubt and hesitancy with regard to Carrie’s characterization, the show doesn’t ever waver in its conviction that the Doug/Carrie relationship is its most important element, as it continues and even ratchets up the number of entries that explore the central dramatic question. Here, Doug’s concern that Carrie is only sexually aroused by him whenever he “role-plays” as a Latino coworker named Rico is directly correlated to his own insecurities about his attractiveness (how he looks — his weight being a big part of that) and to his underlying concern that Carrie is too good for him. You’ll note that this story rests on Doug’s neuroses, not Carrie’s; this is a function not only of James’ super-centricity, but also on the year’s Carrie crisis. However, it’s not a detriment to the comedy, for in addition to the narrative being so well-tailored to the series’ thematic interests, the teleplay doesn’t actually pull any punches. To wit, this is the first year where there are so many Doug/Carrie shows that a smart premise alone isn’t enough to earn a spot on the list. The executions have to be as funny as the year’s baseline, and that means boldness, hopefully with the characters. “Do Rico” fits that bill.
02) Episode 53: “Fatty McButterpants” (Aired: 10/16/00)
Doug and Carrie both vow to work on their issues — but Doug has a harder time than Carrie.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
My choice for the best episode of the year (MVE), “Fatty McButterpants” was referenced above in the seasonal commentary as being the strongest sample from Season Three of a thesis-connected story — one that’s comedically bolder and more emotionally to the point than anything produced thus far, but also indicative of the year’s reluctance to go “all-in” on the depiction of Carrie that we both A) know is possible and B) know is essential to the show’s peak functioning. In other words, while the story of Doug being upset to learn that Carrie has to shop at a speciality store for his clothes (because he’s so fat — a.k.a. society views him as unattractive, especially in contrast to Carrie) hits the characters’ vulnerability and the series’ dramatic point, the rest of this otherwise brilliant plot carefully ensures that Doug’s flaws remain paramount over Carrie’s. And we’re not talking about his appearance, but his pettiness, as his attempts to seek revenge on his wife — by coming up with fake flaws that could give her as much grief as his weight gives him — once again spares Carrie of the necessary scrutiny that the series already suggested it would apply last year (in “Fair Game” and several entries thereafter). One might say that the plot’s comedic purpose demands that Doug not bring up any real flaws, but even if that’s true, if this came in the peak era of Four or Five (or any future year), there would be NO way that Doug wouldn’t mention something that he obviously views as a weakness: her temper. Accordingly, I think this is the best Season Two episode of The King Of Queens to not come from Two. And yet, because it also reflects Three’s simultaneous strengths and self-imposed anxieties, it’s also the best look at Three, and therefore the one that, not just because of its comedic quality, deserves to be called the year’s Most Valuable.
03) Episode 55: “Strike One” (Aired: 10/30/00)
To Carrie’s chagrin, Doug buys a new car just as his union goes on strike.
Written by David Litt | Directed by Rob Schiller
Although we discussed early on how The King Of Queens is often an idea-led show, it’s not necessarily story-driven — meaning, it’s not so much that the show is obsessed with plot as it is obsessed with funny notions, be they big enough for a story or small enough to constitute a bit. This installment is a great example, for it’s the start of a trilogy that deals with Doug’s union going on strike, forcing him (and Deacon) temporarily out of work, and just like the handful of multi-part narratives enacted by this series over the course of its run, it’s nothing special… at least not inherently. What we see, instead, is that each of these three outings revolves around a humorous prospect. In this one, it’s the idea that Doug is going to be liberal with spending money, even though he’s likely to soon be out of work. This is worthwhile because it puts Doug and Carrie in opposition and refocuses the story onto their relationship in a way that the next two don’t. (The middle part of the trio, mentioned below honorably, is the weakest because it’s totally enamored of its idea of putting Doug in a classroom full of middle schoolers that it not only ignores the Doug/Carrie thesis, but also forsakes some logic in the process.) Plus, proof the series loves the comedic idea? The cold open, in which Doug gets into a fight with the plastic man into which he gives his fast food drive-through order.
04) Episode 57: “Strike Out” (Aired: 11/13/00)
Carrie and Kelly try to bring the husbands out of their funk by arranging a “play date.”
Written by Nick Bakay | Directed by Leonard R. Garner, Jr.
