Sunday, February 28, 2010

Frasierquest 1.24: My Coffee With Niles

Frasier and the world's most patient barista
Niles: I asked a simple question.

Frasier: Do you ask any other kind?

And so we hit the first season finale, the 1/11th marker on our quest, and a good place to set up camp. I’ll be giving this feature a rest for the next couple of weeks or so; I’ve got other projects to do, and the last thing I want is to become burned out on one of my favorite shows of all time. Won’t be too long.

From the start, the creators of the show were aiming for a play-like quality, and “My Coffee With Niles” is essentially a one-act with commercial breaks added. Niles and Frasier’s afternoon conversation provides an opportunity to recap the new life that the latter has settled into, and all the problems it entails. Frasier has clearly settled into his routine of radio therapy, afternoon coffees, and fighting with his father, but there’s being settled in and there’s being happy, and, well, there’s the rub.

Niles asks Frasier the fateful question, “Are you happy?”, and Frasier doesn’t know. He’s not especially unhappy, but he’s not especially ecstatic either, and through the afternoon he finds all sorts of ways to dodge the actual question. They have trouble getting a table, Roz visits and has man trouble as per usual, Martin and Daphne show up, Martin and Frasier have another fight, and the poor server (Luck Hari, in a memorable turn) just can’t seem to get Frasier’s order right.

There’s a pleasant and relaxed tone to the episode; you get the sense that the people making the show are comfortable with their creation, and are taking an opportunity to examine the state of play. Each scene seems to establish fundamental relationships; Frasier and Niles see each other often, Niles and Maris have a comfortable if less-than-passionate marriage, Roz doesn’t like Niles, Frasier likes Roz as a friend but would be uncomfortable taking it further, he’s worried about his own relationship prospects and growing old alone, Niles is still stunned by Daphne but doesn’t want to leave his wife, etc. We know most of this already, but there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing it played out in exchanges and vignettes, as though we’re spending a typical, albeit unusually illustrative, afternoon with the characters.

This is really the appeal of the traditional sitcom; the promise that you can visit a fun group of people every week, and enter into a familiar environment where not a lot changes, and what does change tends to do so very gradually. It’s almost as though the episode is reassuring viewers that Frasier, Niles, and the gang aren’t going anywhere.

For all its apparent uneventfulness, “My Coffee With Niles” does have two major conflicts. One is the unending battle between father and son, and this time Frasier and Martin aren’t even arguing about one specific thing (though toast sweat is a major issue). But the bitter edge of the conflict we saw in “The Good Son” is gone; the two seem to have accepted that they’re just going to get on each other’s nerves now and again, and ride it out as best they can.

The second conflict is the oft-deferred answer to Niles’ question of whether Frasier is happy. The irony is, he has no time to ponder whether or not he’s happy with his life, because his life keeps interrupting. As we see in the episode, Frasier’s life has plenty of pros and cons. He’s got a good job and a nice co-worker, but she’s always got relationship troubles. He gets to be with his brother, but his brother’s crush on his dad’s health care worker is driving him batty. He’s away from his son, and with his father, for better and worse. Seattle’s lovely, but there’s the damn rain. The trouble he has with his coffee order is emblematic of the minor dissatisfactions he encounters, but in the end, he can’t really let all of them get him down.

Frasier is forced to conclude that he is happy, and for the summer between seasons all is relatively well. (Indeed, had the show been a failure and this been the last episode, it would have been a nice coda.) So we have a low key, but quite funny finale which examines how complicated the question of our happiness or lack thereof can be sometimes. Most moments of the day, we’re just doing all right. But Frasier’s introspection proves good for the soul, and on that note, we’ll leave him on his own for a bit. We’ve got plenty to talk about in the meantime.

No Guest Caller

Written by David Angell and Peter Casey
Directed by James Burrows
Aired May 19, 1994

Roz: I don’t have anything against religious people. I don’t care if they’re Jewish, or a Jehova’s Witness, or a Buddhist, I am ecumenical, I embrace men of all faiths!

