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Everybody Loves Raymond deserves to be remembered as a TV classic

The CBS series, which has just turned 20, dug far deeper than most sitcoms. Seriously!

Everybody Loves Raymond
The cast of Everybody Loves Raymond was a big part of why it was so good.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you are a TV fan with an opinion on Everybody Loves Raymond, the classic family sitcom that ran on CBS from 1996 to 2005, then that opinion likely tilts a bit negative. (Though, let’s face it, the odds are good you don’t have any opinion whatsoever.)

At a time when the TV comedy was increasingly embracing more cinematic forms and leaving the sound of live studio audience laughter behind, the stage-bound, audience laughter–enabled Raymond could feel a bit like a relic.

Its performances were broad, sometimes overly so. Its characters could seem spiteful for the sake of seeming spiteful. And it was set in that weird TV netherworld where every problem boils down to the same handful of characters fretting endlessly about it.

The most common refutation of Raymond’s charms ran something like this: "Oh, they’re always so angry and bitter toward each other. I hate that!"

And from watching just an episode or two, it’s easy to see how one would arrive at that impression. This is a show, after all, with lots of yelling and shrieking, with characters chewing each other out for no real reason.

But as the show turns 20, I wanted to put in a defense of the program, which I legitimately love. Everybody Loves Raymond isn’t just the last gasp of a dying TV genre or a bitter swan song for the traditional family sitcom. No, it’s a legitimately great TV show — and one of the most psychologically astute programs ever made.

Here are five reasons why.

1) The characters aren’t just well-drawn. Their relationships are as well.

Everybody Loves Raymond
The marriage between Ray and Debra felt surprisingly fresh when the show debuted.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

One of the smartest things I’ve read about TV comedy writing came from Emmy-winning writer Ken Levine’s blog. (Levine is most famous for his work on M*A*S*H and Cheers, but his list of credits touches on dozens of critically beloved TV comedies.) Yes, funny situations are important, he said, but more important are funny, unique relationships.

This is why, say, the family sitcom never seems to run out of juice. For as many times as you see a husband and wife squaring off, or a mom and dad trying to wrangle their kids, or siblings screaming at each other, there are also a seemingly infinite number of permutations of those basic dynamics, simply because everybody who creates a family sitcom will have a slightly different take on how families operate, based on their own lives.

Raymond was created by series star Ray Romano and sitcom vet Phil Rosenthal, and the two drew much of their material from Romano’s standup comedy. As such, the relationships are crystal clear, even from the earliest episodes.

Ray’s wife Debra (Patricia Heaton) squabbles with him, sure, but the biggest source of their conflict is that his parents live right across the street, and he’s forever trapped between the roles of husband and son, sometimes within the same scene. Or take Ray’s relationship to his older brother, Robert (Brad Garrett), whose constant, burning envy of his younger sibling has curdled in adulthood into a psychological complex.

There were a lot of shows that copied Raymond in hopes of getting a small sliver of its success, but they missed the specificity with which the series drew its relationships from the very first episode. They also missed the way those relationships kept the show’s focus laser-sharp.

2) Raymond started small — and stayed small

Everybody Loves Raymond
Even the series finale, pictured here, was a very small-scale story.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Most modern sitcoms are constructed of an A-story, which takes up the bulk of the action, and then a B-story and C-story. (The amount of time they take up in the episode decreases the further down the alphabet you go.) The pinnacle of this approach was 2003’s Arrested Development, which spun nine different stories in nearly every episode — one for every member of the Bluth family.

But Romano and Rosenthal wanted to deliberately cut against the trend of splintering the story into smaller and smaller pieces, which was trendy at the time of Raymond’s launch, thanks to Seinfeld. So Raymond has no B- or C-stories. It just has the A-story, and all of the series’ characters weave in and out of that story over the course of an episode.

"We happened to have a show where the family, the entire cast, lives in close proximity to each other, and they can all relate to the A-story," Rosenthal told me in an interview at June’s Austin TV Festival. "If a story is worth telling at all, we’re going to make it worth telling for the 22 minutes that we have. We don’t need to take time away to service characters in an almost obligatory or phony way. It weakens the episode."

If the stories had huge dramatic stakes, that might feel forced. But the stories on Raymond are deliberately low-stakes stuff that feels like it has high stakes — or, put another way, the stuff of endless family arguments that feel like they’re never going to end. Ray and his family squabble over the most mundane things, and even though you know they love each other deep down, the way those dumb arguments grow to encompass everybody onscreen feels a little like a magic trick every week.

