Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our look at Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005, CBS), the best “family” sitcom from the turn of the century.
Everybody Loves Raymond stars RAY ROMANO as Raymond Barone, PATRICIA HEATON as Debra Barone, BRAD GARRETT as Robert Barone, PETER BOYLE as Frank Barone, MONICA HORAN as Amy MacDougall Barone, and DORIS ROBERTS as Marie Barone.
For all our legitimate gripes when comparing Everybody Loves Raymond’s final trimester to the stronger seasons that came before, it still must be reiterated that the series is always a model of long-running sitcomery, for its ability to remain basically very good until its very end is a feat seldom achieved. And it’s never easy; as we’ve explored over the past few months, the show took about three seasons to develop this capacity to be “very good” with consistency, and even though the quality has generally remained as such since then, we’ve also seen how the middle years were superior to those that followed — for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of the differences in how the so-called second and third trimesters were able (or in the latter’s case, unable) to rely upon the show’s central dramatic thesis for regular narrative support. Accordingly, our survey has certainly established a qualitative hierarchy within the series’ trajectory, based on this aforementioned trimester framework. As far as Nine is concerned, the year reinforces some of the traits associated with the previous two seasons, while also making the most important and effective argument for the show’s overall high quality throughout the duration of its run. That is, Season Nine, more than any other year, deserves credit for Raymond’s reputation for being, again, basically “very good until its very end,” for if this year was a comedown in quality, the entire legacy would suffer. Of course, this legacy is also the result of a smart finale that sends the series off surprisingly (for this particular time in TV history). But we’ll talk more about that below… First, of this final 16-episode season, Nine appears to crank out a high ratio of great and/or good offerings, with more gems, number-wise than Eight, and in contrast to both Eight and Seven, very few below the baseline. In fact, the biggest reason for Nine’s appeal is that it looks to be the most episodically successful — if not quantitatively so, then at least proportionally — of all the years in this final trimester.
I think this is because the company went into the year knowing — with certainty — that Nine would be the last, and this provided the opportunity to not only take extra care with every last episode, but also to bestow each one with some kind of super-value, based on a narrative sense of finality. We’ve seen it before, and we see it again here, as the majority of the season operates with an inherent poignancy and elevated dramatic relevance while stories check off various parts of the show’s identity — i.e. the last parenting entry (“Ally’s F”), the last show with Debra’s folks (“Debra’s Parents”), the last Peter-heavy script (“A Date For Peter”), the last Ray/Debra show (“The Power Of No”), the last excursion with Amy’s parents (“Pat’s Secret”), etc. This gives every outing a little extra worth. Thanks to this, and the year’s ability to maintain a healthy qualitative baseline, it’s no wonder that Nine looks to have so many gems or gem-like entries… But, while there are goodies, we can’t ignore that with nearly every entry attempting to gain added relevance because of the show’s march towards its conclusion, the year ends up leading with its narrative interests, asking us to favor certain episodes FOR their chosen subject matter, and not as much for, what should always be our guiding pursuit, the character moments provided as a result… In other words, it’s too easy this year to like a story for story’s sake, and, okay, it’s always been true that different plots are naturally better poised to inspire stronger character material (especially when it comes to exploring the thesis), but it’s more of an actual concern in Nine because the year’s omnipresent finality makes it much more obvious and because we’re so starved of the central premise — which is the only internal justification for story on any series, by the way — that good plots are even harder to come by. (As we know, Raymond hasn’t been able to use its thesis as a narrative foundation since it made it impossible to emotionally top the conflict as it was explored in Season Six.)
