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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Is The First Season of a Sitcom Ever Good?

I’ll be honest: I barely rewatch any sitcom’s first season by choice. Sure, I have watched many of my favorites shows more than once (i.e. Bewitched, Frasier, and Everybody Loves Raymond—just to name a few), but I tend to cheat a bit; I usually start with the second or third season.
Why do I do this, particularly with shows I enjoy? Honestly, sometimes I just want to dive into a particular storyline (or skip an introductory one), while sometimes I want to avoid watching episodes centered on an earlier character I dislike, especially if he or she is going to disappear not long after (Chuck Cunningham, we hardly knew ye). Overall though, I think it’s simply because I have seen (most of) my favorite sitcoms so many times that I feel I have the luxury to just restart again and again at whichever point I want.
As I have written before, there’s something particularly comforting about watching sitcoms. Since I’ve watched many of the shows I choose to write about here since I was a young girl, many episodes inspire childhood memories. In my adult life, I often watch them when I’m stressed or in need of a good laugh. Many times, sitcoms have also served as the background for both pivotal and every day moments in my life. For instance, I not so jokingly refer to Everybody Loves Raymond as my “packing entertainment of choice”.

To me, a good sitcom is like an old friend: reliable, fun even if you already know what to expect, and easy to “pick up” from where you were from the previous “visit.” With this mentality in mind, do I then really need to watch Frasier Crane readjusting to life in Seattle in the show’s pilot if I’d rather go straight to Lilith’s first episode or even to the post-divorce Niles era? Probably not.

Of course, the fact that I often skip a sitcom’s first season does not necessarily make it “bad.” For me, a good first season has to answer a few questions with a resounding “yes”, such as:
1. If I were recommending show X to a friend who’s never seen it, would I feel that season one really showcases why it’s worth seeing in the first place? If I feel tempted to say “skip the first few” or even “skip it entirely”, the answer is probably a no.
2. Are the characters in the first season fully developed? Furthermore, are the relationships between the characters firmly established or it apparent that the writers are still figuring it out?

Before I delve into a few freshman seasons I do watch again and again, here are some of the ones I almost always choose to skip* (aka Least Favorite First Seasons):
1) The Office (U.S.)
While The Office’s first season only consists of six episodes (so not exactly a time-consuming rewatch), the fact that the series had still not figured out the Michael Scott (Steve Carell) character and how it wanted to distinguish itself from the original British version is so apparent that even one of the series’ writers has commented on it. By the second season, The Office firmly establishes its identity in large part by making Michael more sympathetic and likable than his British counterpart—and, in turn, making the first season skippable.
2) Friends
If you know me personally, I can almost hear you audibly gasping over seeing this show here, but now you know: one of my most guarded secrets as a sitcom fan is that I’m not a big fan of Friends’ first season. The characters are not fully fleshed out, some of the writing and jokes fall flat, a few of the storylines are bizarre (don’t even get me started on Ross and Marcel the monkey), and Monica is arguably the show’s lead for at least the first half.

As much as I love Monica, the element which most distinguishes Friends as such an iconic show is the fact that it’s an ensemble piece where all six have palpable chemistry with each other (including the less common “pairings” such as Chandler/Rachel and Ross/Phoebe) and are essentially on equal footing as leads. Without that, Friends would have been a completely different show—and wouldn’t have had quite the same magic.
3) Seinfeld
While Seinfeld is usually considered one of the best television shows of all time, its first season (albeit brief, much like The Office) is mostly forgettable and easy to skip; the tone is off, the pacing is often slow, and the banter is awkward in a way it won’t be as the series progresses. Still, it is during a season one episode that the audience meets George’s alter ego Art Vandelay (so I suppose it’s not all bad).
Now, on the flip side, here are a few of my Favorite First Seasons:
1) Cheers
Sam Malone (to Diane Chambers): “It’s simple, really. You can’t go back to the professor for work. I need a waitress – you need a job. You like the people here. You think that they like you. And the phrase “magnificent pagan beast” has never left your mind.”

