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.
Season Eight is The King Of Queens’ comeback that wasn’t, although the year has somehow since gotten away with establishing something of a favorable reputation — at least in comparison to its neighbors. My feelings about this were teased last week, but before I editorialize any further, let’s set the scene. By the 2005-2006 season, Queens was tied with Will & Grace and That ‘70s Show as the longest still-running situation comedy (in terms of seasonal count) because they had all outlived the great Everybody Loves Raymond. But all three were decidedly past their primes creatively, and with most of the successful new comedies earning critical favor in ’05 being comedically oppositional single-cams, these vets were relics of a bygone era. That didn’t matter though… Raymond was finally gone, and for Queens, this meant several good things in particular. Not only was there now space for the series to move back into the CBS Monday block where it had become famous — after two years in a disrespectful Wednesday slot where its numbers could only have been reasonably expected to decline — but also, there was room for the Television Academy to acknowledge that, hey, since the Barones had left the building, Queens was now the strongest of the networks’ multi-cam domestic comedies. Accordingly, this collection of episodes earned the series its only Emmy nomination — for the King himself, Kevin James. I think it’s only natural that Queens’ one Emmy nod be in a performative category, and not anything textual, structural, or otherwise more indicative of the series’ creative health because, remember, The King of Queens has ALWAYS been a show built on its comedic personas, and even when its leads were enjoying their peak utilizations, a look over in Raymond’s direction revealed the disparity in depth between the two series’ characterizations…
But let’s not go over all that again — Queens has proved its worth by being the best version of itself that it could possibly be… which is why Season Eight isn’t deserving of this “comeback” narrative: it’s NOT the best version of itself that it could possibly be. As we’ve explored, by this point in the run, the series had mostly abandoned its interest in the central premise — the relationship between Doug and Carrie — and is instead just trying to sustain itself episodically with Big Hahas via something that we’ve referred to as the comedic idea, a type of Victory In Premise where the concept is so inherently funny that the characters are either a peripheral concern or totally irrelevant. We saw this mode of storytelling in full force last week, even though there was a valiant Doug/Carrie focus that, if you’ll recall, made Seven obviously superior to Eight. In contrast to its predecessor, Eight has fewer showcases for the series’ two mutually flawed leads, but simultaneously claims more diversionary Victories In Premise — ideas that are bigger, more situational, and less character-centric than ever before. For instance, compare Eight’s overrated “Inn Escapable,” which mines the majority of its humor from the convenient strangeness of the setting and its guest stars — instead of the regulars — to last year’s “Catching Hell,” another idea-based show where the regulars were being led by plot (meaning, the story was dictating their actions), but their reactions were nevertheless guiding the humor. The latter and its year were Seinfeld-ian in their fixation on funny notions, working out how characters could be manipulated into certain semi-appropriate stories. But Eight takes this unideal design to the next level — it selects amusing premises and then drops the regulars into them, letting the ideas determine whether or not character matters, and by how much.
Naturally, there are some big idea-led shows — entries like “Pole Lox” and “G’Night Stalker” — that go for broke and pack boffo laughs — succeeding wildly by comic metrics, and more obviously than anything from Seven. Thus, it’s hard to deny that Eight is flashier, and perhaps even easier to like, because now that the show is just going for humor, asking that we judge it purely by hahas, there’s little conflict; Queens has never had a problem being funny… Personally, I’m willing to lower my ideals to meet these evolved (or, ever-evolving) standards, but only a little bit. I still believe in the core premise; I resent stories that don’t acknowledge it, and I maintain that the outings that work best ARE the ones that use it… especially now that the end is in sight. In fact, at the time, Queens looked as if it would wrap here. With both That ‘70s Show and Will & Grace retiring, the Tiffany Network’s then-oldest multi-cam was also a prime candidate for euthanization, particularly now that it had been given the “comeback” treatment of a good slot, a successful focus on big laughs, and, by sheer virtue of Raymond’s departure, status as top dog; it could go out in style… Yet, this presumptive, preordained optimism made it seem like there was still gas in the tank, and even though there were half-hearted attempts at providing closure — a mid-season entry dedicated to reintroducing the idea of Doug/Carrie having a baby, and a season finale with a full circle structural narrative (more on this below) — Queens got renewed at the last-minute as a mid-season replacement of 13-episodes, a low order not because the ratings were still middling or because Remini’s recent salary hike was crippling, but mostly because James, soon to earn his one Emmy nod, was itching to focus on his burgeoning movie career… So, this short surprise ninth year of The King Of Queens would bring good news and bad news. Good? Better closure. Bad? A further descent into mediocrity… But that’s for next week. First, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s best.
