For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
The multi-camera sitcom is over. If it had anything new to say, that “anything new” was exhausted sometime around when Seinfeld and NewsRadio went off the air, and the format has since become a vehicle for increasingly crass Chuck Lorre sitcoms or the Disney Channel kid-coms younger generations enjoy. The multi-camera sitcoms of the last few years have aimed less for greatness and more for competency. Where shows like All In The Family or Cheers pushed television forward and reflected what the nation was going through, today’s multi-camera sitcoms seem more interested in creating safe spaces where nothing of consequence ever happens.
People have said this before, most notably in the early ’80s, before the debut of The Cosby Show. And it’s foolhardy to write off a whole form that hastily. But the gap between the heyday of Seinfeld and Friends and the present grows ever wider, and the talented comedy writers who have skill sets that would translate well to the multi-camera format—the Dan Harmons and Tina Feys of the world—are all drawn more to single-camera comedy, to say nothing of network suits and critics, who both have a bias toward the more movie-like single-camera shows.
If the multi-camera comedy—the live-studio-audience comedy, the laugh-track comedy, the “more like a play than a movie” comedy—is dead, then the last truly great example of the form is a show despised by many, in large part because of the many shows that tried to clone it. CBS’ long-lived Everybody Loves Raymond ran for nine seasons and 210 episodes, all based on one of the most low-concept premises imaginable. Abandoned on Fridays, a night where it seemed likely to die at the start of its run, the show found a cult following and moved to Mondays, where audiences gradually turned it into a top 10 hit. And it accomplished all of this with one of the most mean-spirited central ideas in TV history.
Everybody Loves Raymond is one of the most psychologically rich traditional sitcoms in television history. Its characters love each other, but it’s not hard to believe that all of them should move to separate continents to stop driving each other up the wall. Created by Phil Rosenthal and series star Ray Romano and based on Romano’s stand-up, the series’ premise is as old as sitcoms themselves: A husband (Romano) and a wife (Patricia Heaton) struggle to raise a family and deal with the pressures of life without wanting to kill each other. Raymond compounds the conflict by placing Ray’s parents within the show—played by Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle—across the street, ready to barge into the lives of their son and his wife at a moment’s notice.
That’s pretty much it. The series drew heavily from Romano’s stand-up in the early going, but Rosenthal soon led his writers’ room toward telling stories that were essentially about their own marriages. When most other shows were going bigger and bigger, telling more and more farcical stories, Raymond got smaller, creating stories based around the central couple arguing about who was going to unpack a suitcase or a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law arguing over kitchen implements.
Rosenthal also bucked the then-popular trend of cramming the show with storylines, a trend prompted by the success of Seinfeld, which placed four storylines—one for each character—in nearly every episode. Friends told at least three stories and sometimes six. Arrested Development, a show that would pop up toward the end of Raymond’s run, would sometimes attempt nine stories within its running time, often spreading them over multiple episodes. Indeed, the trend since the ’70s had been toward more and more stories, even as the running time of sitcom episodes grew shorter.
Raymond deliberately returns to the formats of the sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, focusing on one main storyline that involves all of the characters and allows each to comment on the action. A minor event—say, Ray’s daughter asking him about God—will spiral outward, until the entire family is examining why it isn’t more religious. If a storyline is about Ray’s brother Robert (Brad Garrett) or one of the parents, Ray won’t be shoehorned into it where he doesn’t belong, essentially becoming a supporting character for that half-hour, before returning to the show’s forefront in the next episode. This gives the show a deliberately classic feel, which Rosenthal enhanced by stripping out as many contemporary references as he could. When other shows were straining to cram their episodes as full of incident as possible, Raymond was giving its jokes room to breathe.
Looking back on Raymond now, it’s often surprising to realize just how underground the show felt in its early days. Critics Bruce Fretts and Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly, two of the show’s early champions, would list Raymond alongside NewsRadio as one of TV’s least-watched, least-appreciated comedies, and both boosted the show on top 10 lists and faux-Emmy ballots. Critics for other publications began to follow suit, and soon the show was one of those cool ones that the critics and a cult audience have recognized, but the Emmys and larger public haven’t yet. (Indeed, the Emmys basically ignored the show for its first two seasons.) Now, Raymond is seen as the first in a long wave of sitcoms about whiny husbands with much more attractive wives who probably should have divorced them long ago, set in blue-collar milieus. At the time, however, the show’s bracing portrait of a family so close that love and hate intermingled was seen as a fresh point of view in a stale genre.
Unlike with Fretts and Tucker’s other favorite, NBC’s NewsRadio, CBS seemed to realize what it had in Raymond. Toward the end of the show’s first season, the network moved the show after the still-powerful Murphy Brown, and it began to climb through the ranks of the Nielsen ratings. Ranked 82nd in its first season, the show reached its peak in its sixth (and best) season, hitting No. 4 on the Nielsen charts for the 2001-02 season. When Raymond left the air at the end of season nine, it did so as a top 10 hit and the biggest comedy on TV, with shoes that heir Two And A Half Men ultimately couldn’t quite fill.
Not one of Raymond’s clones—except, possibly, for King Of Queens, another show that ran 200-plus episodes—captured what made Raymond work so well, that devotion to the idea that these people love each other on some base level but allow that love to be covered up by petty hatreds. Other shows forced the happy endings at the end of an episode filled with bitter spousal fighting, but those endings feel earned on Raymond. The marriage of Ray and wife Debra is built on love, yes, but also on emotional trench warfare, and each battle proves that both parties can be just as petty, shallow, and vindictive as the other.
Really, that’s the show’s greatest feat: It takes a genre that seems hidebound by the idea that the stupid husband has to be cleaned up after by the smart, long-suffering wife and makes both partners complete idiots when it comes to conflict resolution. When combined with the constant invasion of privacy from Ray’s parents or the fact that Robert holds long-simmering grudges against his younger brother, Raymond inadvertently portrays the way that conflicts within a family can be subsumed by love but also so calcified that little ground is broken. Raymond takes one of the iron-clad rules of TV—nothing can ever change too much—and makes it a virtue by suggesting that the fact nothing coan ever change is a sort of tragedy.
The series also isn’t afraid to delve deeper and deeper into the psychologies of the characters. Ray is often a blithe idiot because the world hands him things on a silver platter, while Robert had to work for everything he has and resents his brother immensely, before softening slightly once he has a family of his own. Peter Boyle’s Frank has real dimensions beyond being the grumpy father neither son can approach. A late episode reveals that he considers his greatest act of love the fact that he refrained from beating either of his sons as children, as his father had beaten him. And Doris Roberts’ Marie, though often hysterical in all senses of the word, is taken seriously as an older woman who’s found herself stifled by an unfulfilling life and pours everything into her children and other outlets.
In short, the world of Raymond has a history, a shared sitcom mythology that makes all of its character interactions, all of its cruelty, and all of its mean-spiritedness make sense. These people love each other because no one else could, because their dysfunction binds them together in a way that makes more sense than it did on, say, Still Standing, since that dysfunction is multi-generational. It’s a pit that can’t be escaped, only gradually filled in.
Next: St. Elsewhere