It has never exactly been cool to like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the smash CBS comedy that began its sixth season on the network and its first in syndication last month. “Raymond” is that object of contempt among professed television sophisticates: a traditional family sitcom. It doesn’t feature vaginal eruptions (“Sex and the City”) or transsexual mothers (“Friends”) or horny twentysomethings leaping in and out of bed (everything else), only a horny fortysomething pleading with his wife for sex. It doesn’t gleefully break television taboos. It isn’t postmodern and self- referential in the “Seinfeld” mold. It isn’t about nothing. In fact, “Raymond” is about everything.
But if “Raymond” gets no respect from the cognoscenti or even from the television industry itself – Patricia Heaton’s well-deserved Emmy last year for lead actress in a comedy series is the only one the show has collected – it has nevertheless attracted a growing audience, peaking at the time in its run when most series find themselves in decline. It is now a top-10 show, the bulwark of CBS’s Monday night schedule at 9 p.m., and its repeats were the top-rated of any series this past summer. “Raymond” is habit-forming. As anyone who regularly watches the show can attest, it is the funniest, the smartest, the wisest, the most affecting and most resonant comedy on television, and the only one, in my estimation, that rates comparison to the classics like “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family” and “Cheers.” In short, it is the sitcom of our times.
To hear it described, though, “Raymond” does sound run-of-the-mill. It stars the former stand-up comedian Ray Romano as Raymond Barone, a sports columnist living with his wife, Debra (Ms. Heaton), his young daughter and twin sons in a house in suburban Long Island. Directly across
the street, in the house in which Raymond grew up, live his parents – his doting mother, Marie (Doris Roberts), who still sees Raymond as her little boy and regards Debra as the enemy, and his wickedly malicious father, Frank (Peter Boyle), who spends virtually all of his time eating, watching TV and insulting his wife, often simultaneously. In the parents’ basement lives Raymond’s towering older brother, Robert (Brad Garrett), a policeman as dour as Eeyore whose main complaint in life is that everybody loves Raymond and not him.
What levitates these elements above the routine is how acutely observed and honest the comedy is. Dealing with the vicissitudes of daily married existence rather than with the vicissitudes of urban mating, “Raymond” frequently seems less written than transcribed from life, which in a sense it is. Like Raymond Barone, Mr. Romano – who spent 12 years in the trenches of stand- up before an appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman,” and Mr. Letterman’s subsequent enthusiasm, led to the series – grew up on Long Island, lived near his parents, has a brother who is a policeman and is father to twin sons. The series’ creator and executive producer, Phil Rosenthal, is another Long Islander whose own parents’ exploits have inspired some of the show’s funniest scenes, including one in which Frank and Marie fear that the Fruit of the Month Club is some strange cult. The collaboration between Mr. Romano and Mr. Rosenthal no doubt accounts for the show’s distinctive Italian-Jewish sensibility. This is one show that never feels generic.
The classic sitcoms all strummed human chords, as “Raymond” does, but they also accomplished something else. They all had a way of capturing the cultural moment as well as the human one – of taking the anxieties of the time, whether they were Ralph Kramden’s anxiety over his social mobility
or Archie Bunker’s over an increasingly pluralistic society or Sam Malone’s over his fading youth in a youth-crazy world, and letting the audience tame those anxieties by laughing at them.
In the same way, “Everybody Loves Raymond” may be the quintessential late-boomer comedy – the one that captures all the niggling little anxieties and absurdities of middle-aged life in the 21st century and transforms them into purgative comedy. “Raymond” has had episodes about the embarrassment of seeing your children held back in school, about the fear that your spouse may have a higher I.Q., about a flagging sex drive and about sexual dissatisfaction, about wanting to feel appreciated, about hating it when your spouse hogs the covers at night, and about the horrors of PMS. And almost every episode is about the continuing tension between husbands and wives and between children and parents, since Frank and Marie practically camp out in Ray’s living room.
Ray himself is the personification of modern boomerism. He is whiny, prevaricating, ineffectual, self- centered and insensitive. “Won’t you just once think like a man?,” he says to Debra as he implores her for sex. She replies: “I am. I’m completely disregarding your feelings.”
Ray never wants to take responsibility. He is always slinking out of the house so that he won’t have to take care of the children, or pointing the finger of blame when he’s been accused of something, as he invariably is. When Debra asks him to forgo his golf game and wait for the U.P.S. man, he fulminates to his bachelor brother about being held hostage, and Robert subsequently decides to break up with his girlfriend. Ray wanly explains to his furious parents and wife, “I was joking!” In effect, Ray is Seinfeld if Jerry had gotten married.
