By Bruce Fretts
December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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When The King of Queens was announced as part of CBS’ fall lineup, my greatest fear was that it would be an Everybody Love Raymond rip-off. After all, it starred Kevin James, who had a recurring role on Raymond as one of Ray Romano’s pals, and looked to be another sardonic sitcom about a loud-but-loving family living in the greater metropolitan New York area.

Then it was announced that Jerry Stiller would be joining the cast, replacing borscht belter Jack Carter as James’ hotheaded father-in-law, and my fear morphed: Now I was afraid that King would be a Seinfeld clone, with Stiller xeroxing his old role as George Costanza’s rageaholic father, Frank.

Well, my greatest fears have been realized — and I couldn’t be happier. King has turned out to be a near-perfect synthesis of Seinfeld and Raymond, recombining many of the best elements of each show into something wholly, delightfully new.

Let’s start with the star, who plays Doug Heffernan, a delivery-service driver who shares a house with his aspiring-paralegal wife, Carrie (Fired Up‘s Leah Remini), as well as her aforementioned dad. With his burly, teddy-bear build and Pillsbury Doughboy face, James doesn’t physically resemble Seinfeld or Romano. But like those two fellow stand-up vets, James has an unmistakably original delivery; he’ll take a line and twist it, sometimes deliberately mispronouncing words for comic effect. And despite his physique, he’s not a larger-than-life character. Rather, he seems like a guy you could hang out with — just like Ray and Jerry. In fact, Doug and Ray recently met up in a superb crossover episode and immediately hit it off. (In his first Raymond incarnation, James played a different character.)

Remini is reminiscent of Raymond’s wife, Debra Barone (the peerless Patricia Heaton), in the sense that she can match her costar laugh for laugh. There’s one key difference between the characters, however: Carrie actually seems to like her husband — even to the point of wanting to have sex with him. The fact that the Heffernans don’t have any children yet, while the Barones have three tots, could account for Carrie’s less irritable temperament.

Besides, when it comes to irritability, nobody can top Stiller. His Arthur Spooner suggests both Frank Costanza and Raymond‘s Frank Barone (the explosively funny Peter Boyle) in his ability to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation — like when a party guest gobbles down the last three deviled eggs. Yet Stiller has turned Arthur into a multilayered individual. He has a streak of old-fashioned formality (after his egg tantrum, he apologizes, ”Please excuse my outburst — when it comes to buffet items, I can be a bit of a beast”). Stiller has also invested the lonely widower Arthur with a genuine pathos and a healthy libido that isn’t played for sniggering laughs — a rarity for a small-screen senior citizen.

King has shown a Seinfeldian willingness to toy with sitcom conventions. One recent episode, set entirely in a supermarket on the day before Thanksgiving, was a worthy successor to Seinfeld‘s single-setting masterpiece, ”The Chinese Restaurant.” King’s crack writers, supervised by exec producer Michael J. Weithorn (Ned and Stacey), similarly share Seinfeld‘s and Raymond‘s penchants for precisely phrased punchlines: When Carrie sees Doug watching a lumberjack competition on TV, she smartly remarks, ”You do realize we have a limited time on this earth, don’tcha?”

The only quality of Raymond and Seinfeld that King so far lacks is a tightly focused ensemble. Those shows centered on four or five key characters, with plots generously spread among them. King has an outstanding quartet in James, Remini, Stiller, and Patton Oswalt as Doug’s endearingly geeky friend, Spence. Sadly, his two other buds, Richie (Larry Romano, no relation to Ray) and Deacon (Victor Williams), and Carrie’s sister, Sara (Lisa Rieffel), have yet to display more than one dimension.

Yet King triumphs over this flaw by grounding its comedy in a Raymond-esque reality. Believability is never sacrificed for a cheap gag. Doug Heffernan is an enormously relatable comedic character, the kind of guy who can open up the fridge and joyously declare, ”Cold pigs in blankets — life is good again!” No wonder James, who recently hosted CBS’ Funny Flubs &amp Screw-ups special as well as coanchoring its Thanksgiving Day parade coverage, has joined Romano as a poster boy for the new male-appeal, NFL-fueled Eye network.

Seinfeld lost its footing when it abandoned its original mission to deconstruct the niggling details of everyday life (i.e., Nothing) and turned surreal. Right now, The King of Queens has both feet firmly planted on solid comic ground. Long may he reign. A-

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