On "She's the One," a recent episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Robert Barone brings his new girlfriend, Angela, to dinner with his brother, Ray, and his sister-in-law, Debra. Angela initially impresses the couple, but then, as Ray looks on, she eats a fly. Ray conveys the news to Robert, who dismisses it as a lie designed to sink his relationship. He and Angela then split for her house, where—surrounded by terrariums and caged frogs—Robert at last concludes that Ray did indeed see what he saw: The good girlfriend is no good. At this news, later that night, their mother shrieks: "You're torturing me! You're into your 40s—and you still you can't settle down! For God's sake, do you want to die alone?"
If what you want from prime-time TV is a portrait of a fraught family, you might take a closer look at the seemingly innocuous down-market hit Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS, Monday, 9 p.m. ET). Raymond's Long Island kin—nestled in clutter, tight-knit—are intractably messed up. Let's spell it out: Ray (Ray Romano) and Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton) don't have sex, find one another boring, and have nothing to talk about but their three children, whom they keep locked away. The Barones' lives are invaded, and stymied, by Ray's rancorous parents, Frank (Peter Boyle) and Marie (Doris Roberts), who live across the street. And they must from time to time entertain the morose bozo Robert (Brad Garrett), whom, though he's openly scorned by his parents, they insist on kicking around, too.
In seven seasons, Everybody Loves Raymond has had some great episodes. I really liked last season's "It's Supposed To Be Fun," in which Ray is forced to pretend, for the sake of his pansy son and an equal-opportunity coach, that winning is not the point of basketball. More recently, on "The Garage Sale," Peter Boyle got to act up as Frank, who aggressively sold off the family's castoffs at larcenous prices, acting on the theory that "eye appeal is buy appeal."
But the show also freaks me out. The exquisite actress Doris Roberts, darling of the Emmys, is almost too good. Her Marie is less a manageable caricature than a genuinely suffocating villianess; when she dominates a scene and her family, as she does when she excoriates Robert for his loneliness on "She's the One," she's vicious. In flowered blouses and dresses, she clashes with the already incoherent sets. These houses—gaudily middle-class—are plaid and striped, tiled, crammed with all manner of fruit bowls, spice jars, fridge magnets, holiday knickknacks, dirty flowerpots, kitschy autumnal landscape paintings, elaborate window treatments, and big Fisher-Price toys in primary colors. (No wonder Frank's catch phrase is "Holy crap.") At the first glimpse of the sets, you begin to feel boxed in. When Marie makes her hysterical entrance, it's hard not to squirm.
All in the Family worked somewhat like this, and that show used to frighten me, too. Jean Stapleton and Sally Struthers both acted like they were on the brink of nervous breakdowns, and no one seemed to be looking out for them. But there Archie's and Meathead's robust politics suggested an outside deluge—of riots, war, black people—against which their Queens family was a last bulwark. On the island of Everybody Loves Raymond, the subject of the outside world—of mainland America in one direction and Europe and beyond in the other—rarely enters the conversation. Seinfeld-scale problems, some with a Catholic spin, plague the Barones—things like cramped bathrooms, churchgoing, the question of whether to call one's mother-in-law "Mom"—but the stasis they return to is less a holdout than a trap. The family debates fine points of conduct, but never ideology; the Barones' horizons seem awfully close, the ceilings very, very low.
In these cramped quarters, Robert, the gloomy cop, cycles through obsessive rituals—chin-tapping, most obviously—to placate himself. Marie and Frank openly wish for each other's deaths. Debra periodically makes efforts to get a job, but she's foiled by Ray, who once botched her effort to write a children's book and more recently voted against her in an election for school board president. When asked to list his own goals, the sportswriter Ray can't come up with any. As he puts it, "I got nothing; I got nodreams." No problem, says Debra—that means you're happy.
That, in short, is the insistent moral of Everybody Loves Raymond. The studio audience, composed of maniacal laughers, heaves a long "Awww" every time it's revealed. Of course, no sitcom can exist without a major chord to which to return—a status quo—but this one is unnaturally enervating. I guess it's supposed to keep a person on the couch, remind him or her of home—no progress, no forward motion, no dreams. "We've never had arcs or yearlong plots," Ray Romano has explained about the show. "It's the usual crap that drives you crazy about your family."
The usual crap—it drives you crazy—and everybody, almost, loves it.