Frasier: If only it stopped there.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Frasierquest 1.23: Frasier Crane's Day Off

Frasier in a not entirely lucid state
Roz: Tony, it's Roz. Could you get security up here? Captain Kirk's got control of the bridge and he's gone insane.

Bringing down the big guys is one of the key functions of comedy, and Frasier definitely gets the stool kicked out from under him a lot. On CHEERS he was a fish out of water, and the writers tried not to be too hard on him, but now that he’s the star he’s fair game. “Frasier Crane’s Day Off” sees the good doctor brought low by a combination of illness and paranoia, and though he doesn’t quite deserve all of it, it’s such a glorious flameout that it’s hard to complain. While the episode is notable for introducing the world to food snob Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert), his presence and most of the other story elements are really just the set-up to one of Kelsey Grammer’s most gloriously wild takes on the title character.

Gil is KACL’s food critic, who offers to sub in for Frasier when he finds himself battling a vicious flu. From the start, Frasier suspects that Gil is angling for his time slot, and Roz’s report from the station seems to confirm his fears. He convinces Niles to sub for him on the second day; the younger Dr. Crane has an awkward start, but soon manages to deliver some genuinely scintillating radio. By this point Frasier is heady with delirium, and is convinced that not only are Niles and Gil plotting against him, but Daphne, as his present nurse, is in on it. (Oh, she pretends not to know...) After prescribing himself some very powerful drugs, Frasier heads down to the station, and the rest is TV history.

It almost feels a little bad to watch Kelsey Grammer play high for laughs, at least in episodes from before he got his own substance abuse problems under control. Then again, he’s been sober for many many years now, so maybe it’s okay. In any case, the episode is really a showcase for Grammer’s comic skills, from the broad insanity of the climax to the slightly more subtle way he works on Daphne’s nerves with insane sickbed request after insane sickbed request.

It’s ironic that the episode is so focused on Frasier while being about his fear of being usurped. The threats he faces here are temporary- Gil doesn’t continue any pressure for Frasier’s time slot into next season, and Niles could never be lured away from his practice for good- but even a momentary loss of control puts Frasier in a bad state of mind. The virus simply amplifies his natural insecurity.

The way Gil Chesterton is introduced in this episode is so seamless that I had to double-check to make sure that this was, in fact, the first episode in which he appeared. He’s not new to the station, Frasier and Roz have met him before, he’s just showing up now because he’s important to the plot. (It helps that “food critic with an obsequious personality” doesn’t take a lot to establish exposition-wise.) Hibbert is strong from the get go, and it’s interesting to note that though Gil is rarely as manipulative in later episodes, he still maintains his insincere warmth.

Niles has abandoned the “radio persona” he tried out last episode, and it’s arguably a continuity slip that he has to be re-introduced to how things work at the booth, but then again he may have chosen to forget that information given his general contempt for the job. Despite being morally opposed to the whole business of radio psychiatry, Niles is pretty good at it- he’s a good therapist and a natural showman. One stops to wonder what might have been.

Sickness is one of those plot devices that reveals character, or rather brings out its worst sides. A virus knocks Frasier for a loop, and we see that he’s deeply invested in his job to the point of fearing it being taken away. He’s not in full control, and thankfully his little breakdown will have no repercussions, but it’s good to see part of what drives him. We all have our ugly and selfish moments- Frasier’s just happen to be more amusing than most.

