Sunday, December 06, 2009

Frasierquest 1.12: Miracle on Third or Fourth Street

Frasier at Lou's
Frasier: Well, as we head into our second hour, I'd like to lighten things up a bit. Although, Ned, we were certainly glad to hear from you, and how you got mugged on your way home from the soup kitchen.

So, the show’s first Christmas episode, and it’s quite possibly the single bleakest thing of the entire season. It’s not entirely inappropriate; the holidays can be as much about depression and anxiety as about togetherness and joy, and this show manages to swing us wildly between both extremes. But even though FRASIER was a show with a built-in audience from CHEERS and a big push from NBC, something this dark was a risk for the first year. But it taps into a lot of the feelings that this time of year can drudge up, and maybe it works a little better than the more cheery seasonal episodes we’re used to.

Frasier starts off thinking his Christmas is going to be good; he plans to see his son for the first time in a long while, and spend the holiday at a cabin with Martin, Niles, and Maris. (Daphne is spending Christmas with her transvestite uncle Jackie in San Francisco- sadly we never actually got to meet this character. Would’ve been a natural fit for Jim Broadbent.) However, at the last minute, Lilith calls to say that she’s planned something much better for Frederick (see below), and Frasier’s anger with that, plus further tension with dad, causes him to decide to fill in for Bulldog on December 25th. The result is the psychiatric call-in show of the damned, with depressing story after depressing story delivered to an ultra-casual Frasier and an increasingly sad Roz, until Frasier lets his producer go and winds up wrapping up the holiday disaster himself, before limping into the one eatery that isn’t closed or booked up. Needless to say, it’s not the most cheery place either.

We get yet another angle on Frasier’s job here, which is that there is something inherently taxing about listening to other people’s misery. Depression is contagious, and while it can help to unshoulder our burdens on someone else, that person takes it up on a diminished level, ends up feeling a little sadder. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t offer to listen, but Frasier’s in a bad state going into the show, despite an attempt at cheer and hope that he can give someone, somewhere a merry Christmas. This patina of chirpiness crumbles under stories that border on the outright macabre- I thought about quoting the worst one, but it really is that awful. Of course, the couple of upbeat stories Frasier hears in his four-hour slog don’t really perk him up either.

This worst-Christmas-ever is also a good opportunity for Roz to get a little more spotlight time. Her initial hostility to the man who inadvertently ruined her Christmas is broken down, and we see her in a rare vulnerable moment when Frasier sends her off. It’s a nice picture of the rapport these two are developing; they’ve been working together for a while, but they’re more surely becoming friends.

Basically, the episode is Frasier making concession after concession to the holidays, a grudging generosity being the only thing he has. The climax of all this is very subdued and low-key, which was probably a very good idea. The gist of it all is that Frasier ends up eating at a greasy spoon diner frequented by a few of Seattle’s homeless, who mistake him for one of their own because of how bad he looks. As it happens, he’s lost his wallet, and over his objections Bill (Hawthorne James) takes up a collection to pay his tab. His act of generosity and his explanation (“Christmas belongs to guys like us”) could potentially push the whole thing into sentimental claptrap territory, but the subtlety and continued good humor of the final scene make it something that really sticks with the viewer.

Looking at odds and ends, I also really like the joke in an early scene where Frasier agrees to give the lovely-yet-imposing Bonnie Weems (Kathryn Danielle) a drive home from the office Christmas party, which amuses everyone else to no end. I don’t even know why, but it’s a nice callback to having heard the character mentioned back in “Oops”. The family cabin also does get shown a few times eventually, though I’m not immediately sure it’s the same one each time. (I’ll have to watch out for this.)

The show would go on to have more cheery and comical Christmas shows, and those are no less good for being easy on the viewer. But there’s something cathartic about being shown the misery we can sometimes go through trying to make something of the season when circumstances are poor. Halfway through season one, FRASIER is doing some rather ambitious things, still trusting the audience to go along with it.

Guest Callers: Mel Brooks as Tom, Rosemary Clooney as Gladys, Dominick Dunne as Jeff, Ben Stiller as Barry, Eric Stoltz as Don

Written by Christopher Lloyd (again, not the Doc Brown guy)
Directed by James Burrows
Aired December 16, 1993

Frasier: Well, Merry Christmas, everybody! Lilith isn't sending Frederick!

Martin: What? Why not?

Frasier: Well, apparently he has this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an incredible Christmas. A friend of hers has rented a home in Austria.

Martin: What's the matter with the good old U.S.A.?

Frasier: Well, apparently it's the same house that they filmed “The Sound Of Music” in, and that happens to be Freddie's favorite movie. Well, Julie Andrews is singing with the Salzburg Choral, they're having dinner with her afterwards, and some nonsense about a horse-driven sleigh ride through the snow, and a toboggan, and a balloon trip through the Alps, and apparently on their way back they're gonna spend an entire day at Euro-Disneyland!

Niles: ...Well, up at the cabin, there's an old stump that the local children seem to enjoy kicking.

(Quotes assisted by John Masson’s transcript at

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