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.
It’s unfortunate that Six has to follow what we’ve already defined as The King Of Queens’ two-season peak. Although this is another fine year, the simple fact that it isn’t as excellent as its predecessors — mainly because the episodic returns say so — is enough to make the whole collection seem a disappointment. Well, I’m here to caution against that perspective, for while Six is a comedown in quality — and a notable one, because there are fewer classics — it still features a handful of great episodes. In fact, I’d even urge you to keep in mind something mentioned several weeks ago: if you want to be more generous than I and give Queens a three-season peak instead of a two-season one, then lumping Six with Four and Five is equally as valid as pairing them with Three, and in this case, it may even be MORE valid, since there are no major changes in the show’s creative personnel. That is, Six springs from the same basic creative well as the peak years, and this gives Six an aesthetic that makes it feel like the golden era — with similar comedic sensibilities. Now, if you’ll recall, my main criticism of Three, and why I couldn’t consider it part of the series’ apex, is that it was overly cautious with its characters; it knew how they best functioned, but refused to accelerate the use of their flaws in comedic story that fulfilled the show’s growing laugh quotient while also answering the question at the heart of its dramatic thesis. Ironically, Six gives me pause for a similar cause: it knows how the characters best function, but for a few different reasons, including what we’ve been monitoring over the past few weeks — the series’ growing prioritization of the comedic idea over the central couple’s relationship, which has led to a comedic broadening that, unlike with Five, is starting to come at the expense of the characters — doesn’t use Doug/Carrie as often to fulfill the show’s growing laugh quotient or answer the question at the heart of its dramatic thesis. In other words, it’s all about character (or not, as far as Six is concerned).
The most obvious issue is mentioned above: the series’ increasing fixation on the comedic idea — the funny bit, the amusing story — which is beginning to overtake Doug/Carrie. As usual, even the episodes I’ve selected below to represent the season at its BEST prove this critical point, for while most are okay for the leads, or manage to embed enough interplay to satisfy their depictions in this peak-adjacent season, too many scripts derive their comedic mojo from an idea — an external framework into which the characters are forced. (For instance, the idea that Arthur is comparable to Deacon/Kelly’s kids in “Switch Sitters” or the notion that Holly is a downstairs wife in “Awful Bigamy.” These are both great, but it’s the concept motivating the hahas.) We saw an increase in these idea-based interests between Four and Five, but it wasn’t a problem because the latter provided an abundance of classics, and did so with much character in support. Six fails in this regard, and I think it’s because it doesn’t try. Why? Two outside things happened that threatened the premise. One) Kevin James lost weight over the summer, theoretically making society’s view of the physical differences between Doug and Carrie less of a comedically extreme argument against which the thesis’ POV could rail. And Two) Leah Remini became pregnant, further shrinking the disparity in size between the two leads and forcing the year, as it wore on, to engage in typical sitcom tricks to disguise her delicate condition. (Remember, if the show made Carrie pregnant, it would have had to commit to ending the characters’ emotional journey, for a baby has been established, rightly or wrongly, as their endgame.) As a result, Six seems to actively shy away from episodes that directly relate to the usual Doug/Carrie tension, instead hoping to ignore their physicalities after dealing with his change once in a welcome two-part premiere that addresses Doug’s weight loss sincerely, yet buries the legitimate drama within a bloated production that puts value elsewhere.
But the truth is that neither development, despite their combined implications, are good reasons to avoid what the series does best: big-laugh stories motivated from the accentuated individual flaws of the series’ central couple, whose imperfections act as the ongoing reinforcement of the thesis. Furthermore, neither James’ weight loss nor Remini’s weight gain is big enough here to nullify everything we’ve come to know about these characters or, even, how the series asks us to see them physically. There’s no need to avoid stories that use society’s view of their incompatibility as a counterpoint because, after five years, we already take that as a given. Accordingly, the only real issue is that, at the end of the season, the very pregnant Remini’s usage is reduced, which limits the show from great Doug/Carrie stories because it limits Carrie. However, that’s only relevant in the last few weeks; otherwise, Six rejects stories that affirm the central premise without just cause, and at the same time, defers to plots that are more idea-led. And in utilizing plots that minimize the people, the big laughs that come attached to these inherently amusing notions start to exist at the expense of them… if they aren’t starting to undermine the show entirely. (That’ll be something we see soon, as the series continues to broaden, without motivating it through the characters’ flaws.) Yet, while all this explains why I can’t link Six to Four/Five, I must remind you NOT to count it out. In addition to the same staff imparting the same basic comic energy, the ensemble is especially great, as Kelly returns, rounding out a supporting cast that includes consistent haha-providers like Spence and Holly (who probably has her best year ever). And, on the whole, Six is strong enough, both creatively and commercially, to prove that CBS was right in moving it outside of the Monday block, for even in a competitive slot on Wednesdays, the show still pulled a sizable audience, certifying that Queens wasn’t just a wannabe Raymond; it could stand on its own two feet, and make us laugh in the process… So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
01) Episode 127: “Doug Less (II)” (Aired: 10/01/03)
Doug and Carrie are stuck in the woods.
Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
Season Six opens with a two-part premiere — originally broadcast on CBS in a single hour-long block — that’s meant to address James’ recent weight loss, which, unlike Remini’s own upcoming change in appearance, is allowed to transfer over to his character as well. I talked a bit about “Doug Less” above, because I give credit to this two-parter for actually recognizing the development; in openly talking about the character’s appearance, and specifically forcing Carrie to grapple with the fact that society no longer views her as SO MUCH more physically desirable than her husband, the show gets to deal (for one of the few times this season) with a thesis-related conflict that ties into WHY these characters have such a hard time believing what the show believes: that they are compatible. Additionally, any time Carrie is allowed to be petty and jealous, it’s a lot of fun — both because this imperfection is exactly what we need from her character, and also because Remini relishes it. (Naturally, Doug’s appearance hasn’t changed THAT much, but that’s a concern for later…) Now, I must confess that I still don’t love this offering. The single-cam “lost in the woods” scenes are unnecessarily gaudy and their idea-based particulars consume the character riches at the center, even as the teleplay tries to blend them. Also, the subplot is another idea-driven affair (Spence and Danny doing their tired old “mock gay” bit). However, like I said, we appreciate this show for not shying away from conflict, and unlike Part I, which is all build-up, Part II pulls no punches and is stronger for it.
02) Episode 128: “King Pong” (Aired: 10/08/03)
Doug trains with Arthur so that he can beat Carrie at ping pong.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller
Back to its normal half-hour length, Queens returns to a less ostentatious form of storytelling, creating a plot that speaks to some of the core thesis motifs by proving the leading couple’s rightness for each other. This time, the currency for compatibility is their mutual competitiveness, as Doug is determined to finally beat his wife in ping pong, and must turn to the master — Arthur, the one who taught her — for lessons on how to do it. It’s an amusing premise — and it’s a great entry for Jerry Stiller, who gets to occupy space in the A-story (for once) — but it allows for an unflattering depiction of Doug, and couldn’t work unless he was so uncompromisingly dead set on being better than Carrie at the game. So, it ends up being a pretty good character story, after all. Meanwhile, I have to mention the funny subplot, in which Spence is upset over the attention that Denise (Rachel Dratch, in her penultimate appearance) is getting now that she’s a cocktail waitress, which motivates him to try using Holly to make her jealous. It’s a fun B-story that makes time for physical comedy, adding to the overall appeal.
03) Episode 131: “Affidavit Justice” (Aired: 10/29/03)
Doug pretends to be a lawyer at Carrie’s firm so that he can compete on their softball team.
Written by Kevin James & Rock Reuben | Directed by Rob Schiller
This is a prime example of Six being more enamored of its comedic ideas than its own potential Doug/Carrie interests, for this is a story that, amusing premise aside, could have rooted itself in a more solid character-driven place. You see, a story about Doug being hired to “work” at Carrie’s company as a lawyer so that it can take advantage of his softball prowess could have been about the ways in which Carrie is embarrassed by her husband out in public, for after all, she thinks she’s better than him (which is why his recent weight loss galled her). While that’s certainly there a little bit, the script is actually much more concerned with the amusing prospect of Doug pretending to be a lawyer and taking a job with a rival company who poaches him. Fortunately, even though this focus is unideal, it’s still funny — enough to make this outing a winner. (Also, I like that I get the chance to highlight a show with Victor Raider-Wexler as Carrie’s boss. Normally work episodes separate our primary couple, and so this fine character actor hasn’t gotten his due here. Finally, he does!) What’s more, it probably boasts the funniest subplot of the season, as Arthur is determined to pay reparations for slavery to the only black person he knows: Deacon. They’re an unusual B-story pair, but they make for hilarity.