Guest Callers: (deep breath) Eydie Gormé as Lois, Patricia Hearst as Janice, Tommy Hilfiger as Robert, Steve Lawrence as Howard, Mary Tyler Moore as Marjorie, Garry Trudeau as Louis, and Steve Young as Blake

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired May 12, 1994

Niles: This is Dr. Niles Crane, filling in for my ailing brother, Dr. Frasier Crane. Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier's radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there'll be no blaming Mother today.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Theaters: Shutter Island

Shutter Island posters and IMPAwards link
Psychological thrillers are hard. They seem to go off the rails more often than any other genre, because they demand elaborate plots that still somehow stay within the boundaries of reality. There’s none of the wiggle room of horror or science fiction; Hitchcock could get away with plots that stretched credulity, but only in the same way that Babe Ruth could get away with not being able to run bases (and that’s not a fat joke). SHUTTER ISLAND, Martin Scorcese’s latest, manages to be the best such thriller I’ve seen in a long time, partly because it’s being directed by a genuine master of the medium, and partly because it doesn’t cheat the audience. It’s genuinely creepy, with an authentic intensity that builds from the first frame, and it approaches its story and subject matter with a thoughtfulness and care that forms a contrast to its sensationalistic trappings.

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshall, called in to the titular island to investigate a disappearance at an institution for the criminally insane. A female patient has apparently vanished from her room without leaving a trace, and the seemingly gentle Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hoping she can be found before she comes to too much harm. Daniels, haunted by visions of the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) and his service as one of the liberators of Dachau, has a personal interest in the institution. He thinks it’s where the pyromaniac who set the fire that killed his wife ended up, and as he and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate, more and more details seem to point to sinister goings on. Despite being federal authorities, Daniels and Aule are stymied, overruled, and forced into various directions as they try to investigate, finding themselves opposing whatever dark conspiracy lurks at the heart of the institution.

In the meantime, there’s a storm, the kind of massive hurricane that always hits at dramatically appropriate moments, forcing the Marshalls in with the subjects of their investigation without much power to affect anything. No sooner have we and they become familiar with the institution and the case than the claustrophobia and the oppression start ramping up, and we and they are trapped. There’s almost never a clear sky or a level piece of ground, and as old fashioned and melodramatic as this all seems, it never seems unreal.

This, I think, is Scorcese in his element. He loves old movies and old stories, but sees the reality in them as well as the artifice. He’s got the skill of someone who’s been making great movies for over three and a half decades, he’s working with talented editors and cinematographers and production designers and so on down the line, and he knows how to bring that talent to bear. The film’s scarier sequences and setpieces are beautifully constructed, stylish, but also organic, and the same is true of the surreal dream interludes that let us into Teddy’s increasingly uncertain mental landscape. The music (apparently from outside sources, though I can’t track down details) is used at just the right points as well.

Anchoring all this, DiCaprio has a remarkable intensity but stops short of going over the top, and arguably Mark Ruffalo does a lot to anchor him. If there’s one flaw to pick in all this, the ending is one that at least some in the audience will see coming. It’s a fair twist, the sort where everything makes sense in retrospect (just about, I’m sure there are a few problem areas), but it is one that is, perhaps, done too often in films of this type. I will say nothing more on that subject.

At two hours and eighteen minutes, SHUTTER ISLAND is a bit long for a thriller, but I honestly can’t say my attention ever drifted. This is an overpowering film, heady with mood and mystery and insinuation. It demands your attention, and rewards it; the atmosphere is backed up by a tightly drawn story and believable characters. When someone like Scorcese makes a movie, there’s always the inevitable proclaiming of it as a masterpiece, and the inevitable rush of people saying that it’s not really that good. I’m not sure how well this will hold up in the filmmaker’s body of work, but I will say that I really enjoyed it. And that’s the only judgment I’m qualified to make.

From the novel by Dennis LeHane
Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis
Directed by Martin Scorcese

Grade: A

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Frasierquest 1.22: Author, Author

Frasier and Niles in creative mode
Frasier: Niles, I would shave my head for you.

Niles: A gesture which grows less significant with each passing year.