01) Episode 172: “Pole Lox” (Aired: 09/19/05)
Doug tries to get Carrie to take pole dancing lessons.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
A prime example of Season Eight’s strictly comic pursuits, this popular outing has a naturally ostentatious premise dedicated to a grand centerpiece that it’s willing to maneuver its characters any which way to achieve. Truthfully, I don’t think there’s much character substance procured, and although this is aligned with the rest of the year’s aesthetic, we might expect a little more given that this teleplay is credited to one of the series’ co-creators… Still, I do appreciate that it starts with another Doug scheme — he wants to get Carrie to take up pole dancing lessons — because that fits his character. But everything about the rest of the plot is too easy, like Carrie’s decision to try it out, or driven by easy laughs, like her inability to get the hang of it. (As with some of the more sexual Raymond shows, it feels hacky — “hey, look at the pretty woman being freaky, and don’t even bother to think about whether or not there’s enough logic in support.”) What ultimately saves this one — and earns it a place here — is the very reason that it exists: the big climactic slapstick moment towards which the ENTIRE story so obviously builds — Doug’s sexy dance on the pole. Kevin James gives one of his funniest performances EVER — this was the offering that earned him his only Emmy nomination — and no matter how thinly motivated the shenanigans are that lead up to this point, it’s hard to deny that it works, especially for Queens, and especially for Season Eight. (Also, the Arthur subplot is a nice off-shoot of the A-story, and it packs in its laughs, as well.) This is probably the year’s most memorable.
02) Episode 173: “Vocal Discord” (Aired: 09/26/05)
Carrie’s new computer software records and transcribes her fights with Doug.
Written by Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller
My selection for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Vocal Discord” is basically a very good (but not great) Doug/Carrie show that in any other season — outside of this one, the first, and the last — wouldn’t be more than an “MVE contender,” if even that. You see, it’s only because of Eight’s weakened standards that this one is able to be singled out as an exceptional sample of the year’s output; otherwise, this is the kind of show we EXPECT The King Of Queens to be providing with regularity, even though, by this point, it’s not… Yet that’s exactly why it is the MVE, because it harkens back to a narrative focus that more closely resembles the series’ modus operandi when it was at its peak, and more regularly able to explore the concerns of its dramatic thesis: Doug/Carrie. Here though, with our oft-mentioned lower standards, this simply means that… it’s a Doug/Carrie story. Okay, it’s more than that — it’s a Doug/Carrie story that puts them in conflict and humorously comments upon their dynamic in a way that takes their compatibility for granted. That is, it’s a given that these two are evenly matched because they both are temperamental and prone to arguments, as this premise most clearly indicates. Furthermore — and what I think makes this entry a little more special — is that it integrates the A-story with the subplot most humorously, as Arthur’s attempt to direct a play at the senior center (featuring guest star Charlotte Rae) hits a snag until he discovers that he can use the transcript of Doug and Carrie’s first act fight. It’s a bit predictable — we see it coming before it happens — yet it gels and makes for a cohesive show that not only uses the central relationship as it should be, but does so while also taking advantage of the show’s comic strengths, like Jerry Stiller, and in this case, the gimmickly included, albeit funny, Rae.
