Sunday, November 29, 2009

Today! Today! Today!

Today's the day "You Have Five Minutes...", a radio theatre anthology containing one short play by yours truly, airs on KUNM in Albuquerque. For locals, that's 89.9 on your dial.

Everyone else, click HERE to listen to their online stream. The show starts at 6:05 Mountain Time, and will be archived for about two weeks.

Please, give it a listen if you have the time.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Frasierquest 1.10: Oops

Bulldog at his Bulldoggiest
Marin: I tuned into the Gonzo Sports Show like I do every afternoon, and they had Father Mike filling in. I hate that! All it was, was “Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Notre Dame...”

And we go right to another episode focused on the radio station. I think this is a sign that the show is continuing to expand beyond the family dynamic; if you knew nothing about FRASIER and happened to catch this one installment, you might even think this was a workplace sitcom. Sure, all the regulars get some face time and Frasier himself still drives the action, so it’s not that dramatic a shift, but mostly the episode serves to flesh out Frasier’s work environment a little more, and put a welcome spotlight on Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe in the process.

When meeting with Roz and others from the station, Frasier overhears the rumor that KACL is over budget and needs to let some of its high-priced talent go. The word is that Bulldog, the highest rated, but also highest paid and shortest tempered of the on-air talent, will be the one to get the axe. Later, when Father Mike (George Deloy) is worried that he might be getting fired, Frasier lets him in on the above rumor, which Bulldog overhears, compelling him to charge into the office of station manager Ned Miller (John Glover) and chew him out. As it turned out, the rumor was false, but now Bulldog has quit in the most un-repealable way possible. When he shows up on Frasier’s doorstep, Frasier’s guilt compels him to try and persuade Miller to take Bulldog back, which is no mean feat- the manager is a nasty, unforgiving, ill-tempered man himself, and he cheats on his wife (if Daphne’s readings are correct.)

One of the most common devices in farce is the overheard (and often misheard) conversation, and though FRASIER has yet to really embrace that genre, it’s definitely starting a little more in that direction. (The way I see it, proper farce requires at least two or three misunderstandings to start compounding on each other until nobody has any idea what is going on at all.) In this case, at least, Frasier isn’t misheard- he simply has the wrong information from the start. Again he faces an ethical dilemma when it comes to dealing with the consequences of his (well-intentioned) actions, but as much as the episode is driven by what he does, he’s not entirely the focus.

Instead, this is Bulldog’s first time getting some significant plot attention, and it’s good to see. Dan Butler, who already had a solid reputation as comedian and character actor, jumped into this role with enthusiasm early, and this episode helps to demonstrate why he became such a fixture on the show. A number of other KACL personalities get introduced, either on screen or in passing, including Father Mike, Chopper Dave, and Bonnie Weems.

One personality who won’t be staying around is Ned Miller himself, and though Glover is such a good actor that you hate to see him go, Miller is such a hateful presence that it’s probably for the best. This isn’t a show that does nasty very much; the most negative person on it is someone we never see or hear. Just about everyone else has some redeeming factor. Glover gets one scene, but it’s a frighteningly memorable performance, and though the episode’s resolution is, on paper, kind of contrived, he and Grammer sell it.

On the subject of negative people, there’s something wonderfully fitting about the business with Niles bringing over a plant that Maris has killed through- well, whatever she considers love- in the hopes that Daphne can restore it. Remember, by this point the writers still were treating Niles’ crush as a gag, so the foreshadowing and Jungian symbolism is entirely unintentional. (The scene also keeps Daphne connected to a spiritual, “Earth Mother” image, which is a rich vein of symbolism all its own.) In the same scene we figure out that Martin has worked out that Niles is kind of smitten, but doesn’t seem to see any harm in it.

So domestic developments continue, and really the only change from prior episodes is how much time gets spent there vs. the station. But this is still a sign that the show’s pushing at its own boundaries, making space for future shenanigans and letting the irregulars start to come into their own. Nearly all shows that live past their first season do this, but there’s something fascinating about the process. As for the episode itself, it’s hard to criticize an episode which brings in two great guest comedians, then puts Daphne in a unitard for no particular reason.

