Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: In Praise of “Frasier”

[This article was originally written in 2008.]

From the early ‘90s to the early ‘00s, Frasier was one of NBC’s most successful sitcoms. Along with The Simpsons and Seinfeld, it is also one of my all time favorite shows. Watching it in reruns reminds me of how consistently good a comedy can be, and how there aren’t a lot of new quality sitcoms out there.

The reasons the show is so much better than other sitcoms: Its cast was made up of talented actors, not stand-up comedians looking to cash another paycheck or flavor-of-the-month 20-somethings with lots of looks and little talent. During its eleven season run, even the not-great episodes always had superior writing and direction.

And then there’s the premise: a middle-aged Harvard- and Oxford-educated radio psychologist (played with singular aplomb by Kelsey Grammer) and his adventures with family, co-workers, and various love interests in Seattle. The setup alone separated Frasier from other sitcoms of the time, most of which were based on single gals in the big city or fat, dumb blue-collar guys and their hot wives.

I especially liked the way the show had fun with the erudite ways of the main character and his brother Niles (deftly played by David Hyde-Pierce) without turning them into whipping boys on behalf of some anti-intellectual agenda. Frasier is often confused, awkward, vain, and wrong about a great many things. But he is also smart, loyal, passionate, and wise in his own way. The show was not afraid to let the brothers Crane be their full witty, cultured, refined selves, dispensing comic comeuppance only when they deserved it.

The following is a list of my personal Top Ten favorite episodes of this great show.

#10 “Good Night Seattle, Pts. 1 and 2” (Season 11) – The final episode of the series, where everyone is ready to move on with their lives, including Frasier, who is offered a new position in San Francisco and a potential soul-mate in Chicago.

Last episodes are like the proverbial box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get. In this case, by not throwing in too many grand farewell gestures and not forgetting to be funny, the show’s producers wisely chose to stick with what got them through eleven seasons, showing how a series finale did not have to be overly maudlin (Friends), incongruously surreal (Seinfeld) or completely off the map (Roseanne) to mark the end of an era.

#9 “Love Bites Dog” (Season 4) - The radio station’s volatile sportscaster Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe (Dan Butler) has fallen in love for the first time in his life. Then he gets dumped, and it’s up to Frasier to help the wounded jock pick up the pieces.

Frasier has always had an outstanding group of supporting cast members, and Butler’s portrayal of a sports-loving knucklehead is a good example. The character is obnoxious without being completely over-the-top, and is written into the series just often enough that it doesn’t get stale. Like Frasier’s producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), Bulldog’s lusty extroversion serves as a contrast to prim and proper Frasier and Niles.

#8 “The Good Son” (Season 1) - The first episode. Frasier, who has just started his new radio career, agrees to take in his father Martin (John Mahoney), a former cop who is partially disabled due to an injury incurred on the job. He also hires Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) to be a housekeeper and Martin’s physical therapist.

With the first episode, the producers quickly established the show’s tone as well as how different it would be from its predecessor, Cheers. In the end these two shows would end up being as far apart as Seattle is from Boston, the main difference being how the characters on Frasier would change over time, something that never happened in the former series.

Another crucial aspect this episode introduced was the dynamic between Frasier and Martin, a relationship based on love and concern but also long-standing bitterness from the family’s rocky relationship. Throughout the rest of the series, Frasier and Niles’ anger at and frustration with Martin’s crustiness and repressed feelings, as well as Martin’s disappointment with and contempt for his sons’ bookishness and effete sensibilities, would provide a constant undercurrent of tension that comes closer to real life than most TV dramas.

#7 “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” (Season 1) - Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) arrives in Seattle seeking a possible reconciliation. This is the first of what would be many encounters between Frasier and Lilith, two people who share not only a son but personalities and outlooks on life that have kept both of them from really connecting with anyone else.

If it’s tough to portray an intelligent man with any dimensions on an American TV comedy, it’s even harder to be a smart woman. Neuwirth, however, fuses her character with grace and energy that makes her much more than an uptight bookworm. Even though their characters are divorced and clearly cannot stand much of each other, Grammer and Neuwirth do a beautiful job of portraying how mature adults can still care for each other after they’ve fallen out of love.