03) Episode 174: “Consummate Professional” (Aired: 10/03/05)
Doug remembers how he lied to Carrie about having a job in exchange for sex.
Written by Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
Another flashback show, this obviously isn’t the best of that category. (Frankly, I’m not sure if anything tops the first flashback — “Meet By-Product” — which showed how Doug/Carrie met, because, by design, that was the most thesis-related moment of their past that the series could bring to life.) But as with many of the installments selected for this week’s list, it’s a cut above the rest because it does set its sights on the series’ dramatic core: the relationship. Thus, although there’s a silly, almost farcical premise of Doug lying to Carrie about having a job so that he can get into her pants for the first time — which becomes a somewhat leap-requiring notion, particularly given how easily Doug is able to sneak into the IPS factory, along with Carrie, who is dead set on disproving his obvious fib — it’s grounded by the bond between the two characters. Also, even though some of the stuff they do, and the nature of the story, is extreme, Doug has always been a schemer and Carrie has always had trust issues, so “Consummate Professional” only heightens what we’ve already established.
04) Episode 177: “Shear Torture” (Aired: 10/24/05)
Carrie objects to Doug’s flirtatious rapport with the woman who cuts his hair.
Written by Liz Astrof Aronauer | Directed by Rob Schiller
This is the third offering from the fall of 2005 that can be sincerely called a “Doug/Carrie episode” and, while this may be giving the impression that Eight is a good year for stories that deal with their relationship (the series’ thesis), unfortunately — with the exception of one other entry in the spring — this is IT as far as truly overt couple stories go, for after this point, the season’s comeback narrative quickly proves to be just that: a narrative, with more pomp than circumstance… Nevertheless, I think this is the second best on this list, for the premise speaks directly to their perceived compatibility, as Doug’s need for emotional validation outside Carrie is a reflection of his fear that he’s not good enough for her, and Carrie’s possessiveness over Doug is but a recurring symptom of her inability to trust anyone (thanks, we imagine, in large part to Arthur). As such, we’re dealing with their individual flaws, all the while affirming why they belong together, even though they fear that they don’t. Furthermore, it’s a great success by way of comedy — first when Carrie bursts Doug’s bubble at the salon, and later when she and Doug go back down to help him “pick out” a new hairdresser (after she pettily gave Danny the former girl’s info). One of Eight’s best — although the gimmicky Spence/Adam West subplot, which doesn’t connect to the main story, makes for an uneven half-hour.
05) Episode 180: “G’Night Stalker” (Aired: 11/21/05)
After singing at a local karaoke club, Doug learns he has a stalker.
Written by Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller
Now we’re starting to get back into more specifically idea-based fare, as this story-driven outing — which, unsurprisingly, is another one of the season’s most popular, often cited by fans in support of the argument that this is one of the series’ better years — actually doesn’t give a rats’ you-know-what about the Doug/Carrie relationship. If the two actually have a good moment together, that’s incidental to the story, which is loud and gaudy and starts with the idea that Doug becomes popular at a karaoke bar. Yes, this is a chance to get Doug and Carrie (not Arthur, sadly) up on stage to sing karaoke — an easy source of laughs (just like Doug and Carrie trying to pole dance). But the real point of the story is that Doug finds he has a stalker… which brings conflict, tension, and the mystery of “her” identity. I must say, I don’t think the teleplay does a terrible job here; the answer isn’t entirely obvious on a first-watch, even though it is a conveniently sitcom solution, meaning that it operates with the kind of routinized logic that we, connoisseurs of the genre, accept simply by convention… Yet, if this is another “not great” showing, it’s a fun one, and it doesn’t commit any cardinal sins with the characterizations.
06) Episode 185: “Apartment Complex” (Aired: 02/06/06)
Doug and his guy friends decide to rent a secret apartment together.
