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.
Well, we’ve finally reached the first of what I consider The King Of Queens’ two peak seasons — the two years that house the greatest number of classics, many of which are classic because they make the best use of the series’ dramatic thesis (which, remember, is that Doug and Carrie are meant-to-be, because regardless of what they look like, they’re both flawed: he is a doofus who’s always trying to pull one over on somebody else, and she’s a hothead with very selfish tendencies). Now, I’m reluctant to pick a single best season, because I think both Four and Five qualify, offering plenty of gems and a limited number of turkeys. And I could make a case for either season being the strongest… although the cases would be different because, as the run progresses — and this is true with almost every series — the scripts turn more and more to broader and less realistic stories in the hopes of maintaining the expected comedic baseline… meaning, Season Five is broader than Four because it begins a whole 25 weeks later, leaving 25(+) fewer stories for possible use. This forces less character-rooted plots in Five, and given the show’s love of the comedic idea (i.e. it tends to prize funny notions above purely character ones), this can be viewed as either a move away from the series’ most important element — the two main characters — or it can be viewed as a liberation that allows the show to become even more of the comedic dynamo that, I’d argue, is what it MOST wants to be… Thus, the difference between Four and Five is the same as the difference between Five and Six: the later season is broader and less firmly character-driven. But unlike Six, which doesn’t strike enough of a balance between laughs and character, and is therefore too much of a comedown to be considered part of the peak, Four and Five — in their own respectively skewed ways — give us the happiest medium, and you can pick whichever one you think reflects the series at its best; personally, I think Four is the height of character, while Five is the height of comedy.
In other words, even though Five will ratchet up the laughs (mostly via story), I think the definitions of the characters and their weekly utilizations are never any smarter or more effective than in Four — there are no more improvements made (only mistakes). This success comes partly because Four has a direct connection to Three (which, incidentally, was the last year with involvement from co-creator David Litt). If you’ll recall, Season Three had an identity crisis, trying to deepen (while refusing to broaden) its characters. One of its tactics was an unplanned pregnancy and miscarriage (we talked about the baby and what it represents last time; see here), and Four benefits both from that idea’s existence and from its non-existence. That is, Doug/Carrie do feel like a more realistic couple (and more meant-to-be) after having endured that loss, and this year’s premiere has great emotional continuity — narrative acknowledgment, but in a way that allows forward movement to be placed on the backburner, perhaps forever, as the show continues on — and it’s only really subject to story this year one more time: in an odd mid-season entry that confuses things by bringing it up, but nevertheless also provides an excuse as to why another pregnancy is taking so long (and might never happen). As we noted, the show HAS to sideline this development until the end, and so while we may expect more narrative follow-through, we also understand the decision-making. And indeed, the show does benefit, not just from its existence, as I said above, but also from its NON-existence, for in pushing it (and all of Three’s “is that all there is?” qualms) out of the way, Four is able to focus on committing to its characterizations, particularly Carrie’s, and heightening her to the peak era’s — or the first half of the peak era’s (‘cause next year will heighten everything a bit more) — most ideal blending of comic largesse and maintained logic. They’re finally in rare form…