The finale of the strike trilogy, this well-liked entry is, I must confess, not one of my top favorites. And if you’ve been following our coverage over these past few weeks, I think you’ll already have a good idea why: it separates Doug/Carrie for too much of its action, deriving most of its value from incidental parts of the series’ identity that aren’t as satisfying. However, there has to be room on every Queens list for Victories In Premise that might not make great dramatic use of what the series typically does best (and should be about every week), but still go above and beyond in procuring laughs. That’s the case here, for the idea of Doug, Deacon, and Arthur turning into a band of merry pranksters when Carrie and Kelly pair them, hoping to wrest their husbands from an out-of-work funk, allows the three guys a chance to have a lot of fun. And since we like these characters together — because they do work so well together (especially Doug and Arthur) — we welcome some of this idea-based silliness, which helps make it a memorable deviation from the Doug/Carrie norm.
05) Episode 58: “Dark Meet” (Aired: 11/20/00)
Doug and Carrie remember the Thanksgiving where he first met Arthur.
Written by Rock Reuben | Directed by Rob Schiller
In the series’ second flashback excursion, we’re subject to another first meeting. Since last time we saw how Doug/Carrie first met (the beginning of the series’ most important relationship), this offering gives us the start of the next most important relationship: Doug and Arthur. It’s an atypical showing, for sure, with Florence Henderson making her only King Of Queens appearance as Arthur’s ex-wife, Lily, with whom he has a big fight just as Doug is coming over to the house for Thanksgiving. Never a fan of The Brady Bunch, I must admit that it’s still fun whenever Henderson gets to eschew her Brady persona and illustrate her capable talents. Additionally, the funny teleplay is benefited not only from her casting, but also from the guiding perspective within the premise: that Doug and Carrie are meant to be. Accordingly, the script does a fine job of balancing this thesis-connected romance with the series’ overruling BIG LAUGH pursuits — meaning that there’s a sweetness that isn’t hurt or allowed to overwhelm the comedy that this series always tells us is an important part of its identity, too.
06) Episode 61: “Better Camera” (Aired: 12/11/00)
Carrie’s company gives her a better camera for Christmas than the one she got from Doug.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
With a premise about gift-giving and re-gifting, there’s a Seinfeld-ian quality to this entry’s humor that helps reinforce an observation made weeks ago about The King Of Queens‘ comedic irreverence and how appropriate this sentiment-deflating energy is when it comes to stories centered around typically overly sentimental holidays. The plot, which has Doug giving Carrie a camera that ends up being inferior to the one that she receives from her company, is also a delicious parallel to the thesis, for Doug, who fears that he’s not good enough for Carrie, once again is unable to give her a gift that’s good enough for her. Naturally, the re-gifting comes to play when Carrie — who, thank goodness, is not without flaws in this one — gives the camera Doug gave her to Kelly, just after Deacon gave his wife one that wasn’t even as nice. So, you see, there’s a lot of fun with the holiday-related story stuff, but the best part is that it’s underscored by the central dramatic question and some fine material for the two main characters. It’s one of the uniformly strongest Doug/Carrie episodes on this week’s list.
07) Episode 62: “Wedding Presence” (Aired: 01/08/01)
Doug and Carrie scheme to avoid a wedding and pretend that they were there.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
There are two main reasons that I enjoy this outing, opting to highlight it above several of the top-tier Honorable Mentions below (where the reasons for notation are fewer, and not as persuasive). The first is that it’s another funny teleplay that fits within the narrative template of Doug and Carrie scheming together — a sign that shows the audience just how romantically compatible they are. That’s the A-story, in which Doug and Carrie think they’ve found a way to pretend they’ve gone to an annoying couple’s wedding without actually going. Yet when Deacon/Kelly end up not going either, the Heffernans panic and have to get there at the last minute. It’s easily comedic and thesis-connected. But the other thing I like about “Wedding Presence” is the B-story, in which Arthur and Spence pretend to be father and son, for it showcases just how good these two are when paired. (They’ll be paired more often when Spence’s mother becomes a recurring character starting in Season Five.) And ultimately, for boasting one of the year’s better Arthur subplots, this is a “must-include.”
08) Episode 64: “Paint Misbehavin'” (Aired: 02/05/01)
Various grudges come out during a heated game of paintball.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller
On principle, this is exactly the kind of installment I shouldn’t like and typically go out of my way to avoid highlighting. It’s a narratively gaudy and physically atypical story that’s hinged around a single-camera, on-location centerpiece and includes an unnecessary big name guest star (Eric Roberts). However, I don’t think this is incongruous with King Of Queens‘ style — neither its narrative interests or its idea-led sense of comedy. Also, driving each of the story’s moving parts is something relationship-based. The weakest stuff is with Stephanie and Richie, two characters who really serve no purpose on the show. We talked about both above, yet let me remind you: this is Richie’s only appearance in Season Three and his last, as he’s soon to be replaced by Danny, who appears in this episode, but as the subject of Spence’s scorn, because Spence feels that Danny is replacing him. (It’s not structurally true, but personality-wise, as I noted before, Danny is “Spence Lite,” a diluted version of the original formula, and so this idea is quite telling.) And of course the A-story is about the two couples, as Doug and Kelly are upset when Carrie reveals that she’s attracted to Deacon — a solid, relationship-based premise. So, the foundation for this one is better than you might expect.