Written by Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller
I’ve seen several fans call this installment their favorite of the season. Obviously, I don’t agree, for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that it’s entirely consumed by a pair of comedic ideas and the Seinfeld-ian plot maneuvers that allow them to dovetail in the end. First, let’s start with the subplot, which is built around a guest star — Kirstie Alley — an incredibly funny performer whose inclusion is still another gimmick, an easy Sweeps hook that has nothing to do with Queens and why it’s great… Meanwhile, the A-story commands equal attention, due to its Victorious Premise: Doug and his three main pals deciding to rent an apartment that they’ll share together (and keep secret from the wives). It’s basically a one-joke notion, with Carrie’s inevitable discovery of the place providing its only sense of momentum. But more than that, it’s actually, in hindsight, dramatically counterintuitive, for when Carrie secretly gets an apartment in Season Nine, it’s a big move that temporarily separates the pair. Here, when Doug does the same thing, it’s all a big joke. Sure, the circumstances are different, but in enacting this storyline, the upcoming one is inevitably weakened. (And trust me, it doesn’t need to be weakened any more than it already is; stay tuned for more on THAT next week…) But, I guess, if this year is all for laughs, and we don’t really doubt that the characters would behave the way they do (we buy Doug working at the Chinese restaurant downstairs in exchange for not paying rent), then this one can be enjoyed easily, too… It’s great for laugh-seekers.
07) Episode 188: “Present Tense” (Aired: 03/13/06)
Doug and Carrie don’t know how to get rid of an awful gift that Deacon and Kelly gave them.
Written by Michelle Nader & Rock Reuben | Directed by Henry Chan
There’s something very conventional about this premise. It’s the kind of story that feels familiar within the sitcom genre, mostly because it’s something that pretty much any character on any series could do. We can imagine (if not go back and watch) the Ricardos/Mertzes, Petries/Helpers, Bunkers/Lorenzos, etc. in an episode where one couple gives the other a gift that’s awful, with the ensuing plot arising from this resulting comic tension, which is universal and not necessarily dependent on character… Usually, this would be disqualifying to me; I want Queens to be best remembered by the outings that show why this series was unique, or at least the best version of itself that it could possibly be (within its genre of a genre). To that point though, I think “Present Tense” is a success, not just by the year’s laugh-based rubric, but also because it’s enlivened by its own particulars (just as the telling with any of the aforementioned sets of characters would be), even in the plot, like when Doug/Carrie scheme to have the awful painting stolen — this is something we easily believe they would do (and have done before) — and hire the bumbling pair of Spence/Danny to do the job. (In their “mock gay” bit, this duo hopes to replace Deacon/Kelly as the Heffernans’ “go-to” couple. That’s funny.) And, on a more basic level, any time the show narratively pairs the two, it’s commenting on their rightness for each other. And that’s automatically series-specific.
08) Episode 191: “Four Play” (Aired: 05/01/06)
Doug begins hanging out with Kelly, while Carrie begins hanging out with Deacon.
Written by Liz Astrof Aronauer | Directed by Rob Schiller
A throwback to an earlier time in Queens history, “Four Play” is, like “Present Tense,” another entry about the two couples, and as is often the case with scripts that make a point to pit the Heffernans against the Palmers, themes of their compatibility are unavoidable. However, instead of merely pitting the two against each other and using Doug/Carrie as a unit, this one explores the much more interesting inverse — and both characters’ central fear — that they actually may NOT be right for each other. It comes by way of another idea-based template, the “faux married” bit (which was really popular at the height of the series’ comedic prowess), which is used to mix and match Doug with Kelly and Deacon with Carrie. This is definitely an easy story structure and one that’s not commendable, especially since it’s so familiar, but because the broader couples template is always effective (it stopped being necessary when the show committed to its main characterizations, but ever since it’s stopped using Doug/Carrie as the primary narrative focus, this kind of story has become more valuable again), and seeing as the themes explored here ARE connected to Queens‘ thesis concerns, this is a clear “must-include.”
