Everybody Loves Raymond was a sitcom that ran for nearly ten years from 1996 to 2005 and spans 210 episodes. From the first episode it’s a confident and charming series (despite the 90’s hairstyles and clothes that do no one favors), and only gets funnier as the series hits its stride and lets its characters breathe.
And then, a weird thing happens: even as the series stays as hilarious as ever, it also becomes deeply depressing.
Don’t believe me? Watch all 210 episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and try not to despair at the human condition.
The core premise and dynamic of Everybody Loves Raymond is relatively simple: Raymond is a husband with low-key manchild characteristics married to his long suffering wife Debra. They weather constant intrusions from Raymond’s well meaning but overbearing parents Frank and Marie. Raymond’s strange brother Robert also often shows up to be envious of Raymond’s success in life.
Fun, right? Except, while that’s the dynamic the show starts off with, it’s not one that accurately depicts what’s happening by even the third season in. The relationship between Raymond and Debra fundamentally changes: in the early seasons they’re in it together against his wacky parents, but quickly the show realizes just how well Ray Romano plays frantic and panicked, and soon the plot of most of the episodes become driven by his manchild tendencies and near pathological aversion to conflict and responsibility of any kind.
It’s undeniably funny, but also a deeply depressing portrait of a dysfunctional manchild, and it becomes hard not to despair at the human condition as over 210 episodes we see a man try again and again to grow and change, but invariably backslides and becomes a worse person over a ten year period. It’s depressing
A Laugh Track for Sisyphus
Part of this is a natural outgrowth of sitcom episodic structure, which at its most basic is conflict, then conclusion. In Everybody Loves Raymond, the conflict is often a foible of the character (Ray does something dumb to avoid a sticky situation but only makes the situation worse), that by the end of the episode the character recognizes and vows to change (next time he won’t). Except, this episode arc is repeated again and again and again. And by the fiftieth time this happens, it’s clear that the character won’t ever change.
In the short term there’s nothing wrong with this kind of episode structure of exploring a character’s flaws and using it to drive the comedy, but in the long term it creates a situation where all of Raymond’s character defects can never be fixed, because then there wouldn’t be a show.
Worse, each successive time a defect is brought up it has to be worse and louder and broader than the last to register on screen and get laughs. This endless escalation of buffoonery slowly makes the characters less and less reasonable, and more and more cartoony and wacky.
Character to Caricature
Raymond’s descent into caricature isn’t unique, and something that all the characters suffer from: Debra becomes increasingly insecure, and Raymond’s parents increasingly abusive and overbearing. The cast of Everybody Loves Raymond is made up of genuine comedy heavyweights, and even as the show and their characters go increasingly off the rails they’re able to make the comedy work. But in prioritizing laughs, the series sacrifices character coherence and long term relatability.
Raymond’s father, Frank, is a perfect example of this effect. Frank starts the series a curmudgeonly but enthusiastic old man. He likes to needle his wife Marie, but by as early as the end of season one the friction between him and his wife has turned to full on hate to the point where in Frank’s Tribute (season 3, episode 16) he’s completely emotionally withholding and unable to express any affection to Marie even when she desperately needs it. Late season Frank is funny, but there’s no escaping the underlying hollowness of his existence and relationships.
The Lone Barone
The only character even somewhat immune to the Sisyphuian despair of the series is Raymond’s older brother Robert. He starts the show less a concrete character and more a series of strange quirks: the giant older brother who lives with his parents as an adult and is deeply envious of his younger brother. But as time goes on those quirks coalesce into a coherent personality. It’s one that’s deeply insecure and deformed by trauma, but Robert is also the only character to grow throughout the series. He moves out of his parents house, becomes less emotionally dependent on their approval, and even enters into a stable and healthy marriage.
Even so, there’s still an underlying tragedy to Robert’s character. Even by the end of the series when he’s a stable adult, there’s no denying the fact that he’s still deeply affected, and will never be able to escape, the emotional neglect, abuse, and trauma he suffered as a child. And the reason for that, is that the unacknowledged central theme of Everybody Loves Raymond is cycles of abuse.
Cycles of Abuse
There’s a moment in episode 6 of season 9 (Boys’ Therapy) where Raymond and Robert confront their father Frank about how he was emotionally distant and borderline abusive during the childhood. This is not the first time they’ve had this conversation, but in this particular one Frank reveals that he was beaten by his father. That being physically disciplined was a common thing when he was a child. But that he never did it to Raymond and Robert because he didn’t want to be like his father.
This revelation is treated as something heartwarming, that Frank was a better father to them than his father was to them. But while it’s undeniably better to not hit your kids, Frank still passes on the emotional abuse his father inflicted on him to Raymond and Robert. And that same emotional tough love is passed by Ray to his son, as we see in season 6, episode 8 (It’s Supposed to Be Fun) where his disparaging jokes about his son’s lack of talent discourages him to the point where he no longer wants to play basketball.
Everybody Loves Raymond: Existentialist Despair
The greatest narrative dissonance the series has to offer is in it’s final episode, where in the last shot of the episode the family laugh and argue as they pack around the dining room table. It’s an attempt to retcon the previous nine seasons, to portray the Barone clan as rambunctious but loveable.
But it’s an ending that rings entirely hollow. Everybody Loves Raymond isn’t the story of a lovable family: it’s a story of insecurity and people stuck in loops of dysfunction who can never become better. In the end the ending had to be manufactured whole cloth, almost as though ripped straight from a different show, because the truth of Everybody Loves Raymond is so much darker and more depressing than a sitcom is allowed to acknowledge.
Photo Credit: IMDB