Everybody doesn’t love Raymond, but the CBS sitcom could be the juiciest television story this season.

Sure, Friends will receive a bonanza of publicity for ending its 10-year run. Yes, Frasier will probably bow out, too, and enjoy a fond sendoff for 11 uneven years. Of course, changes will be heavily scrutinized in the cast at The Practice and behind the scenes at The West Wing.

But backstage drama will elevate Everybody Loves Raymond to new heights during what star Ray Romano and creator Phil Rosenthal have suggested will be the sitcom’s eighth and final season.

For years, Raymond has deserved kudos as the most dependable comedy, but trendier series (Ally McBeal, Will & Grace, Sex and the City) overshadowed it at the Emmys. The Barone family saga was the No. 9 show last season, averaging 18.6 million viewers.

Raymond was the little show that carried on quite nicely without industry buzz. Sad to say, inside turmoil could change that situation for the comedy, which airs at 9 p.m. Mondays.

Before it’s all over, the battling Barones, dubbed the “angry family” in a classic episode, could be a serene bunch compared to the Raymond cast.

Won’t someone step in and mediate the crisis before it damages the wittiest sitcom today?

Brad Garrett, who plays Robert Barone, hasn’t returned to work because he wants a pay raise. “Brad earns less than 10 percent of Ray’s salary and is the lowest paid member of a grossly underpaid supporting cast,” Garrett’s representatives at Raw Talent said in a statement.

Romano’s pay supposedly works out to $1.8 million per episode. If Garrett’s complaint sounds like something Robert might whine about Raymond, the actor’s representatives did say that Romano “deserves every penny” he earns.

They added, however, that Garrett could walk away if a fair deal isn’t reached. CBS, in a statement, said it had accommodated the actor’s request to renegotiate his deal twice in the past four years and said “it’s unfortunate that he is not honoring his contract.”

He was written out of the season opener, scheduled to air Sept. 22. A Raymond without Robert would be as unthinkable as I Love Lucy without Ethel Mertz.

Patricia Heaton, who plays Debra Barone, was out three days last week, citing health reasons. A CBS spokesman said she was “under the weather.”

The industry newspaper Daily Variety reported that her absence, “officially due to migraine headaches, seems to indicate she’s not happy with the situation on the show, either.”

Heaton’s absence pushed production of the season premiere to next week, and it accelerated speculation about what happens next. If she appears next week, she could quell concerns about the show’s future. There can be no Raymond without Raymond’s sensible wife — that would be as unthinkable as I Love Lucy without Ricky Ricardo.

Heaton isn’t the only cast member who might be unhappy. The supporting actors committed to two more years on the series while Romano and creator Rosenthal keep saying there will be only one more. Romano’s co-stars could lose big time if their lucrative gigs are cut short.

Doris Roberts, who plays mother Marie Barone, said last month that there have never been problems on the set. But she worried that uncertainty over how long the show will run could cause tension.

“They’ve got to tell us once and for all that this is it so we can make plans for our lives after this year, and not play games with us,” she said. “I think we’re entitled to that. I think the crew is entitled to that.”

The problems should make for a fascinating Emmy night Sept. 21, when Raymond is the favorite to win top comedy series, an award that has always eluded the show.

Truly a happy family

The Raymond set has been one of the happiest in television, with cast members showing genuine affection for one another.

“I’m having a great time, and it doesn’t often happen that you put together many actors who get along, who are absolutely trusting each other,” Roberts said. “We come to work. We’re grownup. We know our lines.”

Garrett, in promoting the movie Gleason last year, described his “wonderful job” at Raymond and explained that he won the role as Robert because “I’m the only actor Ray can see over his wallet.”

But backstage conflicts can hurt and change a series. That has happened to sundry programs, from Three’s Company and Moonlighting to Designing Women and The West Wing.

Raymond, however, is not just another series, but the contemporary sitcom most likely to age well and stand in the company of such classics as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers.

It started slowly on Fridays in 1996 — a Sept. 13, to be exact. CBS shifted the sitcom to Mondays, where it grew to a major hit. The syndicated reruns, which can be seen at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturdays on WKCF-Channel 18, confirm that the series was strong from the beginning.