I think the above quote (from Cheers’ pilot) pretty much says it all in establishing why Cheers’ first season is such a gem. It’s clever, witty, and immediately establishes the distinct personalities of its leads, Sam and Diane. Moreover, it establishes Cheers’ central theme (at least for the first five seasons) of the love/hate relationship between its leading pair. If you’ve read this blog before, you already know how much I love the Sam/Diane relationship, and the reasons why I do are clear even from this first episode (up to, and including, its iconic season one finale and beyond). Right from the start, it’s apparent that these two characters have undeniable chemistry, yet are often going to butt heads because they so completely get each other (flaws and all), and thus this is precisely why they can so expertly get to one another.
2) Bewitched
The sitcom that started my love and appreciation for the genre itself more than deserves a place on this list. Bewitched begins its series run strong thanks to excellent writing, fleshed out characters, a clearly defined conflict, and a stellar cast (i.e. Elizabeth “Most Charming Sitcom Lead Ever” Montgomery, Dick “The Only Darrin Who Matters” York, Agnes “Makes Everything Classy” Moorehead, David “Son of a Gun” White, and Alice “The Superior Gladys Kravitz” Pearce).
Bewitched’s straightforward premiere (a witch falls in love with and marries a mortal man) also encompasses its deeper themes. It’s about a young woman who defies her family’s expectations and follows her heart, carving out her own path. It’s about a couple from incredibly different backgrounds, whose love and acceptance of one another must consistently overcome one family’s prejudice that mortals are inferior to supernatural beings and thus that one is unworthy to marry a witch. This first season (and the series itself) is essential viewing.
3) The Good Place
Currently on its second season, The Good Place’s inclusion on this list might seem a bit premature, but that’s precisely why I am including it. As detailed above, a great deal of my television watching revolves around watching my favorite sitcoms again and again, so for me to pause a rewatch to check out a new sitcom it really has to be something special. Starring Ted Danson (definitely a key reason as to why I watched this in the first place) and Kristen Bell, The Good Place is inventive, funny, and something that is not usually expected of a sitcom: unpredictable. While this largely stems from the season one finale’s twist (which I would not dare spoil), just know that this comedy excels both at keeping the audience guessing what’s next as well as delivering metaphorical comfort food via its delightful cast of characters.
4) Frasier
Yes, I know what I wrote earlier, but this still needs to be on the list. While my most-watched seasons are probably Seasons 3, 5, or 6 (i.e. “Moon Dance”, “Ski Lodge”, “Dinner Party”, etc), the Season 1 finale titled “My Coffee with Niles”, which I’ve previously analyzed here, remains one of the best half hours of television.

Which sitcoms do you think have the best (and worst) first seasons? Let me know in the comments!

*= As a note, just because a show didn’t make it to either list, it doesn’t mean I necessarily dislike its first season (or like it). For the purpose of this article, I wanted to highlight just a few examples of each.

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!

One of the Best Decisions Friends Made

        Friends has consistently been one of my favorite sitcoms for well over a decade. Even if I go a few weeks without watching it (which has happened at least once or twice, I think), I still know each episode by heart and reference scenes on a daily basis.

But if you’ve read this blog before, you already know I’m a Friends fan. You also know that I have some relatively unpopular opinions about the series, including the fact that I’m not a fan of Ross and Rachel as a couple (but love the similar on again/off again Sam and Diane on Cheers) and consider Monica my favorite female character.

This post is about an aspect of the show that, while probably not as unpopular as the others, is nonetheless one that is often debated by fans: Should Joey and Phoebe have gotten together (however briefly) or were the creators right to keep them as just friends?

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Sitcom Study: The Friends creators were not only right to keep Joey and Phoebe just friends, but this was also one of their best and most important decisions.

For those of you who are fans of the Joey/Phoebe pairing, I can imagine at least a couple counterarguments you’re probably thinking right now:

  1. But Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow had such amazing chemistry!!

I agree. I’d also argue that one of the reasons Friends was successful in the first place is because ALL main cast members had amazing chemistry and so ANY combinations among the six worked well.

  1. Joey and Phoebe always had such sweet moments.

True. Still, I stand by the fact that all six characters had sweet moments with the others. Plus, if Joey fell for Phoebe, you’d have all six partnered off with each other (and no Paul Rudd). This would have been too unrealistic, even for a show with infamously unrealistic apartments.

Joey and Phoebe undoubtedly love each other, but this does not mean that this is a romantic love. I strongly believe in the notion that there are different types of love and that one is not necessarily more important than another. Many still believe that even if two people insist they are “just friends”, they will eventually fall for each other (or will harbor feelings until the “time is right” like The Office’s Jim and Pam).

This line of thinking is deeply problematic. Namely, it implies that a friendship’s only value is to serve as a stepping-stone for a romantic relationship. It also suggests that, if you do have romantic feelings for a friend, the best thing to do is keep this to yourself and wait for the stars to align. Let me get on my soapbox for just a second: do not ever wait for the stars to align. I believe everything happens for a reason and people can come into your life at the most unexpected times. Still, if someone truly wants to be with you, excuses such as “too busy” or “maybe it’s the wrong time” won’t matter in at least trying to make a relationship work.