Guest Caller: Jay Leno as Don

Written by Denise Moss & Sy Dukane
Directed by James Burrows
Aired 18 November, 1993

Niles: I really have to go. I’m conducting a seminar on multiple personality disorders, and it takes me forever to fill out the nametags.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's time for Blatant Self Promotion!

Despite this blog being mostly reviews, I still do creative writing, and a good deal of my recent work has been writing radio scripts. This past June, a very short work of mine was actually performed and recorded as part of a larger performance at the Filling Station in Albuquerque, NM, entitled "You Have Five Minutes", under the direction of Lance Roger Axt (friend of the blog) and Linda Lopez McAlister.

On Sunday, November 29, at 6:05 Mountain Time, KUNM in Albuquerque will broadcast the final edited show. The full schedule will feature plays by myself, Algernon D' Ammassa, Lance Roger Axt, Frederick Greenhalgh, and Butch D' Ambrosio. I'm still working on finding full program information, but my play is entitled "On the Outskirts."

Now, I know what you're thinking. "I don't live in Albuquerque! And neither do you!" Well, KUNM streams all its material live. Simply click Here at the appropriate time (I'll put a new thing up on the day in question, but still) and you can listen to their stream.

What is the appropriate time, you may ask? Well, you can probably figure it out, but just to be clear, it's 6:05 MT, which means 5:05 for those on the East Coast, 7:05 for us Midwesterners, and 8:05 for all you Eastern Timezoners. (Also 1:05 AM for the UK, 4:05 AM for Madagascar, and 9:05 AM for Irkutsk.)

This will actually be the first time I've heard this, so it'll be fun for everyone. It says they have shows up for 2 weeks after but I'll check and see if that includes us, and I've heard nothing about any permanent MP3 or whatever access but I'll keep you posted. (I'm still trying to find a way to get a copy of that comedy sketch I was in during the NATF 2007 show.)

But anyway, I hope you listen and enjoy. Back to business as usual.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Frasierquest 1.9: Selling Out

Bebe Glaser introduces herself to Frasier
Frasier: What would you think if I did a commercial and publicly endorsed a product?

Daphne: Oh, you mean like Cher does?

Frasier: Thank you, Daphne, one against. Dad?

This is another episode I’ve been looking forward to covering, as it brings in one of the series’ best recurring guest stars. Bebe Glaser, as played by Harriet Sansom Harris, is not just a great comic personality, but has an extremely good track record for being in great episodes. As good as the show’s core ensemble is, some of these irregular characters really help bring out their best. Another story that deals with Frasier’s career as a radio shrink, “Selling Out” has a lot of fun moments, and deals with one of the basic conflicts of his job.

KACL is having its radio personalities do on-air advertising, and Frasier initially balks at the offer to plug the Hunan Palace (leaving the ad to Bulldog, who proceeds to personally offend every Seattleite of even vaguely Asian descent.) He reconsiders, goes to the restaurant (offscreen), likes it, and so agrees to the deal. This puts him in touch with Bebe, Bulldog’s agent, who offers to represent him and help him on a few more endorsement deals, unsubtly hinting that this could help get him the money to send Frederick to Harvard when the time comes. But Frasier does hit a wall when he gets an offer for Emery’s Nuts- he’s not a nut person, but it does mean a television deal, but that does mean appearing inside a giant peanut...

Niles only has one scene here, at the Nervosa, but he provides a key perspective. As far as he’s concerned, Frasier’s already sold out just by doing a radio call-in show instead of proper psychiatric practice, and this is just one step further down the line. (He does so through a rather oblique analogy to Sharon Stone in BASIC INSTINCT- I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a while to figure out he was referring to that, and not Marilyn Monroe in THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH). Frasier obviously doesn’t agree, and doesn’t even consider himself a radio personality as such, but he has to watch out. It’s another ethical dilemma, and it’s interesting just how often these are coming up.

