By Terry Kelleher
June 08, 1998 12:00 PM

CBS (Mondays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

CBS has been thumping the tub for this series lately, suggesting that it deserves to succeed Seinfeld on the sitcom summit. Hype? Sure, a bit. But if you saw last month’s second-season finale—a warmly funny flashback to the marriage of Ray (Ray Romano) and Debra (Patricia Heaton)—you know Everybody Loves Raymond is a rare and winning combination of wit, sweetness and eccentricity. The summer rerun period is a good time for latecomers to board the bandwagon, and CBS is happy to oblige them with a special June 8 stunt: four Raymond repeats from 8 to 10 p.m.

The first of the episodes is a Christmastime treatment of Ray’s No. 1 frustration: the lack of opportunity for conjugal intimacy in a home filled with three children (6-year-old daughter, 2-year-old twin sons) and frequently invaded by his pushy parents (Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts) and his droopy brother Robert (Brad Garrett), a bachelor policeman. (It’s Robert’s oft-expressed envy of sportswriter Ray that gives the show its ironic title.) The humor is gentle in the second half hour, as Ray’s mother gives him a long-postponed piano lesson. But the night’s third and fourth episodes highlight Mom’s hovering presence and judgmental personality: She prefers Robert’s “good and pure” girlfriend to De-bra; she crashes her daughter-in-law’s Tupperware party, prompting Debra to write her a letter demanding some space. The family tensions seem real, but Raymond’s writers never allow the conflict to outweigh the comedy.

Though he comes from a stand-up background, Romano registers reactions even more effectively than he delivers laugh lines in his distinctive baritone whine. And Heaton complements him beautifully as a smart spouse with a gift for getting to the point.

Bottom Line: Almost everybody should like Raymond, at least