Golden Words — “Baggage”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

baggage

To the degree that Everybody Loves Raymond retains a place in the cultural consciousness, I suspect it’s viewed as precisely the sort of staid family sitcom that represents the more fuddy-duddy tastes of Emmy voters past and present. The basics of its set-up — bedraggled husband, highly competent and routinely perturbed wife, sad sack brother, colorfully cantankerous grandparents — does strike familiar tones, accentuated by the multi-camera presentation and guffawing studio audience.

In terms of innovation, Everybody Loves Raymond has been lapped many times over since it went off the air, in 2005, but when the sitcom launched nine seasons earlier, its spectacle of family members in constant combat, often with the sharpest of verbal barbs, caused it to be viewed with high skepticism. CBS didn’t know what to do with it, initially hiding it on Friday nights. Television Academy voters were similarly unimpressed at first. Everybody Loves Raymond won an impressive fifteen Emmy awards across its run, but it couldn’t even garner a single nomination in its first two seasons.

By season seven, Everybody Loves Raymond was an Emmy mainstay. Every principal cast member except Peter Boyle had at least one acting Emmy to their credit. Prizes bestowed apart from the performances remained elusive. The breakthrough was delivered by writer Tucker Cawley, with a script that perfectly encapsulated the shrewd, simple strengths of the series. The episode is entitled “Luggage.”

In accepting his Emmy, Cawley acknowledge the premise of the episode came from his own relationship. Ray Barone (Ray Romano) and his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), return home from a weekend vacation. Exhausted, they leave the trip’s sole piece of luggage on the landing of their house’s stairwell. Weeks later, it remains in place as the Barones wage a silent war, each convinced the other should take the initiative to complete the process of hauling it upstairs and unpacking. That’s the whole of it. It is not the clicking intricacies of the plot that drive the half-hour, but instead the knowing precision in the psychological give and take in the couple’s battle of wills. As is the case with much of the best writing, the specificity of the conflict makes it universal, becoming a stand-in for any instance of foolhardy stubbornness in a long-term relationship.

By this point in the run of the series, the characters and scenarios were so well-established that the writers could sometimes engage in the rough equivalent of batting practice, lobbing in easy tosses that they knew their cast could smash into the upper deck. Some of the biggest laughs in the episode come from lines without an overt punchline: Raymond acknowledging Debra’s response to his gambit of agitation was “Nuthin’,” Frank (Boyle) excusing himself from the room, Robert (Ray’s brother, played by Brad Garrett) asking, with exquisite timing, “How’s the suitcase thing going?” Taking further advantage of the show’s longevity, Cawley ingeniously incorporates a previously indistinct bit of set dressing into the story, as Marie (Roberts) recounts her own household cold war over decorative items hanging in the kitchen.

I think “Luggage” helped distinguish Everybody Loves Raymond as a better overall series that Emmy voters previously allowed. In addition to the writing win and more acting trophies, this year was the first time the program prevailed in the Outstanding Comedy Series category. Everybody Loves Raymond also won in comedy’s biggest category two years later, for its ninth and final season. Somewhat confirming the theory that the series belongs to a different era, no other single-camera sitcom has earned that top honor in the decade-plus since.