Bebe tends to play the role of temptress when she shows up; her Satanic enthusiasm in this episode is, compared to later appearances, subdued, but she’s still buttering up a new client. Harris is quite capable of subtle acting- she has small but very memorable roles in both MEMENTO and NURSE BETTY that show the more subdued portion of her range- but for Bebe, it’s mostly about the grand gestures, tempered on occasion with the tiniest bit of underplaying.

Even by the standards the show has set so far, this is a well-written episode; every scene is lively, bursting with so many good exchanges that I had a really hard time picking which quotes to use for the write-up. (I’m especially fond of Daphne’s sudden revelation that she used to star in a TV series in England- something that’s never mentioned again, obviously.) It’s broader than usual, but it’s good for the show to go this route once in a while.

It’s interesting to think of Frasier as a local celebrity, because we’ve all got those. He has a sort of lowercase-f fame, but it’s enough for him to have to watch out and make sure he doesn’t completely sell out. He finds a sort of balance at the end, but this isn’t the last time the issue comes up. And Bebe will always be around to tempt him.

Guest Caller: Carl Reiner as Roger

Written by Lloyd Garver
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired November 11, 1993

Frasier: Roger, at Cornell University, they have an incredible piece of scientific equipment known as the Tunneling Electron Microscope. Now this microscope is so powerful that by firing electrons you can actually see images of the atom, the infinitesimally minute building block of our universe. Roger, if I were using that microscope right now, I still wouldn’t be able to locate my interest in your problem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Theaters: The Men Who Stare At Goats

Men Who Stare At Goats poster and IMPAwards link
The disclaimer for THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS reads “More of this is true than you would believe”, or something to that effect. It’s based on a nonfiction book, has had a fictional storyline imposed on it, but the core concept is real; for many, many years, the U.S. military devoted resources to developing a corps of psychic superpowered soldiers, or, as they were frequently called, “Jedi warriors.” (One of the benefits of being a classified operation is that you presumably don’t have to worry about trademark issues.) The natural reaction to learning this sort of thing is a combination of disbelief, amusement, and frustration at the waste of tax dollars, but this film takes a cooler-headed approach. Skeptics need not worry, as the film doesn’t really try to convince us that any or all of the mystic mumbo-jumbo being taught to the soldiers is at all valid, but it doesn’t condemn the idea altogether. The overall attitude is that it’s a funny old world, and the result is a pleasant groove of a picture, not quite living up to the premise’s full potential, but still throwing some surprises at us.

Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor) is a journalist at the end of his rope, recently separated from his wife and trying to change things around by heading to Iraq in the early stages of the second Gulf War. He can’t actually get in the country until he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of the “New Earth Army” project, which, under the supervision of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), taught, or attempted to teach, various psychic and supernatural abilities to its select group of volunteers through a combination of drugs, dubious training exercises, and a decidedly non-Army-esque peace and love attitude. The New Earth Army was an almost utopian concept, meant to produce warriors who could convert enemies and spread peace, but it never quite worked out that way, and Cassady is a burnout, driven into the Iraqi desert by a mission that gets him and Wilton into some serious trouble.

The film is not as much of an outright comedy as the advertising has made it seem, though it rarely gets very serious. Instead the overall tone is of a funky, slightly mad adventure, one that may be based on pure New Age hokum but still worth following. The film doesn’t really commit to skepticism or credulity when it comes to the New Earth Army program- we only see the powers “working” either in ways that could just be normal human ability dressed up with the supernatural, or with the occasional special effect that may be pure fantasy on a character’s part. Like all pseudoscience, Lyn’s powers are unreliable and indistinguishable from luck, but the film never outright says that he’s lying or delusional.

