Monday, May 16, 2005

Barone Family Values

I've loved sitcoms ever since I was a kid and as an adult have come to appreciate them as a classic art form--the 22-minute comic playlet featuring a limited and familiar cast who must interact in ways that precisely reflect their well-defined characters yet offer the pleasure of surprising and funny variation, culminating in a fresh, unexpected, yet satisfying resolution. The best sitcoms, from The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Odd Couple to Fawlty Towers and Seinfeld are worth watching over and over; hence their enduring popularity in syndication. (By contrast, no one really wants to watch old episodes of L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues for the fifth or sixth time, do they?)

Tonight Everybody Loves Raymond breathed its last. Although I wouldn't rank this series in the sitcom empyrean with shows like the ones I listed above, I give it a creditable place in the second tier, alongside Cheers, Frasier, M*A*S*H, Taxi, and the like.

What's most notable about Raymond is how realistically vicious its family atmosphere is, as well captured in this piece on Salon. As author Heather Havrilesky puts it, Raymond's world is

populated by characters who, due to their very natures, absolutely torture each other. When they're not manipulating, wheedling, lying, teasing, undermining or openly criticizing, they're sitting on the couch facing the television, trying like hell to turn down the volume on the absurdly myopic humans around them. In other words, they're just like family.

Having experienced moments of this kind of family life (like plenty of other Americans), I've felt many a shudder of recognition during the more appalling moments on Raymond, and I've been impressed by the willingness of the show's writers and actors to depict everyday cruelty with such unsparing accuracy. As they used to say about Seinfeld, this is a sitcom that foregos group hugs and heart-warming life lessons, thank God.

Obviously not all families are swamps of unresolved hostility, bitterness, resentment, and depression. But plenty are. That's why Mary-Jo will always have work at the friendly neighborhood psychiatric hospital. It's also why Everybody Loves Raymond has been a hit--not just because it's funny (which it is), but because the characters and their interactions are so recognizable.

Which is yet another reason why that horrible phrase "family values" gives me the willies. There's nothing inherently healthy or moral in family life or in the psychological and emotional pressures exerted by spouses on one another, by parents on children, by siblings among themselves, and by everyone on the in-laws. Hopefully someday a nation that faithfully tuned in to Raymond will be grown-up enough to recognize the sentimental hypocrisy in political appeals to "family values" and stop letting itself be manipulated by them.

P.S. Unfortunately the final episode of Raymond turned out to be warm and mushy in exactly the way the series usually managed to avoid--and therefore not very funny. There's still no competition for Newhart in the category of "Most Brilliant Final Episode of a Sitcom."
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