Of course, these are the same characters we saw at the end of Season Two, only now they’ve been allowed to step into their flaws in a way that’s better for thesis-related story and the show’s brand of high comedy. You’ll see evidence of this below, for now that the series commits to what it has and is determined to maximize it for all its worth, The King Of Queens finally “clicks”… Take the ensemble, for instance. Although this year launches Kelly’s two-year hiatus — which is a loss because the two-couple structure with the Heffernans and the Palmers is always ripe for story — the show no longer needs her as it once did, for it no longer needs to “pair” Doug/Carrie since their mutually extended shortcomings are obvious. And while Danny — who officially becomes a regular here (as he moves in with Spence) — isn’t one of my favorites because he lacks definition, his inclusion rounds out the ensemble of Doug’s “guy pals,” settling the matter for the rest of the run, thank goodness. Meanwhile, Arthur finds his best subplot story-partner ever in Holly (Nicole Sullivan), the dog walker that the Heffernans hire to “walk” Arthur. Yes, it’s a one-joke idea that extends four years, but she brings another comic energy to the show and gives Stiller a truly viable co-player. So, in addition to Doug/Carrie clicking, the ensemble clicks, too… Also, you’ll note that, now at the peak, most episodes work, and like last time, a simple Doug/Carrie show alone isn’t inherently highlightable, for there are so many of them… On the other hand, though I always make room for Victories In Premise (on this idea-led series), there are still lines that can’t be crossed, and you’ll notice this year that I’d much rather watch a decent Doug/Carrie offering than some of the more popular but otherwise idea-led gimmick-filled excursions, many of which are saddled with named guest stars (like “Lyin’ Hearted” with Chris Elliott, “Eddie Money” with Eddie Money, and “Two Thirty” with Tim Matheson — funny Arthur subplot notwithstanding); don’t look for them below, because this year has too many better installments to study… But see for yourself, for I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 76: “Walk, Man” (Aired: 09/24/01)
Doug and Carrie hire someone to walk Arthur.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
Season Four opens with an intelligent installment that wisely transitions the show away from its third season intentions and into the peak era where everything “clicks.” Aside from claiming the introduction of Nicole Sullivan as Holly the dog walker — a one-joke idea that nevertheless makes a smart addition to the recurring cast because she gives Arthur another reliable scene partner for his subplots — this entry also does a fine job of handling the pregnancy/miscarriage that was the subject of Three’s finale, and then sets it aside so that the year’s broader comic interests (evidenced not just with Holly/Arthur, but also in the depictions of Doug and Carrie) can take the fore. It doesn’t shy away from the pregnancy — indeed, this story sets up an arc about the pair trying to conceive again — but because of what we talked about last week (a baby being a resolving form of growth, not one that would work for the series at its height), it’s also wisely minimized. That is, we walk away satisfied with the continuity, but not expecting a big arc to follow, for the status quo is returned in a way that allows for a modicum of growth (balanced well against the characterizations’ heightening), without any expectations that this’ll inspire regular story. In short, “Walk, Man” takes what it can from Three but otherwise pushes it away to embrace Four, and all the elements that make the peak the peak.
02) Episode 77: “Sight Gag” (Aired: 10/01/01)
Doug surprises Carrie with laser eye surgery.
Written by Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith | Directed by Rob Schiller
Among the year’s elevated Doug/Carrie offerings, this is one with a story that’s really led by a singular comedic idea — the notion that after convincing Carrie to get laser eye surgery, Doug is too cheap to spring for a good doctor and instead goes for the bargain (“half off the second eye” is the crowning joke and I think the whole teleplay is built around it) — making it ordinarily NOT something that, despite its focus, would be laudable as cream of the Doug/Carrie crop (where both their flaws are usually directly responsible for motivating plot). But because this one comes during the peak era, where the show is firing on all cylinders with the leading players’ characterizations and the comedic/dramatic use of their relationship, all of the Doug/Carrie interplay here, both before and after this guiding funny moment, is worthwhile — and after all, while it’s only Doug’s flaws that cause the conflict (something we could have seen in Season One), the depiction of Carrie is such that she’s a much stronger force than she’s ever been before, even compared to last year. In this regard, I look to the deservedly popular “Sight Gag” — the year’s second broadcast segment — as establishing the routinized superiority of Doug/Carrie in this peak era, especially in contrast to the good-but-not-great season prior…
03) Episode 81: “Ticker Treat” (Aired: 10/29/01)
Doug scares Arthur and gives him a heart attack.