It’s hard to believe the story Lyn has, but at the same time one wants to believe it. Django’s vision is born of a belief in the essential goodness of human nature; he apparently first stumbled on it when he noticed how rarely soldiers in a battle shoot to kill, and became convinced that a solider could become an agent of something better than war. But of course, at the same time, they still learn advanced knife combat and assorted ways of killing people. Bullshit or not, there’s still something corrupt in it, something that has to go wrong.

Clooney and MacGregor make a nice team- the former possessing a loopy certainty, while the latter seems desperate to believe in something. Of course, the fact that MacGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi provides the opportunity for a number of riffs on the “Jedi Warrior” bit, which goes beyond in-joking and starts pushing at the fourth wall. (Similarly, Bridges’ character has a touch of the Dude to him, though in fairness that’s probably most of the parts he gets offered.)

The film takes a dismaying turn for the conventional in its third act; it feels like something contrived to try and give the story a climax, and a sort of traditional feel-good one at that. It’s not actually boring or bad, but it has a certain Donald-Kaufman-esque feel- it all gets tied up too neatly, when the rest of the film’s appeal is in how funky it is.

Still, it’s a hard movie not to like. It doesn’t lean too heavily on any interpretation of the events it portrays, and has an empathy for its characters that suggests that, even if all the “New Earth” business is a fraud, it’s a useful fraud, perhaps discarded too quickly. Maybe we need the belief that we can become better humans, and the film suggests that a certain New Age idealism may be a necessary tonic for our times.

Plus, it makes extensive use of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”, which is worth a few points right there.

Based on the book by Jon Ronson
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
DIrected by Grant Heslov

Grade: B

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Frasierquest 1.8: Beloved Infidel

Frasier and Niles hit the books
Frasier: “How am I doing?” How are you doing, Niles? Doesn’t it bother you that your father cheated on my mother?

I remembered this episode as being darker than it actually is. It’s about a dark subject, to be sure, but handles it with grace. “Beloved Infidel” returns us to a focus on the Crane family dynamic, and on Frasier and Martin’s relationship in specific. It’s a bit slow, but the ultimate payoff is worth it, as the two find common ground over an unpleasant reality.

Out for dinner, Frasier and Niles spot Martin in the company of Marion Lawlor (Pat Crowley), who seems upset. The Lawlors were old family friends of the Cranes, who weren’t seen much after a falling out during a vacation at a cabin by the lake. Delving back into photo albums and diaries, Niles and Frasier begin to suspect that their dad may have actually had an affair with Marion. When Daphne forces a confrontation on the issue (and is excused from the room for her troubles), Martin owns up to it and asks that they don’t speak of it again. Frasier is deeply troubled by the discovery, but a chance encounter with Marion reveals the actual truth; it was his mother who cheated on Martin with Marion’s husband.

As I noted back in “Dinner at Eight”, Hester Crane is often invoked as a saintly figure, with the reverence that we give the departed, so it’s interesting that as early as the first year they gave nuance to an offscreen character by showing she was far from perfect. (Of course, CHEERS viewers had a different picture of Frasier’s mother, but there’s an inevitable discontinuity between the two shows.) The unpleasantness of the subject is offset by the revelation that this was far in the past and that Martin and Hester were able to work past it and have a long, happy marriage.

Niles is happy to move on when his father “confesses”, accepting that this is past, and the fact that he’s satisfied and Frasier isn’t is a contrast I hadn’t noticed before. What really troubles Frasier isn’t so much what they did, but the realization that his parents aren’t morally flawless. In the end it’s probably for the best that he knows this, and much of the satisfication in the episode is in its climax, wherein Frasier finally reveals to Martin that he was once cuckolded as well. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes and everyone gets hurt. Equally powerful is Martin’s assurance that Frasier shouldn’t think less of his mother for what happened.

A few side developments are worth noting; Roz has a date and Frasier starts to genuinely question her taste in men, and Daphne tells a few stories about her many brothers back in Manchester, including Billy, the ballroom dancer. Frasier attempts to get to the bottom of things by calling Aunt Vivian, “keeper of the Crane family secrets”, and I’m not sure this character is ever mentioned again. Eddie gets a nice gag too, and there’s some good timing on Moose and trainer Matilde de Cagny’s part.

