7. "The Letter," Everybody Loves Raymond (1997)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
In "The Letter," Debra uses a poison pen to confront her mother-in-law after Marie crashes and ruins her Tupperware party. Ray foresees trouble.
Debra: Ray, I can't keep blaming her for everything if I've never
been honest with her, and I have never actually told her how she makes
me feel when she does the things that she does.
Ray: But you don't put that in writing! Oh, no, no! If it's in writing, then you can't deny it! You know? You can't say things like 'You didn't hear me right' or "I didn't say that, you must have misunderstood' because there it is! It's in writing!
"The Letter" is unusual in that Debra (Patricia Heaton) doesn't offer any excuse to soften her confrontation of Marie (Doris Roberts) — though Ray (Ray Romano) gallantly tries to explain his wife's behavior by claiming that she has a drinking problem. She's simply had enough of Marie's frequent unannounced visits.
Frank: (reading Debra's letter aloud) For eight years now, I have held my tongue and never told you how hurtful and destructive your behavior can sometimes be. [...] Just because we are family and happen also to be neighbors does not give you the right to constantly interfere in every aspect of my life (can't control his laughter), from raising my children to my choice of fabric softener. [...] I'm sure you don't even realize when you're being overbearing, critical, and intrusive. (Looks up from letter) Is this a petition? Where do I sign?
This comes close to breaking the fourth wall, since sitcom characters typically express hostility by making wisecracks that just bounce off their targets. Debra's bluntness is closer to that of someone watching Raymond at home — or a guest character who points out the appalling behavior that the regulars have learned to ignore, such as the various unfortunates who come into contact with the gang on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or poor Clive reacting to the phony-but-familiar personae on "The Two Mrs. Cranes" episode of Frasier. (For more examples, see the A.V. Club's "The many faces of Frank Grimes: 20 TV guest characters seemingly ported in from real life.") In a later episode of Raymond, "The Angry Family," Debra again acts as a voice for the audience when she tells a school counselor, "When I got married, I didn't just get a husband. I got an entire freak show that put up their tent right across the street!"
"The Letter" was cringe comedy before Ricky Gervais made it the default tone for sitcoms with highbrow appeal. When I first saw the episode, not yet as a Raymond fan, I laughed while recoiling a bit when Debra’s letter is read aloud by Frank (Peter Boyle) to the entire family. There is no distancing effect that makes the situation a bit less real — no I Love Lucy slapstick, no All in the Family larger-than-life acting, no Mary Tyler Moore Show impossibly clever quips. (This may be a generational thing, or it may come from seeing lots of live plays, but the laughter of a studio audience does not make a sitcom feel less authentic to me.) "The Letter" is about family members in a supremely awkward situation, and there's no buffer for viewers who would prefer to look down on the Barones as implausibly wacky sitcom characters.
(to fleeing party guests after Marie's invasion) This is not what I wanted!
Marie: Of course it isn't, dear. Nobody wants to throw a bad party.
There's a recognition factor here, as I have sent letters and e-mails that seemed admirably honest when I wrote them but were just embarrassing when I thought about them the next day. But there has to be something important at stake for such situations to become awkward. Much comedy comes from characters honestly trying to achieve something — and Debra is honestly trying to reach some kind of understanding with Marie — and coming up against their own limitations and the complexities of human behavior. In a sitcom all about young single professionals, one of the regular characters might clash with the mother of someone her or she is dating, but the situation is likely to be resolved with a quick breakup (or the mother disappearing from the show). But Debra's not looking for an easy break, and that makes her frustration more squirmingly funny.
And "The Letter" does proceed to a reconciliation between Debra and Marie, to the stupification of the male members of the family who expected a catfight.
Debra: You know when you bring food over to the house?
Marie: I do it because I care!
Debra: (beginning to cry) No, but see, I feel like that's a criticism, like you're saying I'm not as good as you.
Marie: (crying, with a sense of great generosity) You don't have to be as good as me!
All seems forgiven. But though Ray doesn't know it, he's vindicated in his warning to Debra. Just before the closing credits, Marie finds the crumpled-up letter.
Marie: Frank, what's Debra's letter doing in the garbage?
Frank: You read it already.
Marie: (smoothing out the letter) You don't throw this away. Not ever. (puts the letter in a kitchen drawer, which she locks) Not ever.
• The script for "The Letter," credited to co-producer Kathy Ann Stumpe, does a brilliant job of setting up the key scene for the episode. The scene in which Debra writes the letter has a nice break for some physical comedy, and there's a clever way of getting the letter into Frank's hands so he can read it aloud (as Ray's attempts to intercept it backfire). Whatever you think of Raymond as a whole, this episode is perfectly structured.
• Nora Dunn of Saturday Night Live guests as the perky Tupperware Lady.