As soon as Frasier and Niles first traded quips in “The Good Son”, sibling rivalry started growing to become a crucial FRASIER story engine. Winding down Season One, we find the first episode where it really leaps to the fore; Frasier and Niles go into “Author, Author” as collaborators, but that just makes them worse enemies. Apart from highlighting Frasier and Niles’ inability to work together, the episode also has some fun with the travails of writing, and how collaboration can go terribly wrong. It makes me glad that I usually work alone.

Niles comes to Frasier in a crisis; he had a book deal, but the idea fell through at the last minute. On the spot, he convinces his publishing company rep (the legendary Mako) that he and his brother will write a book on sibling relationships. Frasier is hesitant at first, but starts to enjoy the idea, even collecting anecdotes on the air. However, the publisher wants the first few chapters in a few days, and when the Crane boys lock themselves in a hotel room to try and get them written, they come to understand why they usually don’t spend this much time together.

It needs to be said that beyond anything else, this episode is worth seeing for Niles’ debut on the radio, acting as co-host for Frasier’s show to help collect book anecdotes. I’m not using his opening as one of the quotes because you really have to hear it for yourself, but it’s one of those rare moments of childlike playfulness that adds to Niles’ character. It’s why we like him instead of finding him insufferable.

I’ve done some collaborative work myself, but almost always in a “hand in my stuff and see what the others add” function. I’ve never really sat down and tried with someone to write something line by line, and I’m not sure how professional collaborators- for example, many of the writers on this show- do it.

It probably helps to have a collaborator who is not Frasier or Niles, though. As in life, it’s always people with largely similar personalities who have the hardest time getting along, partly because the little differences become more grating. Niles has a slightly different writing style, he’s a Jungian rather than a Freudian- these things become very important over an evening in a small hotel room. Opposites can always retreat to their corners, but the Crane brothers are determined to accomplish something together, and have no choice but to press forward.

Of course, the other reason similar people find themselves in conflict is because they’re often after the same thing. Niles wants the recognition Frasier gets every day, even if he thinks what he does is unprofessional. He wants his name in the card catalog under “Mental Illness”, which isn’t the most far out dream for a respected psychiatrist, and in the end it feels like a shame that he can’t make it work. Granted, it’s partly his fault, roping his brother in on a whim and promising chapters that haven’t been written yet, but we know why he gets in over his head.

The central joke of the episode is basically that, while Frasier and Niles try to write about sibling relationships, they prove themselves an example of a perfectly dysfunctional one, ultimately resorting to violence and accusations of stealing each other’s mother. It’s not that they can’t get along; throughout the course of the series they spend huge amounts of time with each other with only the occasional meltdown. But every relationship has its breaking point, and with the Crane brothers, this appears to be whenever you give them a common goal.

“Author, Author” is a showcase for the chemistry that Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce established from their first scene together, and it shows how Frasier and Niles’ sibling rivalry would eventually come to equal (and arguably overshadow) the original driving conflict between father and son. The latter never went away, but by adding a crucial second dynamic, the show was able to keep itself fresh for longer. For whatever reason, seeing these two at each other’s throats never really gets old.

Guest Caller: Christine Lahti as Laura

Written by Don Seigel and Larry Perzigian
Directed by James Burrows
Aired May 5, 1994

Frasier and Niles: Some boys run off to college,/ but we think they’re all wussies,/ ‘cause they get all the knowledge,/ and we get all the/ umpta umpta umpta da-da-da...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Theaters: The Wolfman