A variety of diversions- Roz’s love life, Daphne’s stories, Niles’ “Healing With Humor Support Group”- help keep the shadow of parental infidelity from making this an excessively grim episode, but at heart, the fact that they’re willing to examine this subject at all demonstrates the trust the show has for its audience. (Granted, it has the benefit of the guilty party being dead and the incident far in the past.) This episode, like a lot of the first season ones, has a certain “basic” feel to it, with a straightforward plot line and not many frills, and I confess I’m almost impatient to get to the crazier stuff. Still, not many shows would attempt a story like this in their first year, and fewer would pull it off as well.

Guest Caller: JoBeth Williams as Danielle

Written by Leslie Eberhard
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired November 4, 1993

Frasier: So, who is this guy? Not another one of those trendy young kids who’s got three earrings and a ponytail, wearing a T-shirt under his sportscoat?

Roz: Is he here?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Frasierquest 1.7: Call Me Irresponsible

Frasier and Catherine discuss things over M&M's
Frasier: How I envy you, Eddie. The biggest questions in your life are, "Who's going to walk me? Who's going to feed me?" I won't know that kind of joy for another forty years.

It’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long to get to the show’s first example of the “Frasier in love” episode. This is really one of FRASIER’s standbys, a tradition of the hero falling for a gorgeous, intelligent, near-perfect woman, but reliably finding a way to ruin everything. In “Call Me Irresponsible” it’s not entirely his fault, and the episode also highlights one of the character’s major complicating factors- his strong sense of ethics. Frasier can stray into cad territory, but he’s not comfortable there, and his gut always keeps him in check. Sometimes in the most direct way possible.

When a caller to the show implies that he’s afraid to commit to his current girlfriend, and is holding out for someone better, Frasier advises him to break up with her rather than string her along. The woman, Catherine (Amanda Donohoe), later shows up at the station upset, but Frasier gets her to understand the situation, and both having recently separated from loved ones, they strike up a relationship. It’s all running smoothly until two things happen; Niles says Frasier can’t possibly get involved with someone who was involved with a patient (though Marco wasn’t a patient so much as a caller), and Marco calls back, having second thoughts about having dumped Catherine. Frasier realizes he’s in a difficult ethical position, and when his ethics are in danger of compromise, his stomach starts to revolt- on the very night that Catherine decides to take the relationship to the next level, no less.

Daphne and Martin step back here, absent but for a hilarious early scene where they rope Frasier into taking the family Christmas photo on October 23. Roz and Niles also have limited roles, leaving the focus on Frasier and his new girlfriend. Obviously it’s not unusual for FRASIER to be about Frasier, but the relationship benefits from this kind of attention. Catherine is in many ways the kind of woman Frasier gets drawn to time and again- sharp, reasonably intelligent, gorgeous, and with a strong personality. Donohoe is sexy in a natural, understated way, and her American accent is astoundingly convincing. The two have a nice rapport, and you get a sense that they could really make it work for a while, which makes what must happen a shame.

It’s interesting to see a little more light shed on Frasier’s character here, specifically to find out that he has such a strong code of ethics that he literally gets queasy if he thinks he’s violating it. I’m not entirely sure how consistently this particular quirk was invoked- I’ll have to watch for it- but Frasier is definitely governed by a strong sense of right and wrong, even beyond the rules he has to follow as a psychiatrist. (I’m not actually sure what the APA would make of this situation- Marco’s already waived confidentiality by calling into a radio show, so it’s possible that this simply isn’t a doctor-patient relationship.)