04) Episode 134: “Thanks, Man” (Aired: 11/26/03)
Carrie makes a stranger wait outside the house for his ride on Thanksgiving.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
I think this entry is overrated by fans, and I’d guess it’s gotten a little extra attention in the years since it aired because it includes Nick Offerman, the Parks And Recreation cast member who — like Bryan Cranston — has become someone whose presence is often able to drive up any offering’s appeal. Well, as usual, I’m not wowed by his simple inclusion, and in fact, I don’t think he’s really able to shine here. Rather, this is an idea-driven affair about a strange man (with an eye-patch) showing up on Thanksgiving as he waits for someone to pick him up, and Carrie forcing him to stay outside on the freezing porch instead of inside with all the guests for dinner. It’s totally situational and it only works because of the natural distinction between Doug and Carrie’s characterizations — he welcomes a mysterious stranger, while she is skeptical and mistrusting. (At least the story into which they’ve been shoehorned depicts them believably…) Yet if I seem too harsh on this installment, I must say, it’s also loaded with character moments — thanks to the design, which essentially puts the entire supporting cast (sans Arthur) at the same place and same time (and you know how I feel about the unity of time and place — it makes characters pop). And so, although I don’t necessarily like the story — or the fact that it’s terribly predictable — I think it goes above and beyond with justifying rewards.
05) Episode 137: “Dougie Houser” (Aired: 01/07/04)
Doug and Carrie remember the decision-making that went into buying the house.
Written by David Bickel | Directed by Rob Schiller
A seemingly gaudy excursion, this is the year’s flashback affair, and more than any of the previous forays into Doug and Carrie’s past, this one looks like the flashiest and most unnecessary as far as the depiction of their relationship goes. However, that’s misleading, for the story is revealing for the central couple, and indeed, it even sets itself up for this from the jump, as the whole reason that the characters remember the process of securing their house is that it was a seminal moment in determining the roles each would play in their marriage. Here, we get a tangible explanation as to why Doug is the bumbler: he picked a retro house that was totally impractical (and even the dumbwaiter about which he was so excited turned out to be a bust). And we see why Carrie is the taskmaster who’s able to boss him around: that was the deal they made after his screw-up. With this character foundation in place, we’re then much freer to appreciate all the comedic bells and whistles. And, frankly, if more plots this year were as properly predicated, their ostentatious idea-led natures would be easier to endure.
06) Episode 139: “Switch Sitters” (Aired: 02/11/04)
Doug and Carrie force Deacon and Kelly to babysit Arthur, just like they babysit the kids.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Rob Schiller
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Switch Sitters” earns that distinction simply because it’s the most successful on the precise terms that The King Of Queens is beginning to use more and more exclusively to define its episodic greatness: comedy. That is, it’s the funniest of the season, and true to the sensibilities of Six, it is an idea-led narrative with a very definite Victory In Premise, but in this case, there’s enough character support here to both excuse any qualms we have over the design and to deliver above and beyond with the laughs. For you see, with a premise that compares Arthur to Deacon/Kelly’s kids, the teleplay is already working with a rich comic notion that works for the character of Arthur (yes, he’s in the A-story again, and well-used, too!), but more than that, it also engages the conspiratorial nature of Doug/Carrie’s relationship, as they scheme to pawn off her father on the Palmers as a negotiation tactic for watching the actual kids. This is one of the old-school ways that Queens is able to reinforce the central couple’s rightness, for if you’ll recall, shows that pair Doug/Carrie — specifically against another couple, like Deacon/Kelly — allow them to function as a single flaws-filled unit, taking their compatibility for granted because, hey, they’re operating as one. It’s a smart design, and even though it’s become less popular than it was in early seasons, it’s no less effective… Yet, in addition to this extra smart construction — which works for all THREE of our main characters, including the central couple — it’s ultimately the laughs that push this one over the edge, for there’s no other entry this week that makes use of as many big HAHAs (let alone ones that ride the fine line of being spawned by the idea, but anchored by the characters). Truly, this is the best of what Season Six has to offer — its nicest ambassador.
07) Episode 141: “Damned Yanky” (Aired: 02/18/04)
Carrie is mad when she learns that Doug fantasizes about other women.
Written by Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller
Admittedly, this isn’t one of my favorites. Like “Dougie Houser” and “Doug Less,” all the flashy bells and whistles overshadow the character meat that makes this kind of spectacle possible, but unlike the aforementioned two, which I think are more rooted in the relationship, this one gives the edge a little too obviously to the so-called pomp and circumstance… That said, it’s probably among the year’s most memorable, and while I deliberated about whether or not to include it over the top-tier Honorable Mentions cited below, I must confess that I’m still drawn to its comedic idea, of Carrie putting limitations on Doug’s ability to fantasize about other women, as that, at the very least, speaks to a character flaw — insecurity — and again reinforces her imperfections. Also, it’s always nice when a story reverses expectations; we anticipate that Doug, who feels that Carrie is too good for him, would have more of a problem with Carrie fantasizing, but Carrie taking issue is more surprising — and that’s part of the fun. And, as is always true with outings that get featured here, the laughs are an obvious boost. (Trivia: both of the stars’ real-life significant others make appearances in the characters’ respective fantasies.)
