Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our 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.
The King Of Queens’ 13-episode final season, which was split and broadcast as two separate runs starting in both December 2006 and April 2007, offers nothing of value but a flawed finale that nevertheless provides a more fitting conclusion than the one hastily delivered at the end of Eight. Now, if you’ll remember from last week, we saw the show, uncertain of its fate, put forward a structurally full-circle season-ender in which Arthur almost moved out of the house, finally giving Doug the basement rec room that he always wanted, only to come back and have the status quo resumed before the credits rolled. It wasn’t a satisfying end to the series, for although it addressed the dramatic conflict of the pilot via Arthur, the show’s emotional interests — established quickly thereafter in Season One — had nothing to do with him; they were exclusively about the relationship between Doug and Carrie. Thus, this last-minute ninth year — scheduled as a mid-season replacement and shot in two blocks around the stars’ movie careers (one of the reasons that, regardless of this year’s quality or its Nielsens, it was pretty much always going to be the last) — mercifully offered an extension: plenty of time to conceive something better than Eight. And to its credit, this year did come up with a finale more appropriate, but, goodness gracious, that’s not saying much… Before we get to the finale though, we have to talk about the year itself. While some diehard fans, especially those who appreciate the closure afforded at the end, say Nine is surprisingly strong for a long-running series’ twilight season, make no mistake: the character-starved idea-led nature of the series’ storytelling has gotten so bad that the scripts scrape the bottom of the figurative barrel with regard to plot — not only for stories that don’t make good use of the characters, but stories that actually aren’t all that funny, just loud. Choosing five out of 13 to highlight was tough, for there’s only one here (outside of the closure-seeking finale, which is suffocated by plot) that has any real character value at all: the season premiere, which looks to set up an arc for the year that will take the regulars to the finale… but then, doesn’t. (More below.)
In fact, Season Nine’s episodic returns are so weak that I had to have the finale fill up two slots. I’ll say more below, but first I have to establish that this extended two-part affair is a mixed bag — even giving it ONE slot is a testament to the year’s lesser quality. On one hand, it’s intrinsically smarter than Eight’s dry run, because instead of utilizing the pilot premise (a conflict that never mattered much on the series), it focuses on the relationship between Doug and Carrie, and thematically deals with so much of what the show has been about — specifically their fears regarding their own incompatibility, as the two are forced to reconcile the fact that they want different things in their lives and maybe always have. Also, as we’ve known, Queens established that the symbol of the couple’s growth would be a baby, for that required a more formal commitment to each other. So, because this finale weaves in all these elements, it’s a winner… Yet on the other hand, the show kind of goes overboard with its dramatics, not so much with character, but with story, as the last two half-hours before the two-part finale are spent setting up some forced drama between the duo that thematically seems right — dealing with Carrie’s perennial longing for something more — but, in actual practice, doesn’t ring true, as we’re forced to make leaps with their choices that don’t happen to be emotionally earned. And that extends into the overblown, plot-driven hour-long closer, too, where a chase to the airport and a last-minute adoption forces us to ignore all notions of logic. It’s the ultimate example of the show putting an idea ahead of everything else, and in this regard, it’s the perfect encapsulation of Queens, representing its strengths (the relationship) and its weaknesses (story), all the while providing one of those bloated multi-cam finales that was very popular a few years prior, when The King Of Queens was at its peak and before it became a relic of a different era. By 2007, it was the last surviving ‘90s comedy, and its end marked the end of something greater… But no tears; I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this truncated year’s finest.
01) Episode 195: “Mama Cast” (Aired: 12/06/06)
Carrie plays mom in a model home family, while Doug buys an ice cream truck.
