Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Frasierquest 1.1: The Good Son

Frasier at his desk at KACL
Roz: Ever heard of Lupe Velez?

First episodes of sitcoms are interesting; they have under 30 minutes to not only set up a situation and introduce us to characters, but also convince us that this will be funny. Exposition is not inherently funny, and the time spent maneuvering characters into place means that the first episode almost functions as a prologue, but you also have to give the audience a feel for the status quo. It’s a hard job, and many a new show gets crushed under the burden of explaining its premise.

So it’s interesting just how strongly FRASIER establishes itself at the outset. “The Good Son” starts with Frasier Crane explaining how he got to Seattle from Boston in a single monologue to a caller to his radio show. Within two minutes we know where Frasier is, what he does, and why he is where he is, doing what he’s doing. It’s a sharp piece of writing, and though there’s still plenty that needs to happen, the show has made its entrance with a confident swagger.

Over the course of the pilot, Frasier has his seemingly idyllic new life back home in Seattle interrupted by the reality that his father Martin can no longer live on his own; his hip’s gotten worse, and he’s had a few accidents at his apartment. Niles can’t take him, because dad doesn’t get along with his wife Maris (Frasier: “Who does?”), so Frasier must give up his solitude and share his apartment with his father. And Eddie, whose unrelenting stare creeps Frasier the Hell out. After a few weeks, Frasier finds himself unable to look after dad on his own, and on Niles’ suggestion, hires a home health care worker; the flighty, goofy Daphne Moon. So now she has to live with them too, and sparks fly between father and son, until Roz comes up with a piece of sage advice. (See above.)

While it usually takes a while for a sitcom to find its voice, “The Good Son” establishes the hallmarks of FRASIER’s style from the outset. Scene transitions are accomplished through title cards, forgoing the traditional use of exterior shots and incidental music. (The latter omission adds additional weight to a joke-free and rather brutal argument between Frasier and Martin near the end- many a sitcom attempt at seriousness has been ruined by being pounded home with sad piano cues.) And while other comedies were relying on a lot of short, fast scenes to catch viewers’ attention, creators David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee here made the choice to trust them with long stretches of dialogue.

The pilot actually originally ran several minutes long, and when cutting it down, the showrunners realized they couldn’t get past a certain point without hurting the story, so NBC let the first episode run a minute long. And a good thing it was, since this is a very tight script. Every scene advances the story and establishes the characters, and every character contributes something. Niles persuades Frasier to take Martin in (and in a nice circumstance that the writers didn’t intend, is indirectly responsible for Daphne entering the Cranes’ lives), Martin’s sour demeanor escalates the conflict, Daphne wins Martin over by unintentionally irritating Frasier, and Roz provides the impetus for Frasier and his father to reconcile. Little lines reveal a lot, from a fondly-remembered piece of motherly advice (“A handshake is as good as a hug”) to the first references to Maris (who was, apparently, going to be shown at some point, but the descriptions got too vivid too quickly.)

Obviously, Kelsey Grammer is comfortable in the role, and doesn’t miss a beat. After all this time, it’s hard to remember that David Hyde Pierce was a relatively unknown quantity in his first scenes as Niles, and yet he comes very close to stealing the episode out of the gate. Jane Leeves plays Daphne with a very light charm, and looking gorgeous doesn’t hurt. Peri Gilpin makes a strong first impression, though Roz hasn’t gotten a whole lot of face time yet. John Mahoney’s portrayal of Martin is harsher than it would become, but this is justified by the story, and we’ll see the relationship between him and his son soften as we go along. It’s also interesting to note that the show started right off the bat with the practice of having celebrity voiceovers for Frasier’s callers- in this case, Griffin Dunne and Linda Hamilton.

So we’re off to the races, and though FRASIER would refine its identity as a sitcom throughout the first year, the fundamentals are already on display. On the commentary, Peter Casey and David Lee reveal that one of their rules for the series was “No dumb characters, no dumb jokes.” This would not be an absolute law, but it explains a lot about how respectful the show would be about its characters and its audience. I think I may have actually seen the first episode when it was broadcast, but well before I developed the skill for critical analysis. Nowadays, I realize how rare it is for a show to start great, and to get better.

Character of Frasier created by Glen and Les Charles
Created and Written by Peter Casey, David Angell, and David Lee
Directed by James Burrows
Broadcast September 16, 1993

And as a bonus, via IMDB, the entirety of Roz’s Lupe Velez speech:

Roz: Ever heard of Lupe Velez?

Frasier: Who?

Roz: Lupe Velez, the movie star in the '30s. Well, her career hit the skids, so she decided she'd make one final stab at immortality. She figured if she couldn't be remembered for her movies, she'd be remembered for the way she died. And all Lupe wanted was to be remembered. So, she plans this lavish suicide - flowers, candles, silk sheets, white satin gown, full hair and makeup, the works. She takes the overdose of pills, lays on the bed, and imagines how beautiful she's going to look on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper. Unfortunately, the pills don't sit well with the enchilada combo plate she sadly chose as her last meal. She stumbles to the bathroom, trips and goes head-first into the toilet, and that's how they found her.

Frasier: Is there a reason you're telling me this story?

Roz: Yes. Even though things may not happen like we planned, they can work out anyway.

Frasier: Remind me again how it worked for Lupe, last seen with her head in the toilet.

Roz: All she wanted was to be remembered. Will you ever forget that story?

1 comment:

Manish said...

Hey! I just want to tell you that I am a huge fan of Frasier and I am SO GLAD I found your reviews! I really like your analysis. Good job!