A lot of sitcom characters, maybe even most, are portrayed as fundamentally good folks so as to keep the sympathy of the audience, but with Frasier- and Niles, who we find out has a similar problem with nosebleeds- we have someone with a very strong conscience, who constantly wonders about what the right thing to do is. He’s constantly introspective, and apart from making the character more sympathetic, this also helps drive stories- the man can rarely run from his problems. Watching this episode again, I noticed that Frasier denying himself Catherine hurts her as well as him, since obviously this would be her second dumping in a short period, and at the hands of the man who caused the first one. That’s the problem with ethics; even if you disregard your own happiness to follow them, you can’t be sure you won’t trod on someone else’s as well.

Again I seem to be taking this all too seriously, when the show itself plays out in its usual light and fluffy manner. It’s hard to convey the humor of a show that doles it out in character beats and banter instead of one-liners and wacky concepts. But there’s a way in which all Frasier’s failed relationships are gloriously funny tragedies, and here it’s rendered a bit more poignant by the fact that it’s not really his fault. Truly, the Marcos of the world do more damage than they know.

Guest Callers: Edward Van Halen as Hank, Bruno Kirby as Marco

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett
Directed by James Burrows
Aired October 28, 1993

Frasier: Niles, please don’t try to be hip. You remind me of Bob Hope when he dresses up as the Fonz.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Frasierquest 1.6: The Crucible

Frasier is embarrassed at a party. Film at Eleven.
Philip: Dr. Crane, if you ever find justice in this world, let me know, will you?

Even though I’ve seen every episode of this show more than once, it took me a little while to remember which one “The Crucible” was. The title’s fairly obtuse; on the face of it, it looks like an Arthur Miller reference, but since this is a story about Frasier buying a forged painting and not being able to get a refund, that doesn’t quite fit. Rather, I think they’re going with the definition “a severe test” (thanks Mirriam-Webster), because in this situation Frasier finds his ethics heated to a breaking point. Sounds like serious business, but thankfully it isn’t, much.

It starts when Frasier lets it slip on air that he’s bought a painting by Seattle artist Martha Paxton. Paxton (Rachel Rosenthal) gives him a call and agrees to appear at a soiree at his apartment, only to drop the bombshell that the painting’s not even hers. Frasier takes the phony art back to the gallery where he bought it, but the owner, Philip (John Rubinstein), refuses to take it back, let alone give a refund. A call to the police yields no results when it turns out they don’t have a “Fine Arts Forgery Department”, and Frasier is tempted to take the law into his own hands.

Taking this series far too seriously is what we do around here, and “The Crucible” introduces a number of themes and ideas that would pop up now and again. The conflict is basically Frasier vs. the world, and when this happens the world tends to win. Frasier is at heart an idealist, and he tends to take violations of principle very seriously indeed, which is why he can’t let it go, even though the painting is as good a piece after the forgery is revealed as it was before. In this case, the wrong also encroaches on Frasier’s love of art and culture, which he expounds on to a caller at the episode’s opening.

It falls to Martin to play the realist and make Frasier understand that sometimes life is just going to suck, and this will happen again, but the way Niles steps in at the end of the episode is particularly clever. Again, as with “I Hate Frasier Crane”, the conflict parallels the troubles the Crane boys had as youths, though perhaps we could do without hearing how Niles earned the nickname “Peachfuzz”.

I imagine you’re sick of firsts by now, but it still must be noted that this is the very first instance of Frasier throwing a classy dinner party. He will do this often, and in accordance with the laws of comedy, we know it will never work. But here we get some fun character bits- Martin drags out his crime scene photos, Frasier notices that Roz has a neck, and Niles gets a whiff of Daphne’s hair while Maris sleeps under the guests’ coats. It’s fun to see everyone get thrown into a scene like this, and that it’s starting to happen more frequently is a sign that the show’s settled into a groove.

Guest Caller: Robert Klein as Gary

Written by Sy Dukane and Denise Moss
Directed by James Burrows
Aired 21 October, 1993

Niles: Remember what you said? “If you act like a barbarian, you will become a barbarian.”

Frasier: I said that?

Niles: Yes. Well, actually you were more verbose at the time. I had to listen, you were sitting on my chest.