I recently wrote about my affections for the sitcom television show and pop culture phenomenon that is The Big Bang Theory (2007-present), a show I feel is both overrated and underappreciated by different audiences. In many respects, however, the prism through which I view The Big Bang Theory (henceforth, BBT) and have viewed most every other sitcom is framed by my experiences with my first and favorite American sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005, henceforth ELR).
ELR stands apart from the bulk of 1990s and 2000s American family sitcoms for several notable reasons, which I’ll discuss in a moment. It is important to recall, however, that ELR represents a crossroads of not just prime time situational comedy, but American television in general and greater Western television at large. I noted in my analysis of BBT that the show is somewhat of an anomaly in modern television given its adherence to “throwback” cinematography, laugh tracks, and an episodic format; while ELR utilizes these same attributes, tonally and narratively speaking, it straddled the pre- and current Golden Age of Television, an era that has been defined by epic, long-form storytelling, big budgets, subversive character studies, and a transition from traditional cable television to streaming services like Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix. ELR looks and sounds much like the safer, quainter, old-school style of television from previous generations, but pealing under its skin reveals subtle nuances from characters to themes to overarching, quietly ambitious — not to mention expertly written — multi-season story arcs that have more in common with the HBO and Showtime greats of today than, say, the concurrent King of Queens (1998-2007), let alone the likes of Full House (1987-1995). Sure, ELR is no Sopranos (1999-2007), the show that arguably kicked off the current revolution of television filmmaking, but these Italian-American households are more closely related than you’d think.
Allow me to explain why Everybody Loves (or should love…) Raymond…
1.) The absence of children/The emphasis on adult family: One of the greatest things bout ELR is how it is structured as a “standard” family sitcom with few traditional family dynamics, at least from a modern American or Western perspective. To clarify, ELR is defined by the titular Italian-American everyman, Ray Burone (Ray Romano), who is married to a dedicated, loving, and yet high-strung wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), with a daughter, Ally (Madylin Sweeten), and two twin boys, Geoffrey and Michael (Sawyer and Sullivan Sweeten, respectively, both real-life siblings of Madylin). The series’ main gimmick is that Ray’s parents, Marie (Doris Roberts) and Frank (Peter Boyle), along with Ray’s older brother, Robert (Brad Garrett), live across the street. The latter three frequently invade Ray and Debra’s personal space, Old World Mediterranean style, much to the former’s chagrin, and hilarity ensues.
Perhaps the best part of this family feuding/culture clash dynamic is how unimportant the child characters are; the Sweetens’ roles are by no means pointless — they are well acted and feature prominently in a few episodes, but the overwhelming focus of the series is on the adults. One could argue this is the inverse of child or teenager-centric coming-of-age narratives like The Wonder Years (1988-1993), or better yet the opposite of most horror feature films past and present, wherein parents or adult figures are completely absent. Ray and Debra’s progeny exist on the show’s periphery, a mild inconvenience or nagging responsibility that keeps the parents (mostly Debra, sometimes Ray) grounded as they fend off the in-laws, sometimes offering inter-generational contrast or the occasional “kids-say-the-darnedest-things” moments.
This emphasis on adult relationships within an extended family setting is central to the series’ humor, and is its main appeal. Most stories in film and television focus on either child-centered narratives (see above) or non-familial adult ones; ELR strikes that rare middle ground. These adults, from Ray and Debra to Marie and Frank (… and yes, Robert, too) are defined by their familial roles and responsibilities. It is a fascinating and surprisingly underutilized dynamic in cinema, one that makes for great situational comedy. Over nine seasons and 210 episodes, creator Philip Rosenthal and his writers (including Romano) milked this communal in-laws setup for all it was worth, which was an awful lot.
2.) Melodramatic, but not cartoonish characters: Sitcoms, both those in America and many abroad, are defined by exaggerated characters, if not outright caricatures. BBT is no exception, however well acted its characters and consistent its gags are. Sitcoms, whether they involve a gang of friends or a classical nuclear family, are more often about ideas of people (re: stereotypes) than actual people.