#6 “My Coffee with Niles” (Season 1) – Sitting at Café Nervosa, Niles asks his brother a simple question - “Are You Happy?” Frasier spends the entire episode trying to answer it.

With a wink to the classic art-house film My Dinner with Andre, this entire episode is based on a single conversation, which is tough to do when screenwriters are generally encouraged to “show, don’t tell.” It takes special writing, directing, and acting to make something like this work, and it does thanks to the great rapport Grammer and Hyde-Pierce share.

#5 “And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon, Pts. 1 and 2” (Season 8) - Niles and Daphne finally acknowledge their love for each other. But now they have to break the news to Niles’ new wife Mel (Jane Adams), who he impulsively married weeks before, and Daphne’s fiancée Donny (Saul Rubinek), who she just left standing at the altar.

By the time the show had arrived at season 7, the whole Niles-loves-Daphne-but-can't-tell-her subplot had pretty much been played out. But the sitcom genre thrives on consistency and sameness, so it was more than a little bit of a risk for the series to take such a drastic turn in a new direction. Fortunately the show was better for it in the end, opening up new story ideas and giving Daphne and Niles extra dimensions to their characters as a result of their taking the plunge.

#4 “Murder Most Maris” (Season 11) - Niles’ ex-wife Maris accidentally kills her boyfriend and turns to Niles for help, much to the chagrin of his love Daphne.

Even though during the entire series Maris is never seen or heard, her influence hangs over the Crane family like a Chanel-clad ghost. An abstraction of everything wrong with the Upper Class, this character's main role is to vex Niles out of anything resembling domestic bliss, even while she fits right in to the Cranes’ historic preference for thin, pale, emotionally distant wives.

In this episode Niles finally frees himself from Maris’ influence, but not without first going through the mother of all coffee shop breakdowns. Also, Daphne finalizes her transition from cheery, deferent domestic servant to a full-fledged member of the family, complete with the crabby moods and sarcastic retorts that have until now been reserved for the men. And all the while Frasier tries to elicit sympathy for the fact that he was punched in the face by a man now dead. This is a brilliantly paced and executed episode where a lot happens in 22 minutes.

#3 “The Innkeepers” (Season 2) - Frasier and Niles try their hand at running a restaurant. Frasier and Niles have always had a longing to be special, to be part of elite society and show it off. They could have just hired some people to run the place, but that strategy wouldn’t feed the ego the same way slipping on a tux and moving among the well-heeled clientele would.

This is one of several episodes where the Crane brothers’ grand schemes for elegance and social respectably run smack into practical reality. It’s not the universe playing cruel jokes on those who dare dream of rising above their station so much as gentle reminders that creating an atmosphere of classy leisure isn’t easy.

The performances in this episode demonstrate how one does not always have to engage in slapstick in order to do physical comedy. The actors’ movements, timing, and reactions create an atmosphere of mayhem without their actually throwing themselves around the set.

#2 “Good Grief” (Season 6) - When his radio station where he works switches formats from talk to Salsa music, Frasier loses his job and goes through the Kübler-Ross Model of the 5 stages of grief.

Thanks to his more than 20 years of existence, Frasier Crane is one of the most detailed comic characters in history. On the surface is a successful maven of intellect and culture with a taste for the finer things. Beneath that surface is a vain, preening, thin-skinned narcissist. And beneath that is a generous, descent man who truly cares about and wants to help other people.

For this episode, the writers go to level two and stay there as Frasier’s comfortable career-bubble pops and he slowly but surely spins out of control. His final meltdown, helped along by his brother, is priceless.

#1 “The Ski Lodge” (Season 5) - A simple ski weekend becomes a door-slamming bedroom farce where everyone is hot for someone who is hot for someone else.

For all the titillation that happens on American television, most sitcoms don’t deal with adult sexual situations very well. When they do the result is usually something incredulous (two people have no idea how they ended up in bed together!), over-earnest, or just plain immature.

This episode of Frasier manages to take the time-worn subject of single adults trying to “get some” and create a comic tableau of lust and misunderstandings. The dating world has always been a minefield for the good doctor, and this is no exception.

The episode is crafted so well you could take it as is and perform it in a theater as a one-act play. It’s this combination of superior acting, writing, and directing that makes this episode, and many others, so great.

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