80. "Talk to Your Daughter," Everybody Loves Raymond (2002)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
UPDATE: Damn it! As soon as I wrote this post, my RSS feed spat out a new essay by the A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff on Everybody Loves Raymond, including a mention of this episode. A coincidence, but maybe also a sign that I should be writing more about shows that people have never heard of, or that they really, really despise. Beginning tomorrow: "Top 100 Sitcom Episodes of All Time as Chosen by Armond White."
Hey, it's the sitcom that all the cool kids hate! And on the same list as Community and Parks and Recreation! (Be patient...)
Raymond hit a lot of the same notes over and over during its excessive 210-episode run, but its best installments are as well-written and funny as any British series that had a "12 and done" run. Still, it's got a lot of haters. It was the last really successful multi-camera broadcast sitcom, so it's a particular target of people who just don't like that format. It's not about smart urbanites, but it's not about noble working-class people either (its characters probably shop at WalMart even though they have enough money for Trader Joe's), so it took several years for Hollywood to start throwing Emmys at it.
Most non-fans simply say they don't like the characters, who are loud, whiny, and constantly arguing. Maybe you need to have grown up in a home with some of that behavior (and have since made your peace with it) to get some enjoyment out of Raymond. I get that Raymond scripts can be wearying, but I see the characters as fighting because they genuinely want to preserve their extended family — even if none of them will let go of the notion that he or she is the only one who knows how to do it. (In contrast, the constantly bickering characters on the gleefully nasty "Family" sketches on The Carol Burnett Show are selfish through and through.)
Robert: You know the fruit fly only lives for one day? What's his meaning of life? Maybe there's no meaning of life for any of us. Am I any different than the fruit fly?
Frank: The fruit part is the same!
Debra: Robert, the fruit fly doesn't question why he's here. Maybe that's kind of the meaning of life. Never knowing the answer but always wondering about it.
Ray: So God made us smart enough to know there's an answer but not smart enough to figure it out?
Robert: (looking skyward) Come on!
"Talk to Your Daughter" is a Don't Look Down episode, in which characters stop to consider where they are — and freak out about it. Usually a Don't Look Down episode is more narrowly focused. In the "Change Your Partners" episode of Car 54, Where Are You? (watch it here), Muldoon and Toody's friendship falls apart when other people comment on how perfect they are as patrol car partners; in All in the Family's "Gloria SIngs the Blues," Gloria gets nervous about her marriage when she thinks about it too much. (And on Monty Python, questioning the reality of your apartment building exists can cause it to collapse.)
In "Talk to Your Daughter," the Barones are forced to consider the meaning of life itself when Ray's "sex talk" with his young daughter goes awry:
Ally: No, I know that the man and woman have to do something, but why are we born? Why does God put us here?
Ray: Because... that's... what?
When "Don't you want to talk about sex?" isn't a good enough answer, Ray panics ("I've been blindsided!"). As if he's never seen his own show before, he seeks advice from the other adult characters. Frank is cynical and sarcastic, Marie tries to find a recipe-like answer in the Bible (speed-reading it from the beginning), Debra goes for practical child-rearing (saying to tell Ally that "we're here to help each other"), and Robert immediately sinks into existential despair. Despite Debra's insistence that the "examined life" is worth living, it quickly becomes apparent why most of us avoid this kind of introspection until we're forced to do so.
The angst, and the episode, ends when Ally takes the heat off everyone else by turning her attention to other things. The Barones can return to arguing over the slightest, pettiest topics imaginable — which will at least allow Robert to sleep at night.
NOTE: "Talk to Your Daughter" is also on Appetite for Deconstruction's "Top TV Episodes of All TIme."
Only parts of the episode are on YouTube (below). Raymond is apparently still successful in syndication, as it's tough to find at any streaming-video site.