Wolfman poster and IMPAwards link
I’m the sort of person who’s favorably inclined towards a movie like THE WOLFMAN. Therefore my recommendation has to be a little qualified; I like it because it does a lot of things I like, but my priorities may differ from yours. I like that it’s an old-school monster movie, complete with old-school makeup effects enhanced by CGI rather than replaced by them. I like that it’s apparently not just a remake of the 1941 classic, but set in the same world as the old Universal horror films. I like its attitude and the cut of its jib, and so I may be willing to overlook some flaws to a degree. But I think there’s something here even for non-devotees of classic monsters, as it’s basically a well-constructed thriller with some good shocks and a nice creepy atmosphere throughout. From some accounts the production was a bit of a nightmare, but the results are more consistent than you’d think.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), renowned stage actor, returns to his ancestral home in Blackmoor, England to investigate the disappearance and, as he discovers upon arrival, murder of his brother. His father (Anthony Hopkins) has been rattling about the house all this time, and his brother’s fiancee (Emily Blunt) is now staying there as well. Searching for the killer, Talbot ends up at a gypsy encampment around the time that it’s attacked by a large wolflike monster, and is bitten. The townsfolk are convinced he’s inherited a curse, and sure enough, as soon as the next full moon rolls around, Larry finds himself growing fangs and hair and tearing people limb from limb. And there’s still the first werewolf hanging around.

As I said, this was a troubled production; apparently director Joe Johnston struggled a bit with the studio, resulting in composer Danny Elfman being fired then rehired, Rick Baker’s monster makeup being “enhanced” or not with CGI, and various other problems. Apparently some 16 minutes cut from the picture will resurface on the DVD (though some have put the amount of cut material at three times that length), and it must all be characterization, because the theatrical cut renders Talbot a bit of a blank slate. He barely ever speaks, and though the plot by nature has him sort of helpless (though not as much as in the original), you’d think a renowned actor would end up with more of a personality. Del Toro has the right look for the role, easy, and has some good scenes with Blunt, but I feel it’s almost unfair to evaluate his performance with so much of it missing.

On the other hand, there are werewolves, and they are great, and just as great songs in a musical can paper over plot holes, so too does great monster work in a monster movie. Despite some obvious CG being added here and there (and of course it’s used to a large extent in the transformation scenes), Baker’s makeup is retained for most of the time we see the wolfmen on screen, and it’s very impressive. It’s more along the lines of the hairy-but-flat faced werewolves of old than the more modern trend of making them wolves on two legs, and personally I like that approach better, but the execution is also convincing and appropriately fearsome. The wolfman attacks are fittingly gruesome; the camera doesn’t linger on the gore (perhaps to avoid a harsher rating), but we see enough to know that this is the kind of monster that mauls its victims. Some of the CGI work does seem patched on (particularly in a climactic scene), but at others it actually does enhance rather than detract from the experience.

The film is actually more of a period piece than the original, which theoretically took place in 1941 (albeit in a hypothetical Europe completely unaffected by war.) Despite moving the clock back 50 years, the film does retain some of the feel of the old Universal classics. The locals are always superstitious, there are always gypsies, there’s always fog and weird parts of the landscape that don’t seem to have appeared naturally, and of course it’s not long before a Scotland Yard inspector (Hugo Weaving, droll as ever) shows up to complicate things for our antihero even further. The pace of the film sometimes becomes patchy, no doubt partly owing to the cuts the studio made, but the environment is so engrossing that I didn’t mind the slower bits.

This film is getting fairly bad reviews, and to be sure, I don’t think it’ll go down as one of the classics of lycanthrope cinema. But for all the faults, the film delivers what it promises- brutal werewolf action (including a fight between werewolves, which you don’t see often enough) in a ghoulish fantasy realm on the border between England and Transylvania. If nothing else it’s a wonderful change of pace from current horror trends, and good counter programming to that Valentine-themed epic that’s just opened. Everyone knows werewolves are romantics at heart, anyway.

Based on a screenplay by Curt Siodmak
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker & David Self
Directed by Joe Johnston

Grade: B

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Frasierquest 1.21: Travels With Martin

Frasier and the gang on the road
Daphne: How’s it feel behind that wheel, Dr. Crane?

Frasier: Manly! This is mine and it’s big!

A road trip was inevitable. You don’t see them every week, but as any sitcom progresses, the probability of their doing a road trip episode approaches 1. They’re great for throwing characters together, and you don’t need that many sets. “Travels With Martin” is an episode that trades a lot off of the rapport its ensemble has built up over most of the season, and with good results; arguably it shows the series’ first tenative steps towards the outright farces which highlighted later seasons. It’s not quite there yet, but the fun is in the journey.