I’m not going to claim ELR’s principle cast are complicated, deep portrayals of the American family experience circa year 2000; make no mistake, these are melodramatic, larger-than-life comedians with great chemistry and a penchant for absurdist family conflicts; heck, their abnormal, over-the-top feuds are the primary appeal of the show, as discussed above… but they are no cartooons, and for family sitcoms circa 2000 (hell, even now…), that is significant. In addition to the series’ essentially nonstop family drama and epic in-law rants, the central cast had as much, if not more heart than The Simpsons (1989-present) in their prime. Robert (Garrett) has several melancholic soliloquies regarding his middle-aged status while divorced and living at home, his various inferiority complexes, etc. His eventual heart-to-heart with his younger brother (Romano) feel genuine and that much more heartfelt because of their rivalry; the same can be said for Debra (Heaton) and Marie’s (Roberts) nonstop feud, which must be considered a benchmark for all-time memorable daughter/mother-in-law relationships. Even the character of Frank (Boyle), an otherwise hard-boiled, aloof, and bitter old man who would’ve been turned into a conservative, racist caricature in any other show, demonstrates surprising depth and emotion.
These people almost never see eye-to-eye, and more often than not were at each other’s throats (sometimes literally), but it was clear they cared about each other and were more than the sum of their childish arguments. Almost like real people.
3.) Minimal, yet effective additional characters: As The Simpsons once lampooned, the addition of newer supporting characters in a show’s later seasons is often a sign that particular series has overstayed its welcome. ELR proved the exception when it expanded its starring cast to include Amy McDougall (Monica Horan) as Robert’s recurring love interest, which eventually included McDougall’s entire on-screen family. Though the show is about adult family dynamics and in-law tensions, this sort of late-game recruitment typically reeks of desperation for a fading television show.
The show never missed a step in its final seasons with these newer characters, however, both given the opportunity for additional in-law hilarity via McDougall’s hyper-religious family and Robert’s development through his romance with her. Like real life families, ELR awkwardly yet warmly expanded its ranks to include a new squad in the most natural way possible, if that makes sense.
4.) A logical, timely ending: The Sopranos arguably pulled off its non-ending conclusion about as well as a TV series could without feeling like a copout (its meaning is debated to this day), while Breaking Bad (2008-2013) wrapped its star Bryan Cranston’s arc in a nice, shiny bow, my general reservations of that show’s final season notwithstanding. On the other hand, you have shows like my beloved LOST (2004-2010), which was all about the journey, not the destination — mainly because the journey was awesome, while the destination was a train wreck — you have Game of Thrones (2011-present), which is either building to the greatest ending of all time or something way more disappointing, and The Walking Dead (2010-present), which has no idea what a beginning, middle, or end to a story is.
ELR is no epic, long-form narrative, despite its decidedly non-formulaic multi-season character arcs, nor was its story ever complex. That being said, if The Cosby Show (1984-1992) is a case study in a popular sitcom overstaying its welcome and forcing unlikable new characters on its audience, ELR is the exception to the rule. The series never lost steam over nine long seasons, which is all the more impressive given the ostensibly limited nature of its sitcom gimmick. More to the point, the show didn’t overextend itself to the point of self-parody or cultural irrelevance a la The Simpsons; it even managed one final (super ironic) bait-and-switch gag before it ended, whereby Marie and Frank sold their house to a married Robert and Amy upon moving into a dream retirement home… only to be kicked out for their long established terrible behavior. It was just wonderful.
So, whether or not situational comedies are your thing in this day and age of subversive crime dramas and epic fantasy, Everybody Loves Raymond is worth your time both as a relic of a bygone era — more so than The Big Bang Theory, really — and as an example of the television sitcom’s emotional power before today’s Golden Age. It’s the full package: Humor, brains, melodrama, and heart…
… which is why Everybody Loves Raymond.
Thanks for reading,