09) Episode 192: “Hartford Wailer” (Aired: 05/08/06)
Doug surprises Carrie on an out-of-town trip, much to her chagrin.
Story by David Bickel & Chris Downey | Teleplay by Giuseppe Graziano | Directed by Rob Schiller
As teased above, this is probably the most obvious “Doug/Carrie” show from the back half of the season. But it’s not one of the best, and in fact, if there were a few better offerings below in the Honorable Mentions, this one might not be here. Why? Well, despite the core narrative and its rightness for Carrie, as she schemes (like Doug) to avoid work while out of town on a company-sponsored charity project, and then double schemes to AVOID hanging out with her husband when he shows up to surprise her at the hotel, it’s all too big and distracting. Everything — the way the characters behave, the turns in the story (including the climactic scene where the primary couple ends up in a petty battle that reinforces how uncharitable they are), even the locations — is larger than the year’s baseline. And it takes the focus off the central couple, as the legitimate character stuff is drowned out by the bells and whistles. So, while Doug and Carrie have to get figuratively louder to compensate, nothing truly new or excellent is discovered… And yet, in this year where beggars like myself can’t be choosers too, the right idea is the right idea — and an obvious pick for a list of ten episodic ambassadors. (Oh, and this is another time when the less said about the subplot, which includes Huey Lewis, the better.)
10) Episode 194: “Acting Out” (Aired: 05/22/06)
Carrie thinks it’s finally time to put Arthur into a retirement home.
Story by Liz Astrof Aronauer & Michelle Nader | Teleplay by Rock Reuben | Directed by Rob Schiller
This isn’t great. It’s neither hilarious nor dramatically revealing. But the season finale deserves a paragraph of commentary, which is ultimately why I’ve decided to list it. As noted, this was written when it was still uncertain if Queens would be renewed, so the script had to provide dramatic closure while leaving the story door open. The solution? Use the pilot’s premise — Doug being denied his own recreational room when Carrie asks that her father move in with them — to bring things narratively full-circle. Here, Carrie’s ready to put Arthur in a home — a fact that’s difficult for everyone, even Doug, who learns that his father-in-law once gave up a serious acting career to raise Carrie. (It’s more revisionist history and an attempt to use Stiller’s own catalogue of work to provide a trendy, metatheatrical wink to the audience — but unlike in last year’s “Gym Neighbors,” it’s now being used for more than just laughs.) Now, obviously this isn’t emotionally valuable because, even though the pilot’s conflict revolved around Arthur, the series‘ dramatic interests, as we’ve seen, became exclusively about Doug/Carrie, and since they’re not well-served, “Acting Out” isn’t a fitting finale. Fortunately, the renewal gave the show the opportunity to correct this, making for a dry-run ending that, like Raymond‘s early ninth season fake-out (which was incidentally great because it actually did answer the emotional thesis), could pave the way for a smarter, more thoughtful finale ahead. Well, kinda…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include three gaudy shows that most fans enjoy, despite their bigness not stemming from character: “Raygin’ Bulls,” with two silly narratives, one of which features Ray Romano as Ray Barone, “Inn Escapable,” which is totally situational and character-resistant, and “Sandwiched Out,” which quickly says goodbye to Nicole Sullivan’s Holly. Then there are two types of Honorable Mentions — those with purely comedic ideas, but not enough character substance (“Baker’s Doesn’t” and the Carrie half of “Gambling ‘N’ Diction”), and those with okay charactery concerns that are spoiled by either too BIG or too BLAH executions (“Sold-Y Locks” and “Emotional Rollercoaster”). Meanwhile, the only one actually close to the above list is… “Knee Jerk,” a Doug/Carrie show with a terribly clichéd premise that becomes more interesting and comedically viable due to its use of Arthur, but then wrecks itself with an ostentatious on-location slapstick bit that distracts from the characters and reeks of narrative desperation (like Six’s “Trash Talker”).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for Season Nine! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!