"Robert can weigh in with his opinion. [Parents] Marie and Frank can weigh in with their opinion. So the whole show is therefore structurally supported by the writing and the characters," Rosenthal told me. "That was a very conscious decision to add weight and depth to the typical sitcom structure."

3) The cast is perfection

Everybody Loves Raymond
Especially Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts.

Nobody would have called Romano the world’s greatest actor at the start of Everybody Loves Raymond. He was often stiff and uneasy in front of the camera. But, like most standup comedians, he had a natural gift for performing in front of an audience, and he quickly warmed to the task.

"While we were casting, I got a phone call, and Scott Baio was on the phone. He said, ‘I understand you’re casting a show called Everybody Loves Raymond. I’m interested in the part of Raymond,’" Rosenthal says with a laugh. "I said, ‘Scott, that’s very nice of you. I actually already have a Raymond.’ But I would tell Raymond, ‘You better be good, because I have Scott Baio waiting.’"

It certainly didn’t hurt that Romano surrounded himself with enormously gifted performers. Heaton had spent much of the early ’90s bouncing among shows where she was the best part of a flailing enterprise, while Garrett, with his huge frame and deep, deep voice, was a presence unlike anything else in TV comedy.

But the show’s secret weapons lay in Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts as Ray’s parents, Frank and Marie. Roberts’s overenthusiastic love — she mothered her younger son like a small child who’s found a caterpillar and squeezes it so tightly it’s smushed — found its perfect counterpoint in Boyle’s lassez-faire attitude toward raising his boys.

But, of course, the longer the series went on, the more complexity those portrayals found.

4) The show brought a surprising amount of psychological depth to its characters

Everybody Loves Raymond
And was rewarded with Emmys for its troubles.
Jeffrey Mayer/Getty Images

For such a traditional sitcom, Raymond was intent on drilling down into its characters’ psyches and finding out why they were the way they were. It was a comedy, yes, with punchlines and setups and the like, but it had the feel of a really good stage comedy, one where the laughs are there to mask some degree of pain.

Ray and Robert lived forever with the knowledge that their upbringing had steered the rapids of their parents’ sometimes rocky marriage. Debra had to watch as her own parents’ seemingly perfect relationship — at least compared to her in-laws’ relationship — fell apart. Marie’s overcompensation slowly peeled back to reveal how neglected she was in her marriage and how unfulfilled she felt as a housewife.

It was Frank, though, for whom the show saved its biggest and best revelations. Usually sitting off to the side and spouting acidic insults and quips, Frank had a genuine love for his wife and sons that was never in question, but he always felt distant.

And yet in later seasons, the show featured several perfect, tiny moments — which Boyle played with just the right restraint — in which Frank explained that his own childhood had been filled with abuse, and he had vowed to never do the same to his own children.

It was the kind of character moment only longform television can really deliver on, where a character’s actions for an entire series are suddenly thrown into sharp relief by something said toward the very end. And here it was on Everybody Loves Raymond, of all places.

5) The show changed — but not too much

Everybody Loves Raymond
Portrait of the sitcom as a series of squabbles.

Robert eventually married his on-again, off-again girlfriend Amy (Monica Horan). Ray and Debra’s three kids grew up. Frank and Marie thought about moving into a retirement village. Things shifted, but glacially.

Television is often seen as somehow more "realistic" because its characters can go on long-term journeys, from point A to point Z and back again. A character can start in one place and become something completely different by the series finale, and you’ll never once question any step of that journey.

But that’s not really realistic, is it? Yes, we have changes in our lives, but by and large, we spend those lives surrounded by the same people, often in the same jobs, for year after year after year.

The circumstances of our lives remain the same, and we remain the same, but when we look back at, say, a decade of our lives, it still feels like we’ve gone on a great journey.

This, above all else, was Everybody Loves Raymond’s gift. In its non-event of a series finale — an episode that perfectly captures the divide between gratefulness for a life filled with family and love and the sheer mundanity of that life — the show never pushed too hard to make a point other than, "Life is hard. You might as well have people you enjoy in it."

That is, ultimately, the message of most great traditional sitcoms. The characters might despise each other in the moment, but beneath that is some great undercurrent of love and respect. And these shows remain so popular — Raymond continues in cable reruns to this day — because we hope, deeply, that in our own lives, we might find people like that too.

Everybody Loves Raymond isn’t streaming anywhere right now, but it’s available on DVD and for digital download. Or you can turn on your TV and find it in reruns somewhere, most likely.

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