Monday, May 09, 2005

Why I Sort of Still Love Raymond

I don't usually go out of my way to watch Everybody Loves Raymond. I enjoy it when I see it -- and it's in syndication approximately 25.7 hours of the day, so I can't help seeing it sometimes -- but I don't have a clear sense of which season is which, or how the show has developed, or which are the best and worst episodes. Still, I appreciate what the show brought to TV, or more specifically, what it brought back to TV.

Premiering at a time when most sitcoms were striving to imitate Seinfeld, its fast pace and its urban sensibility, Everybody Loves Raymond was a deliberate stylistic throwback to earlier shows, like The Honeymooners or All in the Family. At a time when sitcoms were getting faster and faster, with many short scenes in the Seinfeld style, Raymond told its stories in the old theatre-based sitcom style, with long scenes, few sets, and a deliberately theatrical style, with long pauses and a lot of playing off the audience, "riding" the audience laughter with double-takes and stares designed to make the studio audience laugh louder and longer. At a time when sitcoms were getting heavy with B stories, Raymond returned to the pre-1980s style of having only one story per episode, with all the main characters reacting to the main problem of the week instead of going off on their own story tangents. This is a throwback to the earliest form of the TV and radio sitcom: the sitcom as miniature stage play.

What's a bit surprising is that this style hasn't had more imitators. In particular, now that sitcoms' running times have been slashed to something like 20 minutes to fit in more commercials, it would seem sensible to go back to having just one story a week, instead of trying to write a "B" story in shows that barely have room for an "A" story. And some of the problems that sitcom casts have today, like the poor interaction of many of these casts (if you look at Raymond's inferior replacement Two and a Half Men, a key problem is that the performers hardly seem to react to each other's words or movements in a plausible way; they're in the same script, but on different wavelengths), might be helped by slowing down the pace a little and allowing for more reaction time. Instead, those who would save the sitcom keep going off into mockumentaries and quirk-coms and dramedies and other things that never seem to become hits (I love Arrested Development, but it will never be a hit), and the only signs of the influence of Raymond have been a bunch of loudmouthed domestic comedies that try to ape Raymond's subject-matter but not its retro style.

So, yeah, almost every episode of Raymond is what Roger Ebert called the "idiot plot," the idiot in this case being Ray: most problems could be averted if he'd just keep his big mouth shut. But it's the last old-school sitcom, and I'm sad to see it go, since it has no obvious replacement.

Joe Rogan, who got a part on NewsRadio after Ray Romano was fired from the pilot, did an interview a few years ago where he did a good job of summing up the reasons for Romano's success:

The show is great, and in my opinion it's added new life to the traditional sitcom genre.

People always have it in their head that there's a trend, that this is in and this is out. And for a while it was being bandied around that the traditional sitcom was dead, that people were tired of it. But what they were really tired of was shitty shows. What people like are things to laugh at. Funny shows. It's all in the execution, the writing and the characters, not the setting. And the writing and the execution and the characters are GREAT on [Everybody Loves Raymond].

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