LIKE so many of his fellow boomers, including the Jerry Seinfeld character, Ray is a case of arrested development. As Debra scolds him when he shows signs of cold feet before their wedding, “You’re scared of moving out of your mother’s house and starting an actual life.” Ray is always
poised between his overbearing parents, who do their best to infantilize him, and his commonsensical wife, who demands that he assume responsibility and keep his parents at bay. A good deal of the comedy involves Ray’s delicate negotiations and evasions as he tries to steer his way between the Scylla and Charybdis of his extended family and his nuclear family – between the boy and the man – especially since Ray, like most boomers, wants the benefits of both.
It isn’t easy. Robert’s lament, which gives the program its title, is, from another perspective, Raymond’s lament too. In “I Love Lucy,” off whose title “Raymond” obviously plays, it was only Ricky whom Lucy had to pacify. He was the one who loved Lucy. Since everybody loves Raymond, he
feels that he is at the vortex of pressures and demands, and he pouts about having to satisfy them when all he really wants to do is satisfy his own needs. “Maybe it would help if you looked at it from Debra’s perspective,” the family priest tells Ray when he seeks counsel on why Debra insists on cuddling with him while he sleeps. To which Raymond asks, “Why?”
A typical episode begins with Raymond saying or doing something either juvenile or selfish or both – telling Debra he doesn’t like to be touched or ridiculing Robert for managing to get gored by a bull or getting the twins new roles in the school play because he doesn’t want them playing fairies. More often than not, he supports his untenable position by telling a little lie. Then, usually under the withering glare of Debra, her tongue literally in her cheek and her arms akimbo as she dismantles the ruse, come the recriminations as Raymond flails to defend himself. Then the guilt sets in, and the remorse, but only very occasionally the wisdom. Raymond keeps making the same mistakes again and again, not because the series, out of narrative exhaustion, requires him to – this is no Ross and Rachel or Niles and Daphne – but because the very essence of boomer Raymond is that he has an almost impossible time acknowledging anyone’s needs but his own. Like Lucy, Ralph, Archie, Sam and Jerry, Raymond never learns, though he argues even this away by pointing to his parents and exclaiming: “You know what the amazing thing is? That I can function at all.”
It is in these roundelays of rationalization, recrimination and remorse, with each family member trying to assert the legitimacy of his claim and work the others’ guilt spots, that “Raymond” soars above every other current sitcom. At its best, the convolutions are almost Pinteresque. In last season’s Christmas episode, Ray schemed to get Debra to let him take a golf trip by getting her a better present than she got him. But when Debra got him a DVD player and then, on top of that, readily assented to his golf weekend, Raymond insisted that Debra was just trying to turn the tables on him – to make him feel guilty. “You want not to go to the movies,” he told her when she said she never got a break, “because if you go to the movies, then you never get to say, `I never get to go to the movies.’ ” Debra realized that Raymond might actually be right – that she had been playing a martyr and that she shouldn’t have been. At which point Raymond quickly protested: “About martyrs. A lot of them become saints.”
Yet despite the domestic brinkmanship, “Raymond” never devolves into the mean-spiritedness of, say, “Married With Children” – for the same reason that most real families don’t splinter under the demands of their members. Yes, Raymond may be from Mars and Debra from Venus, and, yes,
Frank and Marie may be from Pluto, but there is something that binds them all – something that is a palpable subtext of the program even when it is at its most caustic. It is simply that, as the title says, everybody loves Raymond . . .. and Debra and Robert and Marie and even sharp-tongued Frank, who seems to delight in being nasty. This is expressed in lovely moments, like the one when Ray and Debra recall their difficult courtship and the camera pulls back to reveal them at their kitchen table, a family now. Or when they recall their wedding and the camera pulls back to show them dancing in place with their children hanging all over them. Or when Frank uncharacteristically lies to protect Debra from Marie’s wrath after Debra insists she doesn’t have Marie’s favorite canister, only to discover that she does. Or when Ray helps nurse a bedridden Robert.
These are the show’s grace notes and its emotional leavening. For all their faults, the Barones are finally redeemed each week by their mutual affection – which may make “Raymond” seem very old-fashioned and uncool, but which also makes it the most truthful and most touching expression of contemporary family life on television.