Friday, October 16, 2009

Frasierquest 1.3: Dinner at Eight

Niles and Daphne's first meeting
Niles: When Frasier told me he'd hired an Englishwoman, I pictured someone a little more... not quite so... you're Daphne?

Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this one.

In fandom parlance, I’m a Niles/Daphne ‘shipper. The long-unrequited love of a foppish, geeky psychiatrist for a batty English beauty was what made me a regular watcher when the show hit syndication in 1997, and though the meeting of the OTP is barely a part of this episode, seeing how it began never gets old.

“Dinner at Eight” is really about Martin and his sons, and it’s the episode which brings the inherent culture clash to the forefront. In the first two episodes, Frasier’s issues with his father are mostly about having his private space invaded; here, we take a closer look at what makes them inherently different. It’s also arguably the episode where Niles starts to take his place in the ensemble, playing off other characters as well as his brother; much of the fun of reviewing early episodes is seeing these little incremental milestones, as the show continues to build its identity.

Again we have a fairly simple plot; Frasier and Niles, feeling newly perplexed by their father’s lack of refinement, resolve to take him out to an expensive dinner at Le Cigar Volant (the restaurant’s first mention on the show.) However, a last-minute loss of their reservation means they instead end up joining dad at the Timber Mill, a steakhouse that clips off the ties of patrons who dare to wear them and asks them to select their cuts from the “beef trolley.”

It’s worth pointing out that the actual dinner is the episode’s climax; everything up until then is the seemingly uneventful buildup. The central conflict is basically kept on the back burner until, finally, Martin gets fed up with the snobbish, catty attitude his sons display at the steakhouse, which causes them to realize that they’ve been wrong to try and push class onto their father when they’re suffering a deficit themselves. The episode isn’t slow for the lack of plot; there’s enough banter between the characters to pull us along, mainly because we’re still getting to know them.

Back to Niles and Daphne for a moment. The whole idea of Niles having a crush on Frasier’s new live-in guest was basically conceived as a running gag; it was funny to see a stuffy upper class twit be struck dumb with affection for, basically, the help. It’s easy to see the comedy value, as Niles isn’t even sure WHAT he feels about Daphne. He loves his wife, in a bizarre kind of way (“Just the other day I kissed her for no reason!”), but in this episode Daphne just seems to have a hold on him- he can’t even bear to tell her that one of her psychic readings is wrong. It’s funny, but it’s also very sweet and cute, and this unintended upshot of their interplay is what gave it life beyond a joke.

The episode teases an appearance by Maris, and her dropping out of the dinner date is a nice early indication of just how moody the character is. (It feels weird to refer to her as a character, but there’s rarely any better term. Outside force? Plot element?) Equally revealing is Martin’s total non-surprise when Maris drops out; it’s a nice bit of history between him and Niles. Similarly, this is the first time where Martin, trying to lay down the law, invokes the memory of Frasier and Niles’ mother. Hester Crane actually appeared on an episode of CHEERS, as an overprotective, cold woman who threatened to kill Diane if she insisted on marrying Frasier, but this show recasts her more benevolently, as a model both for Frasier and Niles’ refinement and for the tolerance of unrefinement that they seem to lack. Here, and later, it’s a powerful weapon.

By now, the show’s first three episodes have specifically focused on the conflict betwene Frasier and his father; since this was the basic premise that the creators built the series around, it makes sense that they’d make sure to hammer it down early so as to establish itself to the audience. It avoids repeating the first two episodes by making it a three-sided conflict, and adding a few fun bits on the side. FRASIER is not yet the ensemble piece it would become, but you can see it’s starting to get there.

Guest Caller: Patti LuPone as Pam

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett
Directed by James Burrows

Aired September 30, 1993

Niles: In the middle of dressing for the evening, she suddenly slumped down on the edge of the bed in her half-slip and sighed. Of course, I knew then and there that dinner was not to be.

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