"Still great." These words, spoken by Raymond (Ray Romano) to his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton) at the poignant conclusion of the flashback episode "How They Met," help close out Everybody Loves Raymond
's wonderful third season. He is referring not only to the hapless cook's lone signature dish, lemon chicken, but to their marriage as well. But he could just as well have been referring to Raymond
itself. The Emmy-worthy ensemble (at this point, still losing out to the Frasier
juggernaut) are discovering new dimensions to their characters, and the show's writers are mining even more precious, intimately observed character-based comedy gold from the Barones' dysfunctional family life. Several episodes this season rank among the series' best, including "How They Met" and the totally whacked "Robert's Date," in which Robert (Brad Garrett) desperately tries to fit in with his black partner and her friends. This is a pivotal season for Raymond's Eeyore-esque brother, who finally declares his independence and moves out of his parents' home and into his own apartment. This does not help his love life. In the hilarious episode "Robert Moves Back," Robert and Amy (Monica Horan) at last consummate their relationship, but are devastated when they learn they were exposed through curtainless windows to the other tenants in Robert's building ("You ruined our Bible study"). For viewers with a strong investment in these characters, there are earth-rocking time capsule moments, as in "The Visit," when Debra lashes out at her preoccupied mother that she wishes she were more involved in the family like Marie (Doris Roberts).
What elevates Raymond is that it is much more than just wisecracks and putdowns. The peerless cast deftly navigates the fine line between comedy and drama. "Frank's Tribute" concludes with a rare, touching moment between the verbally abusive Frank (Peter Boyle) and Marie in which he gently cradles her in his arms to remove cold cream from her face. At the conclusion of "Driving Frank," the road accident-prone Frank surrenders his car keys to Raymond. Not that Raymond is going soft. It's still, first, last, and foremost, funny. In the season-opener, "The Invasion," Debra gleefully gives her mother-in-law a taste of her own meddlesome medicine, but her victories against the indomitable Marie are, as ever, short-lived. Yes, after three seasons, Raymond is still great. And it would continue to become even greater in season 4. --Donald Liebenson
Standup comedian Ray Romano stars as Ray Barone, a successful sportswriter who deals with his brother and parents, who happen to live across the street. Patricia Heaton ("The Goodbye Girl"), Peter Boyle ("While You Were Sleeping"), Doris Roberts ("Remington Steele"), and Brad Garrett ("Gleason") round out the stellar cast.