Why Everybody Loves Raymond Still Has the Best Vacation Episode of Any Sitcom

As the sun continues blazing outside during yet another humid summer in New York City, it seems like a great time to tackle another sitcom trope of sorts: the vacation episode. From tropical destinations to ABC sitcoms’ “rite of passage” Walt Disney World episodes, nearly every sitcom has at least one major episode (often divided into two parts) centered on a special getaway. As with any trope, the results vary. Some are cheesy and lighthearted and others revolve around dramatic cliffhangers. Then there are ones where, well, let’s just say it’s incredibly obvious when a vacation episode is not actually filmed at the destination in question.

So, what makes a vacation episode of a sitcom great? First of all, as is true for any stand out episode, it must stay true to the main characters’ personalities even if the setting and overall plot differ from the norm. Ideally, the episode should also make viewers feel like they’re along for the ride. Sitcoms are often comforting and escapist in nature, so these feelings shouldn’t diminish just because the characters are off on a trip; if anything, they should heighten. Specifically, if I’m watching some of my favorite characters visit a new place, I want to feel like I’m genuinely learning something about what makes that location particularly special and worth visiting.

With all this in mind, it quickly became obvious to me that there was a clear winner for my personal favorite vacation episode that’s all at once funny, heartwarming, memorable, and perfectly encapsulates the place where the episode takes place.

Sitcom Study: Everybody Loves Raymond’s “Italy” (5×01 and 5×02)

Relevant Episode Information: When Marie surprises the entire family with a trip to Italy, Ray is the only one not excited.

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source: Wikipedia

I have previously written about my love and appreciation for Everybody Loves Raymond. As funny and quotable as it remains even in reruns, I’ve always felt that the series has never quite received the credit it deserves for how it expertly handles deeper themes such as struggling with parents divorcing while being an adult and pondering the meaning of life. In “Italy”, season five’s two-part season premiere (which, yes, was actually filmed there), the show tackles another important topic beautifully: how rewarding it is to immerse oneself in another culture.

The episode follows the Barones as they take a special two-week long vacation to Italy. Marie, Frank, Debra, and Robert are thrilled and quickly embrace the trip. Ray? Not so much. He comments to Debra how he’s “not really interested in other cultures” and spends a great deal of the trip finding the worst in anything and everything: air conditioning in a van, the size of their room, his sinuses, and even the quality of napkins.

In the midst of driving everyone (well, mainly Debra and himself) crazy with his cynicism, he agrees to take a walk with his mother Marie; during the stroll, he interacts more with locals, starts to really notice Italy’s natural beauty, and has what he describes as “the best pizza [he’s] ever had.” At last, everything becomes clear to him (metaphorically of course—but, as a nice symbolic nod, his sinuses also begin to clear up as he starts thinking with more clarity and positivity). As he finally comes to appreciate the wonders of Italy (and travel itself), he in turn becomes more romantic, thoughtful, and generous; it’s a beautiful parable about how enlightening it can be to fully immerse oneself in another way of life.

Toward the end of the episode, he says to Debra: “…there’s something about this place. Do you get that? There’s like a feeling here. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s more simple. The way the whole place shuts down in the middle of the day, so the people can just, you know, enjoy the day. It’s like they know how to live here.”

No matter how many times I’ve watched this episode, Ray’s words always strike me. I’ll even freely admit that I’ve quoted that last line more times than I can count when describing my own experience in Italy—because Ray is right. Italy is one of those special places where enjoying life (and each other) truly seems to take precedence; visiting there was nothing short of incredible, forever cementing the sense of pride I have in being half-Italian.

As mentioned earlier, most classic sitcoms feature at least one notable trip, but very few attempt to unpack why so many people throughout the world are captivated by wanderlust and truly come to fall in love with travel. Sure, somewhere like Italy (as well as countless other popular tourist destinations) has delicious food and famous architecture. But, as Everybody Loves Raymond astutely highlights, that’s ultimately not what is most important about travel. Instead, it’s the joy of the journey itself: the people, the customs, and the lessons learned.

And if a vacation you have been on has provided you with that same type of incredible to find yet nearly impossible to fully describe “aha” moment as it did for Ray (and me), then you already know what you can hope to expect from your next trip, and the one after that.

Until then, there’s always the virtual getaway to Italy with the Barones.

