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.
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.