09) Episode 72: “Swim Neighbors” (Aired: 05/07/01)
After Doug and Carrie build a fence, their neighbors put in a high above-ground pool.
Written by David Bickel & Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
Another Victory In Premise, this is the fourth and final appearance of Bryan Cranston and Dee Rescher as the Heffernans’ annoying neighbors, the Sackskys. As I said before when I highlighted the second of their two first season entries, I’m not automatically interested in stories that feature this couple, for annoying neighbors is a sitcom trope not exclusive to Queens‘ genre within a genre (and I don’t care about the casting). I’m only interested when stories have something to say about Doug/Carrie (as I think the aforementioned “Time Share” did) or when they’re exceptional. This one isn’t necessarily exceptional — it’s overrated like “Strike Out” — but it is exceptionally memorable, and I wanted to highlight it here because I believe it’s the best and most comedically charged of the Sacksky offerings; if you’re going to watch only one, it should be this one, which comes from a peak-adjacent year where the show is getting closer to the comic sensibilities of its finest moments, and knows how, even with a story that isn’t about Doug/Carrie, to cater to them appropriately. For instance, this episode doesn’t shy away from Carrie’s competitiveness or her temper, as it’s she who leads the charge against her neighbors, while Doug, the bumbler, is caught in the middle and secretly playing both sides of the fence (no pun intended). In this regard, it writes the two leads perfectly… precisely as a peak-era show would… Not a favorite, but well-done for what it is.
10) Episode 75: “Pregnant Pause (II)” (Aired: 05/21/01)
Doug goes crazy trying to assume the burden of their unplanned pregnancy.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn & David Litt | Directed by Rob Schiller
Okay, I don’t necessarily think this is an “A” installment. I mean, I would feel more comfortable highlighting one of the three top-tier Honorable Mentions directly below. They’re each funnier and more representative of the series… However, I think this, the second half of the year’s two-part finale (originally broadcast in a single hour) had to be discussed in greater depth than it was above, for it features a moment between Doug and Carrie that comes the closest to humanizing them, providing the duo with a dramatic substance that they’ve never had (and, frankly, won’t ever have again… outside of the overemotional series finale). And this speaks exactly to what this season has been subtly trying to do as part of its campaign (see also: “Deacon Blues,” below) to prove that the answer to the Is that all there is? question is NO. So, here, in sync with Sweeps, the show returns to an idea posited at the end of Season One — the notion that Doug and Carrie’s growth as a couple can best be symbolized by them having a kid. This is actually thesis-connected, for if the pair willingly starts a family, then they are committing to each other and to the belief that they belong together… But, as we know, babies are not funny; and while a kid may signal the Heffernans’ maturation and resolve the thesis, it’s hard to see any meaningful growth on this front — not to mention laughs (Queens‘ primary reason for being) — once they become parents. Thus, it’s a Catch-22, for a baby can’t be deployed until the series is winding down, and as this offering sets up an arc for Four, that year is going to decide that it would rather double down on what works — and commit to it fully (unlike Season Three) — than dramatically end the series prematurely. As a result, this two-parter feels like an anomaly. It kind of is, but given Season Three’s intentions, it’s seminal.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Papa Pill,” the entry closest to the above list because it’s the year’s most effective use of Arthur in an A-story (as Doug decides to take on Arthur as his responsibility), “Deacon Blues,” which splits Deacon/Kelly and attempts to mine genuine drama from that development with Doug/Carrie, and “Hi-Def Jam,” which I mentioned above in relation to Stephanie; it’s a funny idea that probably makes the best use of her in story. Of more Honorable Mention quality are the first half of the finale two-parter (it’s broader and not as dramatically ripe as Part II), “Class Struggle,” in which Carrie goes back to school, “Strike Too,” which is the most idea-led and ridiculous of the strike trilogy, “Inner Tube,” which is a gimmicky fantasy sketch show (including a winking take-off on The Honeymooners), and “Departure Time,” which introduces Doug’s folks.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!