Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Frasier

I am currently toiling away on two essays, one on the evolution of the characters in Frasier, and the other on arboreal imagery as catharsis in The Sopranos. And that's not counting the regular updates I'm working on (the posts on taste I promised will start appearing by the end of next week). Anyway, going through some old writings on Frasier, I ran into a few thoughts, which I thought I'd share with you.

Now, for those of you who don't know me (and I don't mean just biblically), my love for Frasier knows no bounds (what The Sopranos is for television drama, Frasier is to me for sitcoms). I feel beholden to that obsessive passion to share my thoughts with you. Some of these points are a bit too inside, and I pray you indulge me.

On Shark Jumping:

I am a Frasier apologist, and even though Season 5 onwards is pretty much downhill until Season 11, I don't think the show ever jumped the shark. Jumping the shark is not a dip in quality, which the show obviously suffered from Season 6 onwards. It is rather a culmination of all those cynical attempts the show gets suckered into in order to try and lure/entice more viewers, or retain the already existing ones. As such, I don't see, for example, Roz's pregnancy as a stunt at all: it was an interesting choice to see how this emancipated, obviously single character would deal with having a kid. It was a secondary plot line anyway; no one got out of their way to see a Frasier episode because of a more prominent Roz storyline.

There is one possible "shark jumping" moment in the show's entire run; and that is Niles sleeping with Lilith. The episode itself is well handled, funny, and has a bitter-sweet ending, but I don't like the concept behind it. However, that is one single instance, and never really affected the show (it was briefly mentioned in the episode Star Mitzvah).

On the Fat-Camp storyline:

With regards to Daphne's fat camp plot line, one can't overlook the influence of the real world on any given show. Jane Leeves was pregnant, and the producers had to find a way out of it; and they took a road less travelled. It wasn't particularly funny, but diminishing returns had already been the trend of the show by then. It was not a milestone of shark jumping by any means: rather, just another sad instance of mediocrity in an already underwhelming season (compared to the better days). The problem was that when she got back from the fat camp, she turned into pod-Daphne, and became an insufferable bitch until Season 11. That was why their chemistry looked a bit off with Niles. They had perfect chemistry again in Season 11 once writers with at least a modicum of clue into the character started writing Daphne.

Frasier's Relationship with Martin:

In the rather underwhelming 7th season episode, Out with Dad, Martin ends up pretending he's gay in order for Frasier to score. It is a crappy episode, but arguing that the Martin of The Good Son would never have behaved that way is both a moot and an interesting point (I put the moron in oxymoron). Sure, the Martin we first met in 1993 would never have done what he does in the former episode. But that's the point. The character, as did Frasier and everyone else, grew thoughout the years, and a gesture like the one Martin does for Frasier at the end of the episode is intrinsic to his character's overall arc, as well as that of his relationship with Frasier. The Martin of the first episode could not even thank his son face-to-face for taking him in. But, having made his son wait for 11 years, Martin's thank you in Goodbye, Seattle was that much more meaningful and earnest than anything Frasier could have asked for. People did act differently in this show, but it was all a part of their character's growth.

On whether Frasier (the character) became more pompous as the series progressed:

Even though I can see arguments for the previous points I've recanted, I can't, for the life of me, see how one can draw a conclusion that Frasier's pomposity in the latter seasons outshone the former ones. He was always a buffoon, always a show off. Sure he knew a lot, but he thought (as did Niles) he knew much, much more than that. Just a case in point is The Crucible from the first season, where Frasier invites Martha Paxton, "the preeminent Neo-Fauvist," to his flat for a cocktail party where he intends to unveil his latest purchase, a Paxton, to his guests, whom he is trying to further impress by having the actual artist talk about the painting. Here's how the scene goes:

Frasier: Oh God, I've waited so long for this moment - I'm just going to stand back and let you describe your work - "Elegy in Green" in your own words. The way you insinuate the palette but never lean on it, you capture the zeitgeist of our generation.
It is the most perfect canvas it has ever my privilege to gaze upon. I mean, one can only imagine what inspired you to paint it.
Martha: I didn't paint it.
A murmur passes through the crowd.
Frasier: [fighting panic] Of course you didn't. You-you created it, you gave birth to it.
Martha: [walks to the painting] I didn't do anything to it - I never saw this painting before in my whole life.
Martin: [leans into Frasier's ear] And you thought I was gonna embarrass you!
Hell, the show's third episode, Dinner at Eight, is marked by Frasier and Niles acting like such arseholes at a favourite steak house of Martin's. He's an insufferable and immature buffoon later on in the season in Author, Author. What about Focus Group of the third season where he ends up burning an immigrant's kiosk (played by Tony Shalhoub - the immigrant, not the kiosk)? And the less said about his treatment of Martin's heartfelt present in Our Father Whose Art Ain't Heaven, the better. What I am trying to get at is that he was always a jackass, and even though it was accentuated further in some latter day episodes, I think that, too, was character driven. He was lovelorn, yet desperately wanted to be loved, and his pomposity was the only way to channel his frustrations (now that he and his father got along much better).

On the Farce Episodes:

I loved the farces when they were done right. Many of them were reminiscent of Moliere; and that is a spot on description of the better farce episodes like The Matchmaker (generally regarded as the best Frasier episode), The Innkeepers (Frasier acts like an arsehat in this Season 2 classic, too), The Two Mrs Cranes, Ham Radio, To Kill a Talking Bird, Merry Christmas Mrs Moskowitz, etc. The key to a decent farce is this: A woman is cheating on her husband. The husband walks in, the lover hides in the closet. Here's the kicker: the husband MUST get into that closet. It's a life and death situation; and, obviously, the wife cannot let him. There is the crux of any given farce. There is always a party involved who must do or say something, and another (maybe more) who must not let them for reasons the former does not know. Of course, there will be a surprise for the audience, too, when the whole thing's over (so we feel part of the whole shindig as well). The show's writers, and especially Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd, knew this, and made it work. There were times when the farce episodes did not work, like in the beloved (not by me) Ski Lodge, which just does not do it for me, but those were few and far in between.