Written by Mike Soccio & Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE) — and the one mentioned above in my seasonal commentary as being the only offering, aside from the finale, with any true value for the characters, “Mama Cast” suggests both the potential and wasted potential of this truncated final season. Although it commits the typically cardinal sin of separating Doug and Carrie into stories during which they barely connect, both of their truly funny (albeit idea-driven) narratives are revealing. While Doug is off chasing something trivial — his dream of owning an ice cream truck (which speaks both to his immaturity and to his love of food, which in turn subliminally speaks to the differences between the pair) — Carrie is posing as the mother of a family in a model home that’s up for sale, and comes to the realization that, after years of going back and forth over it, she does want to be a mom… It’s an entry that otherwise looks like all Queens entries — i.e. nothing more than a pair of amusing ideas thrown together (and indeed, the Doug story is gaudy, one-note, and not, on paper, ideal) — so it’s brilliant when the show is able to use a vehicle so seemingly ordinary to introduce deeper truths for the characters. And in this case, it appears like it’s setting up the perfect arc for the season: the resumption of Doug and Carrie’s quest to have a child, something that’ll be compromised by, at the very least, the fact that they, and especially Doug, still have some growing up to do (as evidenced by the behavior here)… Unfortunately, none of this is used as it should, and instead of making this a direct course to the finale, it’s not until the baby idea comes up again in the antepenultimate half-hour that the idea is back on the table. And this is a shame, for this lack of character continuity — which the baby notion has always fostered, even though now there’s no need to pause it — further enables the year’s character-poor storytelling. So, “Mama Cast” launches a mini-year that looks like it’s going to make every outing count. If only…
02) Episode 198: “Major Disturbance” (Aired: 12/13/06)
Doug tries to make things right after he scares Deacon and Kelly’s son.
Written by Rock Reuben & Ilana Wernick | Directed by Rob Schiller
More than any other installment from this shortened final season, “Major Disturbance” is the one that seems to get the most unanimously positive feedback, and therefore, I assume this is the one that a good many fans would cite as their MVE. I suppose I understand it — it’s a broad, comedic idea in which Doug scares his best friends’ kid with a bedtime story and then makes things progressively worse as he tries to get back in their good graces. That’s an amusing idea. But when this leads to an ostentatious physical comedy centerpiece where Doug, dressed as a clown, climbs up the fire escape of the Palmers’ building, I’m not on board — we’ve lost a little too much logic for my tastes… However, I do think this episode has some worthwhile beats — not necessarily in the idea-led Arthur subplot — but rather in the interactions between Doug and Carrie, the latter of whom is overjoyed that Major is scared of Doug because now she no longer has to babysit. And while this is exactly the kind of story that rejects her character’s personal discovery in the telling season premiere, further representing Nine’s total rejection of the chance it had to provide full, emotionally satisfying closure for the regulars, this dynamic is reminiscent of Queens in its peak era, where Carrie was so selfish that she’d scheme against the greater good just to get her way. Accordingly, there are flashes of what made Queens what it was when it was as its best, and that’s why I highlight it here.
03) Episode 202: “Offensive Fowl” (Aired: 04/16/07)
Carrie is annoyed when Doug becomes a vegetarian.
Written by David Bickel & Chris Downey | Directed by Rob Schiller
Of all the offerings produced this season — including the Honorable Mentions featured below — this is the idea-driven show that I think works the best. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I say idea-driven, I mean idea-driven, for there’s really nothing supporting this episode but the comedic notion of Doug having a sudden change of heart, after saving a chicken on the road, and deciding to become a vegetarian — a choice that Carrie quickly comes to resent because her husband starts foisting his beliefs onto her and everyone else. You see, all the humor here comes from what the show is lampooning — the evangelical eater, who isn’t content with making his own decisions, but must let the entire world feel the brunt of it too, regardless of how personally hypocritical. It’s extreme, it’s caricatured, and, again, it’s an idea being mocked, not a character… However, I think part of why it’s truly amusing is the same reason that the concept seems so ridiculous in the first place — it’s quite a change for Doug, in particular, because his relationship with food would make him THE LAST person who should be behaving this way. And because Doug’s eating is correlated to Doug’s weight, which is correlated to his appearance, which is correlated to Carrie’s appearance, which is correlated to the difference in how society views them, which is correlated to their compatibility, I give “Offensive Fowl” extra credit, for there is some character comedy happening here after all, however quiet.
