Ray of Light

Sitcom DVDs tend to wear you down with bad one-liners and obnoxious laugh tracks.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 7, 2005

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Oh, brothers!: Underappreciated Robert (far left) finally gets some family attention in season five.

Everybody Loves Raymond-The Complete Fifth Season
B
Includes: Deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary tracks.
You'll Like It If You Like: TV sitcoms, dysfunctional families, meddling mothers.

 

Sitcoms thrive on hatred, anger and insults. But Everybody Loves Raymond raises the stakes, with a whole family of seething, resentful malcontents. It's as if Jackie Gleason's Ralph on The Honeymooners, already at war with his wife, also had a bitter dad, meddling mom and jealous brother. If Raymond didn't have a laugh track, you wouldn't think it's supposed to be funny.

In fact, Raymond's the true son of The Honeymooners, the unsurpassably bleak TV "comedy" in which frustrated bus driver Ralph joined his acerbic wife Alice in abuse that was mostly verbal but also implicitly physical ("One of these days, Alice ... Pow! Right in the kisser!").

No matter how many times Ralph mouthed, "Baby, you're the greatest!" it felt like TV convention papered over the bottomless bitterness and recriminations of his marriage. Same for the ambiguously titled I Love Lucy, on which love seemed in pretty short supply between the show's Punch-and-Judy leads.

Raymond upholds these sitcom traditions, right down to the ironic title, meant to be heard in the sarcastic voice of Ray's cop brother Robert: "Everybody loves Raymond ... but nobody loves me." (Robert actually says in the pilot: "Everybody loves Raymond. I go to work-people shoot at me. Ray goes to work and people do the wave. Then he sits down, has a hot dog, doodles on a piece of paper and they give him a trophy.")

Robert's desperate search for recognition from his parents, whose world revolves around Ray, highlights one of the fifth season's saddest episodes. In "The Author," policeman Robert learns he passed the test for promotion at the same time sportswriter Ray finds out his publisher doesn't want his new book. "It's the Yankees," deadpans Ray's angry, undermining dad. "How could you screw that up?"

When Robert succeeds and Ray fails, the family doesn't know how to handle it. It's a struggle for them throughout this season, which focuses new attention on the overlooked brother. First he dates three smart, attractive women, but manages to alienate all of them. In another episode he starts dating a 22-year-old (who turns out to be 19) and the family explodes. "I think he should do whatever makes him happy," says his insincere sister-in-law Debra.

"Well, I'm not going to let that happen!" responds his mother Marie.

Ah, Marie. Played by TV veteran Doris Roberts, who won four Emmys in the role, this pushy, narcissistic monster of a mother was the show's lodestar from its first episode, when she scorned Ray's fruit-of-the-month club gift as a "cult." In this fifth season's central episode-"The Wallpaper," which was voted Raymond's third-favorite all-time episode when the show went off the air last year-Ray finally confronts his mother after she drives a car through his living room wall.

"You're intrusive," he tells her. "You never stop. You're always barging in here. You have to know that I'm always this close to saying something!" But of course he hardly ever does, and that's both the source and the limitation of the show's long-running quarrels.

On the one hand Ray's passivity-combined with his father's aggression, his mother's passive aggression and his wife's lust for conflict-makes him a classically put-upon comic hero. "I'm living in a funhouse here!" he cries in the "Wallpaper" episode. "Cars are coming in and wild dogs wandering around and crazy wallpaper! You can only push a man so far!"

At the same time Ray's refusal to do anything conveniently puts the "situation" in "situation comedy." Everything stays the same so that next week we can tune in to another 22 minutes of orchestrated acrimony.

And sure enough, as quickly as "The Wallpaper" opens up the possibility of catharsis, it shuts it back down. In the episode's last lines, always overlooked Robert tries to get in on the family therapy: "If I may," he begins, "I have some issues ... "

"That's enough talk, Robby," Marie snaps at him.

Watching a great TV series on DVD can feel like reading a novel, with characters and conflicts unfolding in real time like part of our lives. But sitcom DVDs often feel exhausting, wearing you down with bad one-liners and obnoxious laugh tracks. Maybe sitcoms are more perishable, meant for bite-size gulps in passing.

The deluxe DVD treatment makes them feel more limited than on TV, like some kind of archaic hybrid of vaudeville and family melodrama. The effect is like Groundhog Day-constantly hitting a reset button and starting up the same arguments and conflicts all over again. You want to tell these people to get some professional help. But then, of course, they wouldn't have a sitcom.


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