Is America voting on what's funny?
You don't hear fans and reporters speculating madly about what will happen to Ray and Debra on the series finale of CBS's ''Everybody Loves Raymond." It has been that kind of sitcom, a portrait of a domestic rut with no real promise of change or surprise. No enlightenment has loomed on the show's Long Island horizon, and no possibility of divorce. Every week since 1996, and nightly in syndication since 2001, the brawling Barones have engaged in a sort of ''Groundhog Day" of marital politics and family agita, destined to live and relive their misery ad infinitum.
And an abundance of viewers -- sometimes 20 million on Monday nights -- have enjoyed the Barones' vicious circle, laughing nervously as Debra and her mother-in-law bat hardball insults across the kitchen linoleum. In fact, Ray Romano's semiautobiographical comedy has been so successful for CBS that it has inspired a school of like-minded dom-coms in prime time, including ''Still Standing," ''Yes, Dear," ''My Wife and Kids," ''According to Jim," ''Listen Up," and ''George Lopez." Despite surface distinctions, all of these shows revive the same view of family: demanding wives, beleaguered husbands, intruding in-laws. The men can be schleppers, since they're big cuddly kids, but the women must be sexy enough to earn their keep. The men can stay lighthearted and horny, since the women shoulder the emotional baggage.
As ''Everybody Loves Raymond" signs off tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4, after an hourlong retrospective, it serves as a reminder of the increasing polarization in American TV sitcoms. And it's a polarization that has its parallels in the American political and cultural spheres.
At one end, you have ''Raymond" and its clones, the genre at its most traditional both in style and content. These are conventional comedies tweaked with laugh tracks, and they portray families not unlike those we knew in TV's early days. They keep alive the family structure reflected in the classic likes of ''I Love Lucy," ''The Dick Van Dyke Show," and ''Ozzie and Harriet," that icon of middle-class 1950s normalcy, even while they accommodate today's fondness for sex jokes. They seem to turn their backs on many of the social movements of the last half-century as their gender roles remain ensconced. They virtually ignore the families of choice we saw come of age on TV in comedies from ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to ''Friends," or the emergence of independent women on the likes of ''Murphy Brown."
At the other end, you have risk-oriented sitcoms, the ones less likely to score ratings. Naturally, these are the ones critics tend to gush about, confirming for some the media's liberal bias. These shows incorporate stylistic and social changes to pull the sitcom and its viewers into new territory. Most notable among them is Fox's ''Arrested Development," a series that twists family stereotypes into unfamiliar new TV shapes, from the latent homosexual husband to the infantile mama's boy trying to be a soldier in Iraq. It is the yin to the ''Everybody Loves Raymond" yang, as it subverts the very notions of family and normalcy.
As the Barones bid farewell, the Bluths of ''Arrested Development" also may not return next season, if Fox so decides when it announces its fall schedule this week. Like many provocative comedies, including ''Family Guy," which Fox just brought back after a post-cancellation resurgence of interest, ''Arrested" has failed to find mainstream success during its two seasons despite its best-comedy Emmy. While ''Everybody Loves Raymond" became CBS's highest-rated comedy in 1998, in its third season, ''Arrested Development" may not even get a third round. It is losing its Nielsen ''election."
Is the polarization of sitcoms an extension of the polarization of American voters? Arguably, there is a red-blue separation represented in the split, one that Hollywood is increasingly aware of. ''We look at the comedy from the prism of our own eyes, when we should be looking at it from the prism of the country," Mark Pedowitz of Touchstone Television told Entertainment Weekly about the popularity of ABC's ''According to Jim." And ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson added, ''We appeal to a broad audience, and there are a lot of people between LA and New York." It doesn't mean that only Republicans watch ''Jim" and ''Raymond," but the distance between ''Raymond" and ''Arrested" surely symbolizes a general dichotomy in American values and tastes.
The polarization of the sitcom rose out of the Clinton era and its army of singles-obsessed comedies. Most of them, except ''Will & Grace," have passed on, but prime time in the 1990s was a glut of ''Seinfeld" and ''Friends" clones. These shows were all about new social forms and ''alternative" lifestyles, and the more traditional family dynamic was far from TV comedy's most lucrative subject. The ''Raymond" shows didn't assert their prominence until the eve of George W. Bush's presidency, just as conservatives began to reassert their presence in the government.
While the ''Raymond" shows are strikingly similar, the offbeat sitcoms break down into two stylistic categories, the surreal-com and the real-com. The surreal-coms such as ''Scrubs" and ''Arrested" are little homages to the technical advancements of TV, as they use all the tools of the medium -- flashbacks, fantasy sequences, editing, voiceovers, visual puns -- to create a carefully assembled product. They are all about post-production, as time-jumps and images are appended in the cutting room. The surreal-coms include animated family series such as ''Family Guy" as they pack in jokes with very loose standards of time and space.
And their formal innovations tend to mirror their deeper sensibilities, which usually involve using political incorrectness and irony to upend conventional thinking. On both visual and substantive levels, shows such as ''Arrested Development" create a sense of the unexpected, so that you have to open your mind to follow where they lead. You never know exactly where they're going, unlike the ''Raymond" shows, which go where they've been going since their stars were children. They challenge more than they reaffirm.
The real-coms, most notably ''Curb Your Enthusiasm," are tinged by reality TV in that they have an unscripted aesthetic. They're not staged reality shows like Paris Hilton's ''The Simple Life" or ''The Osbournes," but they're improvised within the bounds of a plot arc. They're rough-hewn, with their ''ums" and their awkward silences, and they don't rely on prewritten one-liners. Also, they borrow heavily from real life, so Larry David plays a version of himself on ''Curb."
Like the surreal-coms, they're unpredictable, asking the viewer to pay attention as they move in strange new directions. Showtime's ''Fat Actress" has brought the real-com to some outrageous places, as Kirstie Alley plays a version of herself trying to lose weight. Rather than feeding into the cultural pressure for women to be little, something the female characters in the ''Raymond" shows need to take at face value, Alley ridicules it ruthlessly. Not surprisingly, her show has only a cult following on ''Showtime."
As ''Raymond" retires, its clones age, and ''Arrested Development" struggles, there is no obvious Next Big Thing in comedy. Indeed, the sitcom is at a crossroads as its quantity decreases in prime time. Once the most common form on network lineups, the half-hour comedy is falling into irrelevance, placing only one or two positions in the weekly ratings. Will ''Arrested Development" miraculously soar to prominence? Will a new crew of post-''Raymond" series prevail? Perhaps we'll know the answer in 2008.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.