Roz suggests Frasier use his vacation time to take his dad somewhere, just like she’s doing with her mom. Martin elects to see some of America’s sights in a Winnebago, but goads Daphne into coming along to act as a cushion between him and Frasier. Needless to say, this results in Niles coming along as well. Martin wants to head straight out to Mount Rushmore and straight back, but Frasier wants to ramble, so they compromise and ramble across the countryside at top speed, not stopping for anything. While Daphne takes a nap, they speed over to Canada, but this poses a problem; she doesn’t have her green card and isn’t supposed to be out of the country. The gang have no choice but to try and sneak her back across the border. This goes about as smoothly as you would imagine.

This is a story you can really only do when you’re confident the audience knows who everybody is. Sure, you’ll get some casual viewers tuning in for the first time, but “Travels of Martin” takes some character beats as a given, most notably “Frasier and Martin don’t get along”, with a dollop of “Niles has a thing for Daphne.” Someone who’s never seen FRASIER before could probably pick these elements up by implication- the curse of series television is that you always have to assume somebody’s coming in late- but the episode also benefits from the characters themselves knowing where they stand.

One thing I noticed rewatching this episode is that the relationship between Frasier and Martin has already softened considerably in comparison to where it was early in the season. They’ve had the big arguments, Frasier has learned to live with the chair, etc.; now, they bicker, but the actual hostility has ebbed. Instead the major conflict is more philosophical. Martin wants to cover ground and see the landmarks, while Frasier wants to follow Jack Kerouac (to say nothing of Buzz and Tod) and enjoy the journey more.

The gang’s attempt at getting back across the Canadian border without giving away the presence of a foreigner on board is probably the episode’s comic high point. It’s probably the silliest thing any of them have had to do so far (Frasier’s performance in a school play in “Give Him The Chair” not counting, as it’s offscreen), and it’s the kind of elaborate misunderstanding that epic farce is based on. It’s not really the central story of the episode, even though it’s the most pressing problem. In fact, the more I think about it, the less a story-driven episode this is.

The real point is just to shake everyone up a little by putting them in a different environment. The normally adventurous and high spirited Daphne gets a fright put into her, Niles puts on a baseball cap (backwards, even), Frasier drives an RV, and Martin puts away his itenerary. This is what makes comedy happen, and though it’s a shame Roz can’t join in on the craziness, this is still a memorable and eminently rewatchable episode.

No Guest Caller

Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo
DIrected by James Burrows
Aired April 14, 1994

Roz: Listen, there is nothing wrong with pampering yourself on your vacation. After all, you
do work three hours a day.
(Pause) I’m sorry, that one even surprised me!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Frasierquest 1.20: Fortysomething

Frasier and Carrie at the store
Martin: The sands of time are shiftin’, buddy. Mostly south.

As befits a psychiatrist, every once in a while Frasier gets introspective. His internal conflicts can drive stories just as often as external ones, and “Fortysomething” is an example of the show’s ability to stray into conceptual territory. As the title implies, it’s about getting older, but what Frasier experiences isn’t so much a midlife crisis as it is the first of many midlife episodes, moments and experiences that remind him that he’s no longer a young man.

It starts when Frasier forgets Roz’s name on the air. At home he finds himself stuck near the start of a piano piece he’s played many times before. His arm’s not quite long enough to hold out a medicine bottle far enough to read it. He’s 41, and finally starting to feel it when he meets Carrie (Sara Melson), a young and attractive department store salesgirl who seems to take a liking to him. She eventually asks him out, which puts him in an awkward position. He’s afraid that his attraction to her may simply be compensation for his anxiety over aging, and doesn’t know how to proceed.