So, sans a frequently utilizable undercurrent of premised drama, Season Nine — with its high baseline and its ratio of gems benefited by the year’s long farewell — is just as episodically predicated as the others in this trimester, with a week-to-week mentality that isn’t as mercurial as Seven (which initially floundered) or Eight (which opened itself up to mediocrity), but still guarantees, by design, that some segments are going to work and be loved, while others, relatively speaking, aren’t. For instance, there’s no way I can claim something like “Ally’s F,” a parenting show in which Ally gets a bad grade in school, is as easy to enjoy as, for example, “Pat’s Secret,” an entry built for the MacDougalls that isn’t necessarily better written, and also doesn’t use Ray very well, but nevertheless is centered around characters we’re conditioned to find funnier and more watchable. Again, this kind of intrinsic value always exists, but without a dramatic foundation, there’s nothing to justify disparities of such obvious magnitudes… except, for, oh yeah, the characters. Remember how we tried to make due in Eight without the premise by picking our favorites based on how they took advantage of the new character dynamics in the wider ensemble-focused aperture that developed courtesy of Amy? Well, here in Nine, we’re still interested in character, only now the new stuff doesn’t necessarily matter, for with the finale pending, we’re also seeking closure and resolution, which means we want material that says something about what’s changed within established constructs — we want new takes on old relationships. And with this guiding frame of reference, we have a standard — heck, it’s one we pretty much always use — that seeks to find the strongest character showcases available. It seems obvious, right? It is; except that Nine, being a part of this final trimester, is — more than the others — led by ideas and comedic Victories In Premise, some of which are “sitcommy,” meaning they could be done on any show and with any set of characters.
Thus, we have to draw distinctions, prioritizing a “Boys’ Therapy,” about the relationship between the Barone men, over, say, “P.T. & A.,” a Ray/Debra outing that may be as funny, but is built around a sight gag driven by sitcom logic, for Debra getting back at the ladies she thinks called her attire trampy by dressing like a tramp is a choice more likely made by a sitcom character than an actual human being. And while, as I’ve said, I don’t fault the show for heightening its characters, as I think the growing use of story is the fundamental concern and culprit, I would be remiss for not stating the obvious: Nine’s greatest weakness is the fact that it’s more heightened than any other, with moments like this — and whole episodes (“The Faux Pas”) — that aren’t just idea-driven, but continue to move the series away from emotional relatability and into a world that’s more conventional and false. (And it isn’t just Debra. All the characters are bigger.) In this sense, Raymond was ending just in time, before it went too far — and speaking of ending, we’ll talk more about the finale below, but now I’ll say, in a reaction (I think) to several overblown and underwhelming series-enders the previous year, Rosenthal decided to eschew BIG DEVELOPMENT fare — the kind that makes a finale not seem like a normal episode — by putting a story of its type, the expected “Marie and Frank move into assisted living” bit, into the premiere, resolving it early and clearing the decks for an ending that’s more normal, with only a touch of heightened emotional and narrative relevance… which is exactly as it should be… So, Season Nine ends Raymond exactly as it should — with its reputation intact (the industry was still loving it, once again rewarding the series, along with Roberts and Garrett with Emmys) and at a time when the multi-cam was giving way to the single-cam — a stylistic trend that, as of this writing, remains dominant. And because Raymond’s ninth year, during this transitional period, cast the series in such a favorable light, the series got an added legacy — not just as a great multi-cam, but as one of the last great multi-cams… See why for yourself, for with this abbreviated season, I have chosen seven episodes that I think exemplify the year’s finest.
01) Episode 195: “The Home” (Aired: 09/20/04)
Marie and Frank announce that they’re moving into a retirement home.
Written by Tucker Cawley & Jeremy Stevens | Directed by Kenneth Shapiro
As we started to discuss above, Season Nine is able to conclude so miraculously, with a finale that — unlike those from other recently ended comedies, such as Friends and Frasier — avoids typical big event story-heavy nonsense, in large part because it knocks it out earlier. Here, during the premiere when no one expects a major change, the show finds the most natural and expected ending and explores it completely in the first two episodes, so that the rest of the year, including the finale, can play normally (intentionally heightened poignancy notwithstanding). Since Ray and Debra’s life together is filled with conflict mostly because his parents live across the street, the obvious way to wrap up the series is with the termination of this problem: Frank and Marie voluntarily deciding to move into a retirement home. Thus, this entry looks like a finale, and with Robert and Amy getting their house while Ray and Debra are set to regain some privacy, there’s big stuff happening for everyone — and much is often made of that jubilant kitchen scene with a physical gag involving the refrigerator… However, that’s not the best part. The best part is later, as the folks are about to depart, when Debra has a change of heart and aims not to have Marie leave before their relationship gets some resolution. You see, in this proto-conclusion, the show can’t help but go back to its original thesis and the central conflict that made it possible to explore in weekly story. The fact that this outing indulges the Debra/Marie rivalry so explicitly is a brilliant recognition of how vital thesis-fulfillment is to closure, and making it the climax proves how important their tension has remained (even when not used regularly or well). Of course, though, never forgetting its comic intents, the moment plays true to form, as Marie figuratively slaps Debra down. It’s perfect — and despite lacking a final emotional beat that cements the series’ countering optimism (as opposed to the empty “now what?” that leads into Part II), “The Home” ends as Raymond was meant to end… except that, in case you’ve forgotten, there are 15 more half-hours left…
