Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frasierquest 1.17: A Midwinter Night's Dream

Niles and Daphne in a potentially compromising situation
Daphne: “Dr. Crane, your glockenspiel has sprung to life!”

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the “Niles and Daphne” element of the series started as a running gag: a high-strung, fastidious psychiatrist married to a brittle heiress finds himself smitten by a lower-caste fusion of earth mother and Eliza Doolittle. But then, something happened. The people making the show noticed that David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves, and their characters, had a real chemistry. Niles was so vulnerable it was hard to hold his adulterous thoughts against him, and his insecurity matched up to Daphne’s perkiness was nothing if not very cute.

“A Midwinter Night’s Dream” is where the gag becomes a subplot, albeit one that required 7 years to bring to fruition. Focused on Daphne and Niles to the extent that Frasier is very nearly sidelined, the episode marks an important transition point for the show in that it’s able to not be about its protagonist for once. It’s also very sweet and romantic, and manages to reaffirm the status quo while also advancing the OTP ever so slightly.

At the Café Nervosa, Daphne gets chatted up by a hunky redheaded barista named Eric (Dean Erickson), and she falls for him hard. This upsets Niles, but Frasier gets him to admit that this may be more because of ennui setting in between him and Maris. Sadly, an attempt to spice things up in the bedroom goes awry, Maris leaves for the weekend, and Niles decides to try and put together a romantic dinner for when she comes back. Daphne helps out, and heads over to his spacious house in the midst of a rainstorm. Maris decides not to come back that evening, a newly-dumped and heartbroken Daphne changes out of her wet clothes into a silky nightie, and the power goes out, leaving the two to keep warm by the fire. The clock is ticking, and Frasier races over (with Martin in tow) to keep Niles from doing something he’ll regret.

Just as a side note, Erickson’s turn as Daphne’s beau is actually something of a field promotion; he’s visible as a worker at the Café in earlier episodes, notably “I Hate Frasier Crane”, “You Can’t Tell A Crook By His Cover” (where he has a few lines), and “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back.” It’s a nice bit of consistency, and though we don’t see him afterwards, Daphne does say that he dumped her in an attempt to concentrate on his music.

As firsts go, this is our first sight of Niles and Maris’ home, or rather its living room (the show doesn’t do exteriors much.) In keeping with its purpose in this episode, it’s big, elegant, and old-fashioned, with a fireplace, grand piano, and other melodramatic accouterments. It’s fitting that this is the setting for the start of the show’s flirtation with Niles and Daphne as a romance.

In a way, this is an important development for the series overall, because I’ve always got the feeling that among other things, FRASIER is a romantic comedy. Secret crushes and marital troubles and heartbreak are key elements, whether for Niles, Daphne, Frasier himself, Roz, or even Martin. It’s almost Shakespearean in the treatment of love as a subject; it’s adult, urbane, and acknowledges the many disappointments that love involves, but never rejects the romantic ideal. The trajectory of the Niles/Daphne subplot is a good reflection of this tone as a whole; it acknowledges both our desire to see these kids together, but also shows what’s keeping them back.

Of course this is necessary for pacing reasons as much as anything. The writers didn’t want to rush into a romantic subplot, and it was still fun to have him flirting and her oblivious (Jane Leeves said in an interview that she viewed Daphne as being in denial; there were signals being sent, but why would someone like Niles be interested in someone like her?) And Niles wouldn’t be half as sympathetic if he left Maris for a younger girl at the first sign of marital dullness. And so, the episode is about Niles realizing the value of his marriage, and that he still deeply loves his wife. The ultimate contrast is between Daphne’s exciting-but-short-lived relationship with Eric, and the stable comfort of Niles and Maris’ relationship.

At the same time, the show isn’t gonna throw this plot away. A key dynamic in the early Niles/Daphne episodes is the retreat to normality vs. laying the foundation for later development. We see that Niles’ marriage has its troubles and that Maris’ oversensitivity is a key one, something that gradually becomes its own subplot. More importantly, we see that Daphne likes Niles, and she grows closer to him in the course of the evening. By the end, they’ve bonded and become good friends, and she’s not even trying too hard to cut it off there: a key moment in the script reads, “They are very close to a kiss. If Niles made his move right now, she’d probably be his.”

It’s one of those things you have to see to understand; Jane Leeves and David Hyde Pierce just bounce tension off one another, and in the space of a few scenes they convince anyone not already on board that Niles and Daphne have something special, that neither of them fully understands. For the time being, nothing comes of it, but it doesn’t matter. We can wait.

No Guest Caller

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by David Lee
Aired February 10, 1994

Daphne: Dr. Crane! You have some nerve to imply that your brother would do anything so deplorable. Why just moments ago he made a beautiful speech about how much he loves his wife. How he cherishes her excruciating little face and how they laugh at white people. (to Niles) That didn’t sound right.

Niles: Close enough.

(Also: First time on record that Niles is transfixed by Daphne's rear end.)

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