 

 

 

 

 

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Seinfeld: Making it Happen (Or, Well, The Opposite)

George Costanza has always been my favorite Seinfeld character. The George-centric episodes have consistently been my favorite, I recognize Festivus each year, and once had the infamous “Believe it or not, George isn’t at home…” tune as my ringtone (though it probably would’ve worked better as my outgoing message). In other words, it was inevitable that my first Seinfeld post would revolve heavily around him.

Still, I have to briefly touch upon Seinfeld itself first. There are a few key points that usually come up when discussing or analyzing the series. First, there’s the fact that the sitcom has found its way into the American lexicon in a way that, arguably, no other one has. Then, there’s the discussion of how Seinfeld has come to be nicknamed “the show about nothing” (though Jerry himself would say it’s more about “how a comedian gets his material”, while the idea of it being about “nothing” is just a joke). Of course, let’s also not forget the series’ infamous “no hugging, no learning” rule (aka no positive growth for the primary four characters).

Aside from this, I find it fascinating how, for all the show’s relatability in so much as it frequently tackles everyday occurrences, no one ever seems to want to admit to actually identifying with the characters themselves. With Friends, the conversation is very much people debating whether they are “a Phoebe” or “a Chandler”, but no one’s ever really claiming (or longing) to be “an Elaine” or “a Kramer.”

In many ways, this makes sense. After all, Seinfeld is a darker, more cynical sitcom than most others. The entire series finale was even focused on the simple fact that the years had done nothing but make Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer even more selfish than they originally were.

Sitcom Study: Seinfeld’s “The Opposite” (5×21)
Relevant Episode Information: George convinces himself that his bad luck will turn around if he does the exact opposite of his normal instincts; it works. Meanwhile, Jerry realizes that everything always balances out perfectly for him.

 

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I’m a big fan of “fate versus free will” debates and, in many ways, “The Opposite” is a good case study on how and when one can win out over the other. While certain events are ultimately out of anyone’s control, I do tend to believe in the importance of hard work and perseverance (especially in striving to achieve personal goals). I believe in “making it happen”, to the best of one’s abilities, and that there’s no such thing as being “too busy.” I frequently remind myself that if a hobby, goal, or friendship is really important, I will make time.

Similarly, if I find myself in a rut, I reflect on the choices I’ve recently made and consider what I can do differently to be more productive. While I’ve never worried that “every decision…in my entire life has been wrong”, as George does during the beginning of “The Opposite”, I can appreciate and agree with the basic philosophy behind his realization that he needs to do something different in order to move his life forward. George’s life was not going the way he had hoped, so he ultimately had two choices: deal with it or make a change.

By the episode’s conclusion, George has landed a date, moved out of his parents’ house, and started a new job with the New York Yankees. On the other hand, there’s Jerry. As previously mentioned, it’s during “The Opposite” that he finally realizes what’s obvious to anyone who watches Seinfeld; everything always seems to work out for him:

Jerry: “… like yesterday I lost a job, and then I got another one, and then I missed a TV show, and later on they re-ran it. And then today I missed a train, went outside and caught a bus. It never fails! I always even out!”

We all probably know a few people like Jerry, individuals who seem to have good fortune regardless of the amount of effort they put into something. This can inevitably be infuriating but, when all is said and done, it should never discourage anyone from achieving his or her own goals (something I must frequently remind myself). In George’s case, since this is still Seinfeld after all, his growth does not last beyond this episode.

Though, if anything, the fact that this is only temporary can serve as a warning against becoming complacent or eager for the easy way (as George tends to do in nearly every other episode). In other words, don’t be a George. Also, try not to be discouraged by someone who’s a Jerry.

3 of the Most Underrated Sitcoms

With so many sitcoms over the decades, it makes sense that some have received more attention than others. Star power, timing, hype, and legitimately well-written content are just a few of the many reasons why some sitcoms have repeatedly received high ratings and critical praise—and I’m definitely a fan of many such shows. It makes me happy that Frasier has retained its “sitcom with the most Emmy wins” crown, but lately I’ve found myself revisiting some sitcoms (old and current) which, for whatever reason, have never received such accolades but are nonetheless high in quality. Onto the list…

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1. Malcolm in the Middle

Over the last few weeks, I’ve rewatched this show (twice actually) and could kick myself for not remembering how great it was beforehand. I’ll admit that, with Bryan Cranston’s incredible performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad still fresh in my mind, I let myself forget he has equally incredible comedic chops (not to mention his stellar dance moves) as Hal. The criminally underrated Jane Kaczmarek shines as Lois (who’s also, arguably, the true protagonist of the series, despite the title). Despite the fear she inspires from her sons, Lois also has an unshakeable sense of justice, which stems from the fact that she tends to always be right (making it all the more entertaining the one time she’s wrong—well, more like the one time she’s made to believe she’s wrong).