Now, it’s terrific all on its own terms, but because it’s actually not the finale, the story gets to benefit from narrative closure without having to worry about the higher stakes of series representation, a metric on which most finales fail, as it’s too common for last-minute plot developments to overwhelm character and comedy. And yet, what’s even more brilliant is that it also sets up the season/series for a fitting real conclusion, making conditions most conducive for the positive legacy that Raymond has maintained post-run, which, as we’ve said, is reliant upon the quality of both the year and the finale. Therefore, there’s no better offering for Nine than “The Home,” and that’s why I’ve selected it as my MVE. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I also like the finale proper and think, as you’ll see, that it smartly wraps up the series. That’s key. But aside from enabling what comes later by prematurely deescalating the forthcoming story expectations, this one also boasts a conclusion more geared to the central conflict and the show’s identity in its peak era, where the most important character stuff happens. As such, this one is totally concerned with the regulars’ arcs: Ray’s life is finally free from his parents’ intrusion, Robert gains independence with his own house (and family), and Debra/Marie have a final moment reaffirming their dynamic. For the characters, this is the ending they need, allowing the show to give us, a bit later, the ending it needs.
02) Episode 196: “Not So Fast” (Aired: 09/27/04)
Marie and Frank are kicked out of their retirement home.
Written by Philip Rosenthal & Mike Royce | Directed by Gary Halvorson
The second in this opening two-parter, “Not So Fast” also deserves credit for providing the early closure that permits Raymond to end with more dignity than most long-running series. And the premiere wouldn’t be nearly so good without this one’s shocking return to the narrative status quo — or rather, the return to a variation on the status quo, as now both Robert/Amy and Frank/Marie are going to be living together (a new take on an old relationship) — when the parents are inevitably kicked out of the home for being, well, just as we’ve always known them to be. It’s hilarious, it’s earned, and it doesn’t disappoint. Sure, it’s also led by the comedic idea of them being kicked out, but we buy it based on their characters, and we need it, because narratively, the season has to return to normalcy, and the quick turnaround of a move and then eviction is the funniest way to do this… That said, I do prefer the premiere, for although some fans are thrilled by the strength of the idea and love the scene with Ray/Debra and the home workers especially, I think the second half, where they return and Robert learns that he’ll be living with his folks again, is a bit broader and less realistically resonant, with some sitcommy gags (involving a piece of exercise equipment) and writing that, generally, reflects the heightened quality of Nine… However, despite preferring Part I, Part II is also fun, and it’s almost as responsible for setting the year up for its smart, effective, and far less ostentatious conclusion.
03) Episode 200: “Boys’ Therapy” (Aired: 11/15/04)
The Barone men lie to their wives about attending therapy.
Written by Philip Rosenthal | Directed by Kenneth Shapiro
One of the new story templates that came about with the inclusion of Amy is “the guys against the girls,” made possible by the evening up of the teams. We got a taste of it in Season Seven and then really saw it come out in Eight during “The Mentor,” which I consider the dry-run for this bolder, more emotionally potent classic. Both deal with the women trying to force their husbands to bond with each other by being emotionally honest, yet while the aforementioned did this primarily through an all-cast kitchen combustion in Act II, this one predicates its whole story around it, as the three Barone guys tell their wives they’re going to therapy, but instead bond while gambling at the track. It’s a Victory In Premise, but again, we buy it for the characters, and even with Robert (who would typically object to such deceit), because we believe that he enjoys spending time with Ray and Frank, and for once feels included. And that’s the real strength of this episode — not the comic plot where the women learn about their husbands’ lies (that’s conventional and anticipated), but the actual bonding that occurs between the men as they try to concoct the lies they’ll tell their wives, and in the process, open up to each other about themselves and why they are the way they are. Accordingly, this is exactly what we said we were looking for above: new takes on old relationships, for even though we’ve done stories about the male Barones before, we haven’t learned so much — and neither have they — making this something fresh, here in Raymond‘s ninth season. (Also, it was a good pick for 200th!)