The Joey/Phoebe relationship is perfect just the way it is; it serves as a reminder that the love between friends is beautiful in and of itself and should not be seen as merely the means to an end. Actually, in a way, I guess Friends did partner off all the main characters: the on-again/off-again couple (Ross and Rachel), the friends who do fall in love and get married (Monica and Chandler), and the pair who loves each other deeply as friends and share a special bond (Joey and Phoebe).

The Art of Doing Good

A few days ago marked arguably the most significant milestone of my life thus far: I graduated college. I donned my cap and gown (and struggled to adjust my graduation hood), sat amongst my fellow seniors and anxiously awaited my name to finally be called. Afterwards, I nabbed any friends I could find for a quick photo, rode the ram (it’s a Fordham thing, don’t ask) and joined my family for a celebratory dinner.

That night, I could not help but think to myself: “OK, so…now what?” I mean, I technically know what’s ahead. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll wrap up an internship, begin a full time job, continue to unpack everything I brought home from my dorm and enjoy another New York City summer as much as possible. But what I was wondering at the time, I suppose, is what the next lesson for me will prove to be if I’ve officially closed my college textbooks for good. I have always been a big believer in the idea that learning does not need to take place within the confines of a classroom, but this does not make the idea of going out into the “real world” any less daunting.

As I continue to think about what lies ahead for me in my future, I find myself also reflecting on my past: lessons already learned both inside and beyond the classroom, evolving into the person I am now and, of course (you saw where this was going, right?), the television shows that have heavily impacted my youth. So far, I have written about some of these such as Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond (and will continue to write more on those as well as others), but there is another one I love which seems particularly relevant to the transition I am currently undergoing, a show that is itself about a young individual growing and changing, learning to become an adult and applying lessons taught in the classroom to real life (or vice versa): Boy Meets World.

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            Fe-Fe-Fe Feeny! Plays with Squirrels. Cory and Topanga. I know I am far from the only person my age to remember Boy Meets World so fondly (or to cry every time I rewatch the series finale):

Sitcom Study: Boy Meets World’s “Brave New World” (7×22 and 7×23)

Relevant Episode Information: In the series finale, Cory, Topanga, Shawn and the rest of the gang face life-altering decisions as they contend with what life may hold in store for them once they are no longer in college—but not without some final words from Mr. Feeny.

One of the greatest aspects of Boy Meets World (aside from the memorable characters and clever, funny writing) was the fact that, despite being a “kids’ show” in many ways, the series never shied away from addressing such heavy topics as death, child abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and bullying. In fact, it’s because of shows like Boy Meets World that a blog such as this—dedicated to the applicable, deeper themes and ideas explored in sitcoms—even makes sense. Boy Meets World consistently respected its viewers and took them seriously which is why, in turn, viewers could take an episode’s message to heart as a legitimate, worthwhile lesson.

This respect was never more apparent than in the series finale, “Brave New World.” Divided into two parts and full of numerous clips highlighting some of the most iconic moments of the show’s seven year run, “Brave New World” finds Boy Meets World’s protagonist Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) attempting to grapple with the possibility of moving from his native Philadelphia to New York City when his wife Topanga Lawrence (Danielle Fishel) is offered a dream internship in the Big Apple. If you’re even a casual viewer of the show, you will know that Cory does not handle change well. Ever.

Enter George Feeny (William Daniels). The Matthews’ next door neighbor, Cory’s mentor and the gang’s teacher in nearly every class from junior high through college (something the show cleverly and frequently jokes about), Mr. Feeny helps Cory realize that maybe Topanga is also hesitant about the move, since such a big change means there is the possibility she may fail; he warns, however, that staying where they are will also hinder growth. As Cory and Topanga finally commit to moving to New York City, with Cory’s older brother Eric (Will Friedle) and best friend Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) in tow (the Cory/Shawn bromance is too important to be sidelined in this post and will require its own post in the future), Cory advised his younger brother Joshua:

Cory: “Cory: “You’re gonna learn something from [the world] every day, you’re gonna make mistakes…Mr. Feeny will probably teach every grade you’re ever in…even though it seems like the world’s going out of its way to teach you its hard lessons, you’re going to realize it’s the same world that’s given you your family and your friends…Boy Meets World, now I get it.”

