Sitcoms and the Antagonist

Thanks to Netflix I’ve seen most episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” more than once. Genuinely funny, the show is a sitcom classic. It’s also uncomfortable and downright annoying. Ray’s appeasement goes too far; Debra’s subsequent disgust with him leads to a level of mean no wife should ever feel. Her “idiot” line is as signature as Frank’s “holy crap”. Eventually the ugly wins out over the funny and I stop watching.

But the degeneration of “Raymond” did start me thinking.

Why would a sitcom supposedly about a loving married couple beset by in-law interference become a hate fest around the husband? Here’s my answer.

What makes a show funny? The first season of “Raymond” is about how horrible Marie and Frank are. If Ray wobbles, it’s because his parents screwed him up. If Debra wrinkles her nose at Ray, it includes a recognition that his weakness is all his folks’ fault. Frank and Marie are our antagonists.

The show is funny because we recognize the antagonists as our own parents or in-laws, certainly. That kind of comedy is relatively easy. The genius of “Raymond” is that we also recognize Ray’s response to his parents. He goes farther into degradation than any of us in real life would, but we see the path and we realize how often we’ve stood at the head of it and contemplated walking down it. Truth, taken to extreme, is comedy. Our superiority — I would never behave as Ray does! — keeps us feeling cozy about the show. This is a winning formula.

The apex of this comedic style hits in Season 2 with “Marie’s Meatballs”. Here’s a refresher synopsis:

Marie agrees to teach Debra the secret to her delicious meatballs. It’s “the love”. After a detailed cooking lesson, Debra has Ray test the meatballs she’s made. They’re not good, and Debra feels like a failure. Eventually her suspicions are aroused and she inspects Marie’s ingredients. Tarragon has been ingeniously relabeled as basil. In a wild-eyed moment Debra yells at a doubting Ray, “Who’s the crazy one now?”

We see the exaggerated versions of ourselves in Debra’s paranoid accusations against Marie and Ray’s willingness to take his mama’s side over his wife’s. When the plot twist reveals that Marie really is the horrible, manipulative antagonist we suspected, we laugh our heads off. Debra was right after all. Ray was wrong, but that’s all right. Who could have believed Marie was so perverse? Great comedy has been achieved.

And then something happens to the writing in Season 3. The show is successful, the comedy is top drawer. Why change? The answer to that question is having tea somewhere with Sasquatch. All we know is that Ray becomes less likable.

For example, Season 3’s “Pants on Fire”:

Marie learns that Ray held a wild high school party in her house one night when she was out. This reveals a side of her precious Raymond that Marie can’t resolve, so she gives Ray the silent treatment. For a while Ray seems to enjoy the prestige of no longer being a mama’s boy, but eventually the tension pulls him back. When Marie thinks that Robert was the instigator, Ray grabs at the chance to slough the blame off on the family’s favorite scapegoat and to get back into Marie’s good graces.

We are forced to look at a Ray who is revolting. The birthday kiss planted on his forehead by Marie, the craven eating of cake — ugh. Make no mistake: the show expects us to feel this way about Ray. We are supposed to despise him at this moment. All the tools of film making point in this direction. Strange decision, says my first reaction, but quite deliberate.

By Season 5 we have such as “Pet Cemetery”. Ray inadvertently kills Ally’s hamster, tries to trick her into accepting a new hamster as Pumpernickel, and balks at giving the pet a funeral.  Ray isn’t particularly revolting in this one, but he’s the episode’s problem. Frank and Marie, our former troublemakers, are peripherally supportive of Ally. Ray is the one who has to change; Ray is the one holding up the parade.

Season 6 has “Raybert”: Ray’s column-writing fame and Robert’s singleness combine to make one superhero bachelor who can date a hawt chick in Robert’s apartment building. Ray knows he’s deceiving his wife, he knows he’s behaving immorally, and he continues on. Ray is, quite frankly, a creep.

And on into Season 9, the last one. Robert’s character is highly developed over this time, with marriage to Amy eventually happening. Ray has some nice moments. Mostly, though, the episodes are about how Ray screws something up or ditches responsibility or just acts like a child. Frank and Marie are still horrible, but as their characters develop we feel more sympathy for them. “Raymond” has many scenes that take place in bed. By the end of the show if we see Ray and Debra in bed we know it won’t be a loving scene. (Usually it will involve a joke about Ray’s lacking sex life.) Any bed scene between Marie and Frank tends to be tender, almost romantic. Marie in nighttime face cream seems the furthest from a heart-touching moment, yet there it is.

Even in an episode with Ray being good (such as Season 8’s “Home from School”), he is still always the problem. Ray, it turns out, has become the antagonist.

A show that began with the in-law antagonists as its format has become a show with Ray as the one who must be defeated or, at the minimum, changed.

So, two points. One, what kind of show decides to switch its format like this? The in-laws as antagonist was a working, funny formula. However, “Raymond” ran for nine seasons. Clearly the new format worked well, too. I still wonder “why?”, though.

Two, is the antagonist a necessary element in a successful sitcom? And, more importantly, is the hero of the show required to be that antagonist? I think of the great sitcom, “I Love Lucy”. Lucy is the problem in each and every episode. No greater antagonist in comedy may exist than Lucy. Can we use this information to make a comedy rule?

I intend to look at more sitcoms, using this question as a starting point. If the hero should be the antagonist in a great comedy show, then the question of why “Raymond” switched may be answered. The writers might have tapped into an eternal truth. Good for them and congratulations on their success.

But did they have to make Ray so very repugnant?

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