04) Episode 204: “Favors” (Aired: 01/17/05)
Debra finds herself indebted to Marie after Marie covers for her with Ray.
Written by Aaron Shure | Directed by Gary Halvorson
I alluded to this outing several times last week; I include it within a trilogy of post-Seven ensemble-driven shows that build to an all-cast combustion by utilizing a story-driven plotty narrative with a “web of who-told-who-what.” They’re all similar in that they’re designed with an element of farce, as certain characters know things that others don’t, but because their scripts are often enamored of these story trappings and concepts, they tend not to be great character-specific affairs, putting them in a category of plots that we could find on any sitcom… That said, they each come alive because of the character-specifics, something Raymond is typically good about demanding, and in terms of quality, I think this is the second-best of the trio. It’s got more active hahas than “Blabbermouths” (where there’s more telling than showing), but it isn’t as dramatically solid as “Liars,” which despite having to distract from the central conflict by amping up the Ray/Debra angle, still has the strongest narrative hold on the ensemble dynamics as they uniquely exist on this series… This one, meanwhile, benefits from the most explicit Marie vs. Debra core, as the latter finds herself indebted to Marie after the Barone matriarch takes the fall for something Debra did to Ray (she threw out his Muhammad Ali letter). Now, Debra owes Marie. It’s another Victory In Premise, and more than the others, it’s truly led by an idea — Marie being like a Mafia Don. Yet because the ladies’ relationship is the fulcrum, and also because this is a rare instance where the story-pushers are not Ray or Robert, but Debra, Marie, and Frank, I think this one excuses its non-character-forward design with a knowledge of them that not only justifies the premise, but also makes it among Nine’s more memorable.
05) Episode 206: “Tasteless Frank” (Aired: 02/14/05)
Marie is upset when Frank loses his taste for her food.
Written by Leslie Caveny and Steve Skrovan | Directed by Gary Halvorson
There are only 16 episodes this season, instead of the usual 24, and statistically I should have picked six and two-thirds to highlight. Because that’s impossible, I thought about rounding down and only featuring six since, frankly, the year’s quality is such that I had six “must includes” and then the same number of “goods” — but nothing more… Yet I ultimately decided to round UP from six and two-thirds to seven, so that I could minimize the Honorable Mentions and allow for the most special — the one that most gives me “new takes on old relationships” — to get a spot. Well, this was the recipient, for even though I think there are better written scripts among the HMs, including ones that aren’t so contrived and idea-lovin’, this one comes away with the most interesting looks at not just the Marie/Frank relationship, which is the entry’s emotional core, but also the bond between the Barone men and even Debra/Amy, who act as a twosome trying to make things right with the elder couple. And because there are some fine moments therein, I’m more willing to excuse the broader, jokier stuff that doesn’t quite feel real, like Marie’s donut-loving despondency (that’s unrealistic writer-imposed behavior — BOO!), or the idea-led euphemism for “foot problem,” which goes on too long and is given too much credence… Again, though, we’re episodically inclined in Nine to favor entries based on their plots; I reject this and say let’s favor them for their character returns, and by that standard, again, I like this one the best of the Honorable Mentions below.
06) Episode 209: “Pat’s Secret” (Aired: 05/09/05)
Robert takes the blame for Pat’s secret smoking habit.
Written by Tucker Cawley | Directed by Gary Halvorson
This as an example of a “must include,” for as we discussed above in our commentary, this installment is the last with the MacDougalls, the very funny added complication unique to the third trimester — designed for boffo laughs and maximum conflict. Their sheer presence, along with the fact that this is both their only real chance to shine in all of Season Nine and the last time we’ll ever see them, is a powerful argument for its inclusion, even though, again, there are possibly entries just as well-written among the Honorable Mentions… To that point, I love Georgia Engel, and think her comedic persona is always richly enjoyable, but there’s no denying that while this outing aims to make Pat closer to Robert (as she’s the ambassador for their side of the family, if you haven’t noticed), the plot is really more obsessed with the comedic juxtaposition of having sweet Georgia Engel — forever Georgette to millions of us — reveal that she’s a nicotine fiend. You see, it’s a joke, and it kind of overtakes the character stuff by being so LOUD, leading to another one of those all-cast confessionals that I don’t like as much because it tells more than it shows. (And in this case, even when it’s showing, the script has Pat doing some silly, heightened stuff.) Also, despite this combustion taking place at Ray and Debra’s, I don’t have to tell you that the action doesn’t do a great job of putting Ray in the middle, which is still a requirement, especially now that we’re no longer interested in new dynamics for new dynamics’ sake… Nevertheless, I think this is one of the year’s most notable, and because the MacDougalls are an important part of Raymond‘s identity in its last era — not to mention that the performers are national treasures — this one definitely has to be here, at the very least as a representative for the final season and the pros/cons of its sensibilities.