04) Episode 206: “China Syndrome (I)” (Aired: 05/14/07)
Arthur’s bride-to-be abandons him right before their wedding.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
While Part II is dedicated to the anticipated weepy story machinations that will give the central characters their intended closure, Part I is allowed to focus on a specific narrative event: a wedding. Here, Arthur is going to marry a woman played by Lainie Kazan (introduced two weeks prior in the first entry that started laying pipe for the finale), but she runs out on him, forcing a last-minute bride substitution: Veronica. This development points out the positive and negative nature of this structure. The negative is that the set-piece is so big it inherently feels unlike the rest of the series, especially when major plot stuff has to occur — beyond just the contrived Veronica swap (which we only tolerate because we like both Stiller and Meara and think their comedic personas are wacky enough to handle such foolishness). The positive, meanwhile, is that these kind of trivial maneuverings keep the proceedings light and airy, without indulging the unchecked sentiment that’s going to help make Part II seem so imbalanced, but is otherwise already creeping in, as Doug’s anger at Carrie over her secret apartment — a nice symbolic bone of contention that, in practice, is never actually able to fully motivate the drama it needs to inspire — offers some character choices that, I think, are harder to buy than the situational hijinks of Arthur/Veronica… But with some funny moments (like the scene with the rabbi in the car), and a surprisingly powerful Doug/Carrie button, these 20-ish minutes are fast-paced and easy to watch — spiritually like Queens, if not narratively.
05) Episode 207: “China Syndrome (II)” (Aired: 05/14/07)
Doug and Carrie break up just before they learn their adoption went through.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Rob Schiller
Part II is where all the Doug/Carrie drama explodes, meaning that it’s got both more character meat than its predecessor and more of the logic-defying decision-making that hampers the story. While nothing, in my mind, beats the foolishness of the prior two episodes — where Doug and Carrie separate over the apartment, come together by deciding a baby will fix all their problems, only for Doug to learn that she lied and kept the apartment (during which Spence develops a crush on Carrie that the show asks us to think is legitimate) — this installment packs its own absurdities, namely the race to China when their adoption is given the go-ahead. First of all, that was quick. Second of all, what exactly are the characters going to do once they get there? Sure, they’re petty and irrational and we understand that they’re solely focused on beating each other, but, heck, this is some ridiculous storytelling, made all the worse by the expansiveness of the action. If the wedding felt big and antithetical to the low-concept Queens, then the airplane and China sequences are HUGE, indicative of how this type of plotting not only makes for so many unsatisfying sitcom conclusions, but also shows why Queens has always had story issues: character plays second fiddle. As a result, I don’t think you could call “China Syndrome” a good example of a series finale, just as I couldn’t (honestly) call the last two seasons of Queens good for “the sitcom”… However, the plane sequence does yield a potent exchange between Doug and Carrie that hits all the right thematic notes — her fear that life hasn’t turned out right, and Doug’s subconscious awareness of it — and even though it’s more dramatic than this series has ever allowed itself to be, making it therefore seem out-of-place, I think the actors pull it off… And, ultimately, all the characters end up just as we want, including Holly (who returns), and Arthur, who moves back in during the final “happily ever after” moments.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Affair Trade,” a Victory In Premise that was closest to the above list, even though it doesn’t have as much character value as I’d like, “Brace Yourself,” which has moments that click (the Arthur stuff) alongside moments that bore (the Spence/Deacon stuff), “Home Cheapo,” a “typically sitcom” couples show that never makes its own claim on originality or excellence, and “Mild Bunch,” a gaudy excursion notable mostly for the gimmicky inclusion of Adam Sandler, who isn’t given great material.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of The King Of Queens goes to…
Come back next week for That ’70s Show! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!