Written by David Bickel | Directed by James Widdoes
Another popular outing, this is one of those idea-led shows that I wouldn’t put on this list’s figurative top shelf. This isn’t only because it’s built around a Victory In Premise — the idea that Arthur is so scared of Halloween that when Doug, galled by this revelation, purposely spooks him, the old man ends up having a heart attack. It’s also because the story, by design, is not about Doug/Carrie; it’s about Doug/Arthur, the series’ second most important relationship, which isn’t nearly as interesting as the couple forming the series’ dramatic core. To wit, while it’s amusing that Doug scares Arthur (and we do care about Doug/Arthur — as a function of both Doug/Carrie and our regard for Arthur’s comic abilities), the series is a little out of its element when the second half of the plot pivots into Doug’s journey to apologize by finding Arthur’s favorite lemon ice. You see, their relationship works best when used in comic conflict — and typically with Carrie in close proximity — so, I don’t really care whether the guys love each other independent of her, because these characters, again, weren’t set up with the kind of depth that makes our faith in such a bond necessary. (And the show’s tonality is so irreverent that we don’t look to Queens for earnest emotion, particularly outside of Doug/Carrie.) It’s a nice try, but I just don’t believe the show does this well… However, I like the Deacon/Kirby subplot and think the series is so strong in this era that a solid Doug/Arthur show is easily enjoyable.
04) Episode 83: “Life Sentence” (Aired: 11/12/01)
Doug and Carrie get life insurance but argue over Arthur.
Written by Chris Parrish | Directed by Rob Schiller
Concluding a narrative trilogy that began in the installment highlighted above, this MVE-contender is something close to a classic. As with “Ticker Treat” — but unlike the middle entry, “Lyin’ Hearted” (mentioned in the seasonal commentary) — there’s a heavy dose of Doug/Arthur motivating the proceedings. Yet while “Ticker…” is driven by an easy comic idea and then oddly asks us to invest in a relationship that doesn’t support heavy emotion, “Life Sentence” grounds its premise in a more dramatically-rich place — Doug/Carrie — while simultaneously not asking us to find more in the narrative than what The King Of Queens best offers: comedy. To that first point, it smartly concludes the “heart attack” arc by having Doug/Carrie think about life insurance, which makes the story about them… but because of what’s just happened, an important part of the conversation is whether or not Arthur would remain Doug’s responsibility in the event of Carrie’s demise. And this conflict — supported by the pilot’s intrusion premise and the comedic clashes that have punctuated the Doug/Arthur relationship whenever an episodic story has needed it — makes the offering a favorable contrast to the above, for aside from Doug’s feelings about Arthur having a definite impact on Carrie (meaning that it’s more thesis-connected), it’s also positioned for laughs, not sentiment. Speaking of laughs, the other half finds the Heffernans installing cameras so that they can keep an eye on Arthur — who unknowingly becomes a show for Doug’s friends. It’s unique, hilarious, and a natural outgrowth of the episode’s central narrative.
05) Episode 88: “Food Fight” (Aired: 01/07/02)
Carrie is jealous when Doug starts eating Spence’s girlfriend’s food.
Written by Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller
Now we’re starting to stumble upon some real classics, and this would probably make my short list for the best of The King Of Queens‘ entire output… Okay, as is typical of this idea-driven series, I’d say much of the value derived from this installment is inherent to the selected story — in other words, it’s something of a Victory In Premise — and, again, that would usually be a knock. But, in this case, the plot is so tailor-made for these characters that it’s worth celebrating in and of itself, for its existence indicates a perfect understanding of the two primary leads and how their relationship creates the series’ dramatic interests. (And, not to mention, it’s the type of story that wouldn’t work as well — if it would even work at all — on any other series, even in this genre of a genre; this means its presence is evidence of Queens‘ specific creative excellence.) It’s a great showcase for the characters because it crafts a clash motivated from BOTH their flaws: Doug’s weakness for food (he’s even willing to betray his wife for a taste of a good salad — a salad!) and Carrie’s ego-fueled possessiveness (which gives easy rise to her infamous terrible temper). It’s an improved version of Season Two’s “Restaurant Row,” which also showed both Doug and Carrie as being flawed, but kind of hedged its bets a little, clearly making Doug more imperfect. This one, although structuring itself through Carrie’s POV, makes use of her more confrontational characterization, which helps tip the scales and prove that, because both of these people are unideal humans, they are ideal for each other. Lots of laughs — exactly the type of outing that illustrates why The King Of Queens is so fun.