My five favourite episodes in ascending order:

5) Episode 1.17 - A Midwinter Night's Dream

This is brilliant for showcasing, both for the first time and so brilliantly as well, the complete nonchalance that Daphne has towards Niles' sexual "non-advances" and histrionic desires. It also has such a great ending, showing a brilliant side to Frasier and Martin, as well as a beautiful production design. Frasier's all-too-familiar look at Niles following the episode's final line is still a sight to behold, after so many, many years.

Favourite Line:

Frasier: You're a complex little pirate, aren't you?
4) Episode 4.18 - Ham Radio

I love the farce episodes of Frasier, as do all Frasier fans I suppose but this one was one of the best. It has all my favourite supporting characters; Bulldog, Gil and Noel and they are all given such great material ("it keeps my coffee warm") to work with. The principals are great, too, of course but for me, Frasier and Niles are the centrepieces as you know that bottled up anger of Niles's is going to explode soon in the face of Frasier at his most domineering.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue:

Mel: I've done that accent both on Broadway and the London stage!
Frasier: Yes, well, perhaps, they have different standards than I have.
3) Episode 6.10 - Merry Christmas, Mrs Moskowitz

First of all, Amy Breneman is hot, hot, hot, so the gonads are doing some of the thinking here. Secondly, I have a fascination with everything Jewish and especially the humour that derives from that in sophisticated comedies. Finally, both those factors are combined in this wonderful farcical episode with, for me, Niles stealing the show when he is trying to be more Jewish than Jeff Goldblum. The road to the ultimate, painfully funny conclusion is both witty, and spectacularly silly.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue:

Helen: Who has a nice toast? Niles?
Niles: Oh, all right. L'chaim! Mazel tov! Next year in Jerusalem!
Frasier: Take it down a notch, Tevye.
2) Episode 1.19 - Give Him The Chair

Sure, it is not the funniest of episodes but it has one of the best writings of not only this particular sitcom but any TV show, ever! I have always loved Frasier for being able to go on for five-ten minutes without a belly laugh (out of the question for any other successful sitcom) but Frasier always managed it with aplomb; and in a show that values farce as one of its highest assets too. On paper, it would just scream out a balance problem but it works so well. This is a great episode, devoted mainly to Frasier and Martin's relationship, and Martin's speech is probably the finest the show has ever produced.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue:

Martin: Okay, I'll tell you what chair I want. I want the chair I was sitting in
when I watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. And when the U.S.
hockey team beat the Russians in the '80 Olympics. I want the chair I was
sitting in the night you called me to tell me I had a grandson. I want the chair
I was in all those nights, when your mother used to wake me up with a kiss after
I'd fallen asleep in front of the television. You know, I still fall asleep in
it. And every once in a while, when I wake up, I still expect your mother to be
there, ready to lead me off to bed... Oh, never mind. It's only a chair. Come
on, Eddie.
1) Episode 2.03 - The Matchmaker

As far as I am concerned, this is easily overall the funniest Frasier episode ever. I am not sure if it can be topped in a conventional sitcom. The episode starts promisingly with an obvious set up that one can see miles off, but that promise is fulfilled and then some with the scenes during the dinner party with Tom at Frasier's. I am not sure what is funnier, Frasier's earlier ignorance of the fact that he is on a date; Niles's taking the the piss out of his brother once he finds out or Frasier's childish embarassment at the end. Simply put: magnificent.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue (There are too many):

Frasier: Oh my God! Niles, do you realise what this means?
Niles: Yes,
you're dating your boss. You of all people should know the pitfalls of an office relationship.
Frasier: Yes, but he... he just never mentioned the fact he...
Niles: I'll call you tomorrow. But not too early, of course.
Other notable favourites:

1.24: My Coffee With Niles (For that beautiful ending to the first seson)
2.20: Breaking The Ice (Father-Son stuff turns me into a soppy goo)
2.23: The Innkeepers (A brilliant farce)
3.03: Martin Does It His Way (Honour Thy Father)
3.13: Moon Dance (Grammar's brilliant direction and the postcard gag!)
3.15: A Word To The Wiseguy (Niles acting tough - a sight to behold)
4.01: The Two Mrs. Cranes ("Now, now, Daphne. You are eating for two")
4.03: The Impossible Dream (I love Gil, what can I say?)
4.14: To Kill A Talking Bird ("Birds Today!" What a line - What a delivery!)
5.20: First Date (Niles and Daphne sitting in a tree and that song)
6.03: Dial M For Martin (It ain't paranoia if they're really after you!)
6.08: The Seal Who Came To Dinner (Go Keenan, It's Your Birthday!)
7.01: Momma Mia (The three of them watching the video at the end of the episode!)
7.10: Back Talk (The Revelation!!!!!!)
7.22: Dark Side Of The Moon (She loves him too!!!!!)
7.23: Something Borrowed, Someone Blue (Niles: “How do you feel about me?”)
8.14: Hooping Cranes (Frasier the Interpreter)
8.15: Docu.Drama (John Glenn in the booth!!!)
9.02: The First Temptation of Daphne (The Lizard Harness!)
10.06: Star Mitzvah (Noel is my hero!)
11.03: The Doctor Is Out (A welcome return to form)
11.23: Goodnight Seattle (“Though we are not now that strength, which in old days moved earth and heaven…”)