Unlike almost every other sitcom, Raymond has never suffered a fall-off in writing — a feat that neither Friends nor Frasier can claim. High-profile fans such as Neil Simon, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore have saluted the show.

During the last seven years, a horrible period for sitcoms, Raymond has proved that the filmed-before-a-studio-audience setup can still work with sharp writing and brilliant acting. All the main actors, except Peter Boyle as irascible father Frank, have won Emmys.

“The main reason it’s so good is its supporting cast,” says Diane Kupfer of Winter Park. “I’m a big sitcom fan. I go back to The Dick Van Dyke Show. He was great, but he had a good supporting cast. Seinfeld was good, but his cast made that show. Raymond is the same way. He’s funny, but it’s the people who surround him.”

Though set in sportswriter Ray Barone’s Long Island home, the series explores universal, timeless themes: conflicts between spouses, the challenges of raising children, the intrusion of in-laws, the never-ending jockeying between jealous brothers.

“Every epiosde hits home in some way — I kind of hate to admit it,” Kupfer says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m Debra. The two generations in the show are so much like my generation and my parent’s generation, at least in my family. The comments Frank makes about the younger people you hear from a lot of people of that generation.”

She didn’t watch the first season and started tuning in only after her parents told her how “hysterical” the show was.

The show can shift easily from edgy comedy to sentiment, and back again. Seinfeld never attempted that, thank goodness, and most other sitcoms fail miserably when they try.

Fans can identify famous Raymond episodes by just a few words: Marie’s sculpture. The luggage. Robert’s lucky suit. The piano lesson. Robert’s ex-wife. Good girls. Robert’s girlfriend eats a fly. Robert’s embrace of black culture.

“I think it’s well written,” says Stu Kerr of Orlando. “There’s a lot of wit — sarcastic remarks, digs back and forth. The humor is not only ho-ho funny, but you ought to be able to say something and get a smile out of someone. I appreciate good humor, and it doesn’t have to be of the dirty variety.”

Oh, the memories — the way Robert lingers in them, Garrett deserves more money. But once the backstage turmoil starts, the fun and energy can go out of a series. CBS Chairman Les Moonves said last month that he would try to talk Romano and Rosenthal into another season.

“We hope it will continue,” Moonves said. “It very well could be its last year. We’re not going to do the same as certain shows and try to fake you out a couple years in a row before we finally call it the end,” he said, a swipe at Friends. “We’re doing everything we can, but it very well may be the last year for Raymond.”

He also suggested a possible Raymond spinoff without Romano that could showcase “an unbelievable supporting cast.”

Garrett, as Robert, would have been the obvious candidate for such a show, but he has irritated CBS with his salary demands. Executives are probably smarting because the network waged an Emmy campaign for the actor that helped him win a nomination for playing Jackie Gleason in the movie Gleason.

Given recent events, Rosenthal is said “to be even more against a ninth season of the show,” according to Daily Variety.

This will be all too terrible for fans. Kerr of Orlando says he would be disappointed if the show ended. “It’s the equivalent today of Seinfeld,” he says. “It’s the best comedy on the major networks right now.”

TV critics can be fans, too, and I’ll second his view. No other series in my 14 years on the beat has brought such consistent pleasure for the writing, acting and insights. With Raymond, profound sitcom is not an oxymoron.

The most credit must go to Rosenthal and his writers because Raymond can display feeling without turning mawkish. You just want to beg the parties to work it out and make the last year, if that’s what it must be, a fitting end to a terrific show. The Barones have always found a way to work out their troubles; can’t the people who bring them to life do the same?

Roberts said last month that she hopes the sitcom goes 10 seasons. “What is sad is that the show hasn’t even peaked yet,” she said.

But better that it end than fall into some creaky, wispy version of itself. Everybody Loves Raymond might not be the biggest hit or the industry favorite, but it has carried on beautifully in the shadow of other series.

Now it’s out of the shadow of Friends, and bound to receive greater scrutiny, for all the wrong reasons. Comedy fans should realize just how bleak the landscape could be if we lose Friends, Frasier and Raymond after next season — and in that stellar lineup, Raymond will be the most missed. But as with I Love Lucy, we’ll always have reruns.