06) Episode 91: “No Orleans” (Aired: 02/25/02)
Doug and Carrie sneak off to New Orleans behind his cousins’ backs.
Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
This is a smart Doug/Carrie show by our oldest definitions — the premise has them scheming together, aiming to pull the figurative wool over the eyes of his obnoxious cousins (great casting: Susie Essman and Peter Scolari), who the Heffernans discover gave them, for their wedding, a nice big check inside of an unused gravy boat. Since it’s no longer good, Carrie convinces Doug — and this is how you know it’s the peak era, because SHE is leading the charge, dragging along the paranoid Doug with her (this is how they both function best, by the way) — to invite the annoying cousins over, and Carrie does a little play-acting to get a new check written… Unfortunately, said obnoxious cousins, upon learning that Doug and Carrie want to go to New Orleans, insist that, as a condition of this new check, they not go there without them. Naturally, Doug and Carrie have no intention of spending time with the annoying cousins, and so their trip to New Orleans is plagued by the fear that the annoying cousins will find out. Obviously, I love the premise (because it assures the couple’s compatibility), I love the casting of the cousins, and I love that both characters’ flaws end up sparking the plot. There are more unique and original episodes here (like the entries highlighted directly above and below), but this one is just effortlessly what we want The King Of Queens to be.
07) Episode 95: “Lush Life” (Aired: 04/08/02)
Doug realizes that Carrie’s nicer when she’s drunk.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by James Widdoes
My pick for the strongest episode of the season (MVE), “Lush Life” is the perfect example of Season Four heightening all the characterizations for the show’s comedic benefit and maximizing the flaws of its two primarily leads, especially Carrie, so that the series’ central dramatic question is subconsciously answered — but now with more laughs in support than ever before. Here, the plot is ingenious, dripping with the series’ tonal irreverence, for after Doug discovers that Carrie is nicer when she’s drunk than when she’s sober, he makes it his mission to keep her perennially plastered after work. It’s an amazing idea for Queens because it not only acknowledges Carrie’s chief flaw, the one that defines her and all the sitcom wives in this genre of a genre — her temper — it’s also being motivated by Doug’s own imperfections: his ever-ready impulse to scheme, to game the system, to get what he wants through means that aren’t always aboveboard. Thus, thanks to the premise, this is already a winning offering, but there’s a lot of great detail in the teleplay too, like the surprise of having Arthur conspire with Doug to keep Carrie drunk (it’s not what we expect, and it works because it’s comedically inclined, and fuels the larger conflict between Doug/Carrie, our main concern). I’m not so crazy about the odd ice skating centerpiece, but otherwise, it’s a well-structured and outstandingly funny half-hour from one of the show’s strongest seasons — nobly representing the strides that have been made with the show’s awareness of both its own comedic particulars, and also, and more notably, how Doug and Carrie (and even Arthur) must be written so that they’re the most fully realized — or, rather, comedically opportunistic — versions of themselves possible… all the while answering the series’ central question with the biggest hahas imaginable.
08) Episode 96: “Bun Dummy” (Aired: 04/29/02)
Doug tries to get Carrie to change her hairstyle.
Written by Chris Downey & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller
Admittedly, this is another one of the few from this top-drawer list that I wouldn’t put on the figurative top shelf. In this case, I think it’s because it’s another example of a comedic idea guiding our interest, but without some of the other classics’ series-specific elevating qualities within the execution. That is, I think this one is more flatly a Victory In Premise that only makes this list because it deals with an easily comic story. Although, to its credit, it does relate to the thesis, for the premise of Doug not liking the way Carrie looks (she’s started to do her hair up in a bun) is a bullseye as far as the characters’ insecurities go, and like in the very early “Fat City,” it’s the inverse of what we expect. After all, society has conditioned us (and them) to believe that Carrie is more attractive than Doug, and so for him to raise an objection with how SHE looks and to be embarrassed by HER is an intrinsically amusing notion, and suggests even more shortcomings on behalf of Doug. And, as with so many other shows this year, it raises the comedic ante on similar stories from before (again, like “Fat City”)… even though, in full honesty, I think there are better written outings here — ones that find richer things within their already amusing ideas… Still though, to be fair, it’s got the attitude and swagger of a peak era show, and that goes a long way with any solid, well-premised half-hour.