Hal and Lois’ sons, including the show’s narrator Malcolm (played by Frankie Muniz, who was definitely my first celebrity crush) are undeniably troublemakers, but arguably only make trouble to cope with the fact that they are all outsiders in some way. The show also makes a point of giving each son a remarkable talent/gift all his own. For instance, Reese (Justin Berfield) is an amazing chef, while Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan) is a skilled pianist.
Malcolm in the Middle never glosses over important issues such as a family struggling to make ends meet or bulling. It even briefly touches on the dangers of alcohol and the importance of not taking advantage of someone. When an intoxicated girl asks Malcolm to have sex with her, he declines and makes sure any remaining alcohol is gone. He later worries about what kind of “man” he is for not going through with it but, in a pivotal moment, Francis (the oldest brother, played by Christopher Masterson) tells him how important it was that he did not take advantage of her.
When watches the show, it comes off as a cohesive whole, with no weak seasons and very few weak episodes (unlike even Frasier and Friends, which both definitely had some). The writers never fully allow the characters to catch a break but, when a character does grow, the progression is subtle and earned. Notably, Francis evolves from the biggest troublemaker in the family to the most responsible and grounded (not to mention he inherits Lois’ sense of justice—another subtle yet fitting touch).
2. The King of Queens

If “Adam Sandler movies” or Paul Blart: Mall Cop are what come to mind when you think of Kevin James, we need to talk. Actually, we can skip the talk. Just promise me you’ll turn on TV Land, TBS, or one of the other many networks to frequently air King of Queens reruns and enjoy Kevin James at his peak in terms of physical comedy and wit (though I’m intrigued to see what’s ahead for Kevin Can Wait, especially with Leah Remini on board as a series regular).

Though frequently (and unfairly) lumped in with other sitcoms to have the “Ugly Guy, Hot Wife” trope, King of Queens deserves better because it, in fact, is better. First of all, it deals with this trope in a unique way. On King of Queens, it is the husband (James’ Doug Heffernan) who is generally the “good guy”, calmer, better with kids, and the moral compass when the wife (Remini’s Carrie) goes astray. On many sitcoms, this is typically the opposite.

Doug, of course, is not without flaws and is not above pulling his own schemes, but the couple often schemes together; when they don’t, one can often bring the other to his or her side within the episode. Despite any perceived difference in looks, Doug and Carrie always make sense as a couple because they’re equals and comparable in several key ways: neither is particularly book smart or career-minded (generally maintaining a “work to live” philosophy, with living together as their priority), both can be selfish at times (though it’s nothing the other can’t balance out), and both know how to laugh and have fun with each other. Oh, and they even have their own song (aptly called “Doug and Carrie”).

Though James and Remini are the show’s anchors, King of Queens boasts an impressive supporting cast, notably Jerry Stiller as Carrie’s annoying, quirky father Arthur who moves into their basement, Patton Oswalt as lovable “nerd” Spence Olchin, and Victor Williams as Doug’s best friend Deacon Palmer.

Definitely do yourself a favor and give this underrated classic a (re)watch. Plus, if you’re a fan of crossovers, expect to see Everybody Loves Raymond characters pop up as guest stars throughout the show’s nine seasons.
3. The Middle

This current ABC comedy stable is helmed by Patricia Heaton (aka Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond) and Neil Flynn (aka the Janitor on Scrubs), delivers solid ratings, is heading into its ninth season this fall, and…has only been nominated for ONE Emmy thus far for its entire run?! That’s crazy!
As much as I love sitcoms (obviously), I’ll be honest: The Middle is the only current sitcom on broadcast that I consistently watch on a weekly basis. It’s consistent and well-rounded (unlike Modern Family, especially in recent years), relatable and touching (unlike The Big Bang Theory), and doesn’t rely on the same tired plot points and jokes (unlike The Goldbergs). Also, unlike many sitcoms, its child actors are in no way a weakness; they’re in fact a strength and each one consistently delivers great performances.

Heaton’s character, Heck family matriarch Frankie, is also perhaps the furthest thing from Debra. Well, actually, I like to think of Frankie as Debra if the latter finally gave up, moved far away from the other Barones, and decided to be lazier once removed from Marie’s constant visits.

 

Which sitcoms do you think are underrated? Please let me know in the comments!