Even more memorably, the episode concludes with Cory, Topanga, Shawn and Eric awaiting Feeny in his classroom, eager for one final lesson (and reluctant to say goodbye):

Mr. Feeny: “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.”

Topanga: “Don’t you mean do well?”

Mr. Feeny: “No, I mean do good.”

While Mr. Feeny’s words should undoubtedly be taken to heart, it is what he does (or, rather, what he does not do) in the following moments that should also be remembered. Despite the group’s request, Mr. Feeny refuses to verbally admit that he loves the four of them, saying he is intent on keeping some boundaries. “You haven’t even talked to another student for seven years,” Cory retorts. Sill, he refuses. One by one, the four of them bid him farewell, thanking him tearfully for things such as being the reason they will be good people and, in Topanga’s case, being more of a father than her biological one. It is only when they finally leave the room that Feeny finally admits: “I love you all. Class dismissed.”

Thus, it’s by looking back on my past (through the lens of my love and appreciation for Boy Meets World) that I have come to two important lessons to help guide my future:

1) Don’t shy away from telling someone they matter. You don’t always know when you will see each other again. In a similar manner, also don’t shy away from admitting what you care about, either.

2) Don’t just do well. Do good.

Bottling Frasier’s Success

In many ways, the success—both commercially and critically—of many iconic sitcoms has come down to one crucial element: familiarity. How relatable are a character’s trials and tribulations to the ones the audience watching has faced? How comforting is the world of a particular sitcom and, moreover, to what extent is it able to serve as an “escape” from reality?

Timeless sitcoms Cheers and Friends are two such shows that exemplify this aura of intimacy between series and viewer. Cheers’ iconic theme song famously boasts the following line: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”––indeed, for eleven seasons millions of viewers came to feel as if they would fit right in among the titular bar’s quirky customers. Similarly, people to this day comment (whether jokingly or not depends on the person) that Friends’ Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross feel akin to true friends—maybe even family.

This is precisely why sitcom bottle episodes (aka an entire episode mostly, if not entirely, confined to the main cast in one primary location) come off as so endearing. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” and Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” are memorable examples of this formula and, while I love and have repeatedly watched both episodes, it is the two expertly crafted bottle episodes from my other favorite (and often the most criminally underrated nowadays, out of the three) sitcom, Frasier, that will be highlighted here.

Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “My Coffee With Niles” (1×24) and “Dinner Party” (6×17)

Like any good bottle episode, these Frasier episodes primarily take place in one setting; in the first, season one’s finale “My Coffee With Niles”, it is the characters’ go to hangout Café Nervosa and in the latter, season six’s “Dinner Party”, it is Frasier’s apartment. What puts these episodes into a league of their own—aside from the witty repartee that exists in every Frasier episode but is at peak form here—are two additional factors. First, each episode is not merely about the show’s core cast; it is primarily about its two leading characters: Frasier and Niles Crane, which arguably double as the show’s primary “relationship” in that a consistent, central theme of the entire show is their brotherly friendship and, more often than not, inevitable rivalry. This leads to the second factor: the two episodes focus on exploring, and attempting to answer, two primary questions that are imperative as much to the episode’s plot as to the show’s eleven-year arc.

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1) “My Coffee With Niles”

Relevant Episode Information: Frasier and Niles spend the entire episode chatting about their lives at their favorite coffee shop, Café Nervosa.

Primary Question: Is Frasier happy? Moreover, what does it mean to be happy?

While Martin, Roz and Daphne periodically and briefly speak to the brothers throughout the episode, the crux of the episode is Frasier’s response—and lack thereof—to Niles’ inquiry of whether or not he is happy. Note their initial exchange regarding this question:

Niles: “So, Frasier, now that chapter two of your life is in full swing, do you mind if I ask you something?”

Frasier: “No, go right ahead.”

Niles: “Are you happy?”

[Frasier is silent]

Niles: “Did you hear the question?”

Frasier: “Yes, I’m thinking. It’s a seemingly complex question.”

Niles: “No, it’s not.”

Frasier: “Yes, it is.”

Niles: “No, it’s not. Either you’re happy or you’re not.”

Frasier: “Are you happy?”

Niles: “No, but we’re not talking about me.”

With the show’s first season coming to a close, there could not be a more apt time for Niles to ask Frasier this. By this point, viewers (many undoubtedly initial Frasier Crane fans from his Cheers days) have watched twenty-four episodes in which Frasier has worked to adjust to returning to his home city, tackling a new job, reestablishing relationships with his family and being a country away from his only son. So, is Frasier happy with this life-changing decision? This is not the last time such a question will be asked of him, though it often will take more specific forms, typically regarding his level of satisfaction with his job or love life.