09) Episode 97: “Patrons Ain’t” (Aired: 05/06/02)
Doug and Carrie donate to a school library and then make a fuss over getting public credit.
Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by James Widdoes
I think this is the boldest, most comedically pungent episode of the season, offering the most strikingly unflattering depiction of Carrie that you’ll find this year (and maybe ever). As someone who’s been championing the cultivation of her flaws as a way to not only increase the show’s comic potential, but also to make it easier to narratively reinforce Doug/Carrie’s compatibility, I must say, the fact that this entry is so hysterical is proof that this development has been crucial… Now, as with several of the other shows in this peak era in which Doug/Carrie conspire — this time, they aim to become more charitable so they can get a bigger tax write-off (and feel better about themselves) — it’s Carrie who leads the charge, particularly when petty matters arise… like when she and Doug are credited on Kirby’s school library plaque as being at a lower donation level than they really were. That’s already funny, but it gets even better when Carrie attempts to explain things to the elderly librarian (played by Marla Gibbs), who accidentally bumps them up even higher, naming the whole library after them — a mistake that gets the old woman fired. If this seems more idea-based than anything else, trust that it’s rooted in Carrie and her exaggerated flaws; the character’s concern with her image is well-established, and her trivial interest in receiving the proper credit for her good work (again, she leads the charge), however heightened, is a believable tangent. And despite a plot that smells like late Larry David-era Seinfeld (when his characters were at their most morally depraved), which helps rank this among the broadest, most purely laugh-seeking samples of the entire series — let alone the season — its lunacy comes from Carrie, and frankly, I think we buy it.
10) Episode 100: “Shrink Wrap” (Aired: 05/20/02)
After Arthur goes to therapy, Doug and Carrie each decide to try it out.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
Following two Sweeps excursions that I critiqued in my seasonal commentary for their gimmicky idea-led focus — with stunt casting featuring Eddie Money and Tim Matheson, respectively — the year’s finale continues this trend with a gaudy affair that offers glimpses into all three main characters’ childhoods and features guest appearances from both William Hurt (who plays their shrink) and a campy Ben Stiller, who plays Arthur’s father in a flashback. (It’s the kind of metatheatrical wink that tends to cheapen shows that play sincerely; fortunately, Queens is a little too laugh-focused to be undermined by such a stunt, regardless of how I personally feel about it.) However, this outing is unlike the prior two, which had nothing at all to say about the main characters and their relationships; this one is brimming with both emotional insight and comedic opportunity, as all three of the regulars discover things about themselves: Arthur is abrasive because he was stifled by a strict father who wouldn’t allow him to be himself, Carrie likes to fight because she delights in others’ misery (hence her temper), and Doug hates confrontation and takes all his anger out on himself (hence his eating). These revelations make perfect sense for these characters and their new flaws-forward design helps give us a better understanding of who they are in total. It’s worth all the gaudy gimmickry.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Dougie Nights,” which separates Doug and Carrie but connects their stories thematically through a subliminal look at how they each view themselves, “Veiled Threat,” a flashback show that proves the characters are meant-to-be by explicitly DENYING the characters’ belief in this fact (it should be a home run, but it’s not comedically competitive by this year’s standards), “Ovary Action,” which is built around the funny idea that Doug/Carrie want to conceive but can’t because his parents are there, and “Depo Man,” which brings Doug into Carrie’s workplace and deals with how much he embarrasses her. Of more Honorable Mention quality are the routinely premised (we could see this anywhere) but nevertheless appropriate, “Oxy Moron,” the second-best “Doug embarrasses Carrie” entry, “No Retreat,” and “Hero Worship,” which is notable only because it has Carrie scheming to keep Doug from getting what he wants… Also, remember the three gaudy outings referenced above and why they couldn’t be featured.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!