08) Episode 145: “Foe: Pa” (Aired: 03/24/04)
Arthur tries to make amends for everything he’s ever done wrong to Carrie.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
If you’ve been following our coverage of this series, you’ll notice that there aren’t a lot of “Arthur episodes” that make these lists. I think that the reasons why have already been sufficiently laid out, but, briefly, Arthur — contrary to the pilot — is NOT a major conflict within the Doug/Carrie relationship, and since Doug/Carrie is our focus, we don’t really care about Arthur for the sake of Arthur (beyond the natural comedic abilities of Jerry Stiller). However, I do appreciate when Arthur can be used in the Doug/Carrie A-story, usually because a situation has arisen in which he IS in the middle of a Doug/Carrie clash, typically as a thorn in Doug’s side… Well, this installment offers a somewhat rare alternative, as Arthur is a thorn in Carrie’s side — an arrangement that typically isn’t as satisfying, because we only care about their relationship as it pertains to Doug/Carrie’s, and that’s less invoked in Carrie/Arthur stories than in Doug/Arthur stories. But I say all this now to note that “Foe: Pa” actually works because, even with a Carrie/Arthur conflict, it’s Doug who’s stuck in the middle, trying to make things right. And this design is smart and helps foster the kind of character comedy we can appreciate, especially in Season Six. (Also, Holly really shines as Doug’s sidekick.)
09) Episode 146: “Tank Heaven” (Aired: 04/07/04)
Doug deliberately sabotages Carrie’s attempts to make new friends from work.
Written by Rock Reuben | Directed by Rob Schiller
After having lost her job earlier in the season, Carrie went through an out-of-work period before finally settling at a new place two segments prior to this one, which utilizes this semi-serialized character arc to create an episodic story that makes fine use of Doug’s imperfections, as his attempts to avoid hanging out with Carrie’s new coworkers (whom she’s trying to turn into friends) showcases the scheming, selfish nature of his own characterization: the very thing that the peak era often reinforced with Carrie, even though Doug’s flaws are just as paramount (and often very similar). Accordingly, this is a premise — a Victory In Premise, in fact — that is perfect for the King (of Queens), allowing him to assume the comedic driver’s seat (which is imperative at this time because Remini is very heavily pregnant). Naturally, Doug’s behavior is extreme and somewhat idea-led, but it’s very funny and memorable, too. The same goes for the Arthur/Spence subplot, which, as with most Arthur/Spence narratives, reiterates what a great pair they make in these otherwise inconsequential B-stories.
10) Episode 149: “Awful Bigamy” (Aired: 05/19/04)
Doug enjoys having two “wives”: Carrie upstairs and Holly downstairs.
Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
One of the most popular offerings of the entire series, this is another prime example of how Queens — particularly in this era — crafts an entire narrative around a singular comedic idea, deriving pretty much all of its value from the situational comedy inherent to these given prospects. And, as we noted last week, it comes from a familiar source: the presentation of marriage. While several shows last year built entire stories around the jokey idea that characters who weren’t married acted like they were (Doug/Arthur, Doug/Deacon, Carrie/Deacon), and we’ve seen, even on this list, cases of Spence/Danny doing their “mock gay” routine — which will last until the series finale — this one gives us a slight variation, as Doug is conscious of the arrangement and knowingly exploits the joke to his gain. For with Carrie upstairs loaded with “work” to do (this is to keep the very large Remini seated and occupied), Holly moves in downstairs, after a breakup, and begins taking over Carrie’s domestic chores — and does them not only better than Carrie, but in a way that caters to Doug specifically! Of course, he likes this arrangement and tries to prolong the idea of having an “upstairs wife” and a “downstairs wife” (and even a “Coliseum wife” on the side, too) for as long as possible. And this is why, of these “faux marriage” shows, this is the best: it makes Doug explicitly self-aware about the design and allows him to scheme to ensure its survival. As a result, there’s something of a character foundation, grounding the broad and very idea-driven humor.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two shows that feature a nicely matched pair of Heffernan schemers, “Frigid Heirs” and “Precedent Nixin,” along with “Cheap Saks,” which features Janeane Garofalo and benefits from an unflattering depiction of Carrie, but is a little too gimmicky and guest-star-geared for my tastes — and, for once, perhaps too unpleasant in an unmotivated way. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are two shows where Carrie is out of work, the desperate “American Idle,” and the entry where she joins Doug at the office, “Santa Claustrophobia,” which has a better premise than execution. Also, Part I of the season premiere is a de facto recommendation. (Incidentally, I find the well-liked “Trash Talker” to be more idea-driven than most, with a teleplay that never rises to the occasion, instead relying on a cheap on-location fight sequence to cement its value.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!