One aspect of the aforementioned exchange that intrigues me so much is the fact that Niles and Frasier differ on the complexity of saying whether or not one is happy. In theory, I agree with Niles; I tend to think and speak of happiness as something akin to love in that it is instinctual—if you feel either, you know, otherwise you do not. In practice, however, I have found myself more on Frasier’s side of this discussion in that I usually take a few moments to reflect on recent events before offering a response.

Furthermore, of course, it is simply not in Frasier’s character to simply say “yes” or “no” to this or really any question without thoroughly weighing the pros and cons. Later in season four, Frasier will spend an entire episode agonizing over whether or not he believes Niles and his first wife, Maris, truly belong together. Even further along in the series, he will also struggle to choose between two women, asking literally anyone and everyone he encounters for input.

In the case of “My Coffee With Niles”, Frasier continues to evade the question until, finally, it is presented to him again, this time by a waitress growing tired of adjusting his order to meet his specificities:

Waitress: “Zimbabwe decaf, non-fat milk, no cinnamon in sight. Now—are you happy?”

Frasier: [really answering Niles’ initial question] “You know, in the greater scheme…yes, I’d say I am.”

Arguably, perhaps it is up to the viewers to decide how true this will prove to be for him as the seasons continue.

2) “Dinner Party”

Relevant Episode Information: Niles and Frasier decide to co-host a dinner party, but struggle to agree on the people they should and should not invite.

Primary Question: Are Niles and Frasier too reliant on one another? Are they odd?

Almost any episode that deals primarily with the brothers Crane rivalry is among the most re-watchable for me. In “Author, Author” and “The Innkeepers”, their egos humorously and inevitably clash as they try to co-write a book and co-manage a restaurant, respectively. In “IQ”, Frasier’s personal ego takes a major hit as he learns that Niles is the brother with the higher IQ—and that it’s more than just a mere couple of points in difference. Many of the show’s best one-liners are also directly relevant to their tendency to one up the other, for instance:

Frasier: “Niles, I would shave my head for you.”

Niles: “A gesture which becomes less significant with each passing year.”

 

Niles: [filling in for Frasier’s radio show] “Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there’ll be no blaming mother today.”

 

Indeed, “Dinner Party” is not without its bickering moments between the two. Nonetheless, aside from the joy of watching these two play off no one but each other for most of the episode, what makes this episode so memorable to me is that it poignantly touches on the fact that Niles and Frasier do, ultimately, have a loving and very close relationship despite everything. Still, a running joke throughout the series questions if they in fact spend too much time together; other characters repeatedly tease them for bringing the other as a “date” to one function or another.

Here, the brothers accidentally hear someone they are planning on inviting to their party refer to them as “that one” and “the other one”; it is unclear which is which but the underlying suggestion that the two are almost interchangeable to some is clear. Niles and Frasier proceed to over-analyze and debate its meaning:

Frasier: “Perhaps she has a point. Ever since your divorce you have become more and more attached to me. Maybe that’s why she said what she said.”

Niles: “What?”

Frasier: “You get Frasier, you get that Niles!”

Niles: “She didn’t say that. She said, “you get the one, you get that other one.” What makes you think that you’re the one and I’m that other one?”

Frasier: “I am the one giving the party, and you are that other one!”

Niles: “I’m the one that invited her, so that makes you that other one!”

And, in one of my favorite exchanges of the episode:

Niles: “Why is Joaquin on such a strict diet?”

Frasier: “Because the Joaquin they’re bringing to dinner is… their foster child, from a tiny village on the Pampas. He speaks no English and he gets nauseated when he eats American food.”

Niles: “So, he’s not the conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic?”

Frasier: “Oh, you are so “that other one”!”

This episode’s key question is not given a clear answer. Niles and Frasier bicker (whilst becoming increasingly disenchanted with the idea of throwing this party at all), Martin maintains that they are not odd (“just special”), and the episode ends with the brothers resolving to not care what others think and enjoy each other’s company at dinner—before quickly changing their minds.

Well then, are Frasier and Niles too dependent on one another? I am an only child and so cannot personally identify with a sibling relationship. At the same time, I—as, I believe, can most people—understand how rare and wonderful it is to find even one person with whom you can talk endlessly and share similar interests or ways of thinking and that there is nothing wrong with valuing such a friendship. To paraphrase Frasier’s final response in “My Coffee With Niles”, perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is one of the keys to lasting happiness.