A funny thing happened on the freshman sitcom EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (CBS, Mondays, 8:30-9 p.m.) this year. It got better. No small feat, considering the fate of this season’s other most promising pilots: Spin City stumbled badly and took several months to regain its footing, while Millennium immediately imploded. (Suddenly Susan, the season’s highest-rated new series, stank from the start.) Yet Ray Romano’s family comedy didn’t just grow funnier — it grew deeper.

What started as a likably witty distillation of Romano’s stand-up act — the travails of a dad with three kids under the age of 6 — transformed itself into a fascinatingly humane portrait of suburban dysfunction. In fact, Raymond may now be the best sitcom on the air — its only real creative competition being NewsRadio (ironically, a show from which Romano — who’d been cast as an engineer — was fired during the pilot taping).

The series’ setup is simple: Sportswriter Ray Barone (Romano) lives on Long Island with his stay-at-home wife (Patricia Heaton) and their three preschoolers (Madylin, Sullivan, and Sawyer Sweeten) — right across the street from his squabbling folks (Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts) and obsessive-compulsive cop brother, Robert (Brad Garrett). At first, this premise lent itself to predictable complications: The elder Barones always barged in unannounced, and Robert was constantly mooching. Yet as the season progressed, Raymond became more about the struggle of a grown man trying to separate from his parents and establish his own family.

Raymond is the rarest of sitcoms — one with a genuinely original point of view. In the show’s new-and-improved opening-credits sequence, Ray’s family goes by on a conveyor belt, and, as his children pass, he assures viewers the show is ”not really about the kids.” Refreshingly, it’s not. This is life seen through the eyes of one man as he attempts the near-impossible task of simultaneously fulfilling the roles of husband, father, brother, and son.

It’s a brilliantly realized vision, thanks to Raymond‘s remarkable cast. Like Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld, Romano does such subtle work that it appears as if he’s not even acting. His voice — a thick, nasal whine — initially sounds shticky, yet he uses it like a finely tuned instrument, sliding from elation to frustration with only the slightest tonal change.

As wife Debra, Heaton matches Romano beat for beat. She’s taken the role’s inherent thanklessness — the still center around which Ray’s crazy family revolves — and turned it into a virtue. Debra rails against her status as ”the normal one,” recently launching into a tirade that allowed Heaton to do dead-on impressions of the eccentric Barones. And old pros Boyle and Roberts have created the most realistically fractious TV marriage since Archie and Edith Bunker’s.

Raymond‘s secret weapon, though, is the towering Garrett (left). As Ray’s eternally unlucky sibling, he has developed a wonderful chemistry with Romano. One charming episode, in which Ray gave his brother a stray bulldog, expertly utilized Garrett’s extra-large talents. Underneath that imposing exterior beats the heart of a puppy.

Garrett isn’t the only stand-up whom Romano has put to good use. Cathy Ladman (as a nosy neighbor) and Andy Kindler and Dave Attell (as Ray’s basketball teammates) have scored in guest spots. And some of Raymond’s best scripts have been penned by Lew Schneider, a wry comic who starred in the underrated 1990 CBS series Wish You Were Here.

Originally stranded on Fridays with the inexplicably not-dead Dave’s World, Raymond has skyrocketed in the ratings since CBS moved it to Mondays after Cosby. The network would be wise not only to renew it but to leave it where it is. With his winning mix of heart and humor, Romano seems the natural heir to Cos’ sitcom-dad throne. A

Everybody Loves Raymond
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