07) Episode 210: “The Finale” (Aired: 05/16/05)
Ray has surgery — with a very temporary complication.
Written by Philip Rosenthal, Ray Romano, Tucker Cawley, Lew Schneider, Steve Skrovan, Jeremy Stevens, Mike Royce, Aaron Shure, Tom Caltabiano, & Leslie Caveny | Directed by Gary Halvorson
We’ve already talked above about how the show’s decision to put the anticipated big finale development in the premiere allowed the rest of the year to continue as a normal season of Raymond (the chronic episodic boost of inevitable finality aside). But it’s time now to also credit the finale itself for not doubling down and being what could have been an even larger and more grandiose affair, which is what most long-running sitcoms in this era offered. No, Raymond, with its noted affinity for sitcom classics such as Dick Van Dyke, All In The Family, and even Mary Tyler Moore, decides to, like those shows, end in a half-hour — which is narratively and structurally a “normal” episode. I think, more than anything else, that’s the most important decision the show makes here specifically, for this implies that the finale wants this to be an accurate reflection of the series — not something highfalutin, or what the show never was. This limited time also guarantees that nothing too big is going to happen (and we don’t need it to — the premiere took care of that), and more likely than not, it’s also not going to be pumped with overwrought emotion. So, this smart design makes for a fine counterbalance to some of the inherent bigness that the show couldn’t avoid: this extra emotional weight that comes from everyone’s awareness of the show’s ultimate farewell.
That is, no matter what, this offering would operate at a higher pitch… Yet the series does everything it can to keep this from getting out of hand, and, to its credit, it picks a great story — one that allows for a bit of bigness, as Ray almost dies, but nips this in the bud so quickly that the sentiment doesn’t displace the series’ typical comic pursuits. And to that last point, while there’s a seminal moment that symbolizes the premised central conflict when Marie literally jumps in between Ray and Debra in bed — a more overt bookend to how she interrupted them in the pilot — this is actually a finale for the series that wants to represent its total interests, even recognizing the final trimester. In other words, if the conclusion offered at the year’s open embodied what we could have expected for the characters in the peak era, this one, having already gotten that out of the way, is more thematic and structural, with an ensemble focus that resembles the last few years’. It even acknowledges the evolution; there’s an opening kitchen scene that features the five original regulars, a bedroom scene that then includes all five plus Amy, and then a final scene that brings in everyone and the kids (who were always around but only pertinent in the wider lens, when stories needed them). And then, the finale does the best thing of all: it leaves the characters in a good place… We know there’ll still be conflict, but we also know they’ll be together. And that’s exactly how we want to leave Everybody Loves Raymond. This is the show’s finale, and it’s well done. Farewell, Raymond — and thanks.
Other episodes that merit mention include: “Debra’s Parents,” which is just as comedically ripe for the Whelans as the Season Five Thanksgiving, but with an even jokier script truer to this final era. (If it offered something slightly less predictable, with more “new takes on old relationships,” I may have bumped it up.) I also like “Angry Sex,” a more comically bold take on a familiar template where Ray, in the middle of a Debra/Marie feud, exploits the situation for his own benefit (the Debra/Marie stuff doesn’t play great, but the construction, leading to a combustion, does), and “Sister-In-Law,” which, in contrast, DOES give us something new by exploring the Ray/Amy dynamic. (If only it was more comedically competitive…) Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are the overrated “The Power Of No,” which is an oversexed idea-led Ray/Debra story with little ensemble support (I so wish the last Ray/Deb show was better, because if it was, it would have been impossible not to highlight; but, alas, Debra’s not well-served by story in this era…), and the above-noted “P.T. & A.,” which is funny and memorable, but a prime example of sitcom logic superseding actual logic.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Everybody Loves Raymond goes to…
Come back next week for the start of our look at The King Of Queens! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!