It doesn’t help that Carrie is extremely charming. Sara Melson turns in a great guest performance, giving the character a very real enthusiasm and warmth. There’s no sense that she is an unattainable fantasy or (dare I even say the words) manic pixie dream girl; she’s simply a shop girl who finds Frasier attractive. It’s tempting to make guest characters fairly broad and one-note, but Carrie is well rounded and displays a real chemistry. It is, for lack of a better word, cute.

The overall tone of the episode, however, is one of mild melancholy. An early scene in Frasier’s apartment is set during a rainy Seattle afternoon, and that light drizzle seems to hang in the air (in fact, it’s the only glimpse we have of an exterior in the entire half hour.) Arguably, aging isn’t inherently a negative process, but there are parts of it that suck, and Frasier happens to run into a whole bunch of them at once. There’s nothing he can do about it, he’s just going to be a little down. Meeting Carrie does some good, but Frasier inevitably finds himself more stressed than excited at the prospect of a relationship with a much younger woman.

Maybe that’s what makes this one tough to review; it’s a very low-key piece, showing a subtle but meaningful moment in the main character’s life. It’s almost a short story, and the script and direction both show a literary level of restraint.

This actually isn’t without precedent. CHEERS, in its fourth season, aired an episode called “Dark Imaginings”, in which Sam suffers a hernia and finally has to stop denying that he’s getting older. It ends with him sitting in a hospital bed looking out the window as rain falls, an unusually wistful image for a screwball ensemble comedy. Ultimately, the ability to do serious little moments like this has become increasingly important for the sitcom over the past few decades. It’s not necessary- a show like 30 ROCK can run towards the purely farcical and be brilliant- but it does help establish a bond between the characters and the audience over the long run.

Bulldog has an amusing scene in this one, leading up to Carrie asking Frasier if the sports jockey is actually gay, a bit of an in-joke since Dan Butler has been well out of the closet for some time now. The character’s appearance in a story that he doesn’t have much impact on is a nice sign of the show’s recurring characters being folded into the ensemble. I really only have those two observations about his scene, but it’s very funny. (And while we’re on peripheral business, can anyone identify the piano piece Frasier tries to play? It’s quite distinctive, but I don’t really know enough music to recognize it.)

This one ends up being kind of sad, but again, only kind of. There’s not a lot of conflict to resolve; Frasier’s getting older and he has to get used to it, and that’s that. Arguably he deals with it by letting himself be distracted by the possibility of dating Carrie, and maybe that’s enough to shake him out of his funk for the time being. He’ll face the issue again, obviously, but he takes it a little at a time, and it just seems to work.

Guest Caller: Reba McEntire as Rachel

Written by Sy Dukane and Denise Moss
Directed by Rick Beren
Aired March 31, 1994

Daphne: I learned a long time ago there are three questions you never
answer honestly. “How old do I look?” “Do you like my hair?” and “Was
it good for you too?” [to Niles] Coming, Dr. Crane? ...Dr. Crane?

Niles: I'm sorry, I was someplace else. [to Frasier] It was a warm and friendly

(As per usual, quote assistance comes from John Masson's transcripts at Remember: watch out for popunders.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Frasierquest 1.19: Give Him The Chair

Frasier, The Chair, Niles
Leo: Excuse me, but I happen to be a professional. I take a lot of
pride in my work, and I would never-

He hits a table, knocking over some objet d'art.

Leo: Whoa... how'd that get there? Hey look, at least I didn't
lose my license this time, right?

Frasier: All right, all right. Quickly, quickly. I'm sure Beavis will
start to wonder where you are.

It waits. In the midst of African erotic art and replica fainting couches, situated with a perfect angle on the TV and optimum position near the dinner table, it waits. It is sustained by duct tape, survives catastrophic spills, festers within Frasier’s apartment like a pea-green fungus. And it does not wish to be moved.

The Barca Lounger sits on the divide between “prop” and “character”, much like the Doctor’s TARDIS, only it’s stuck in the shape of an affront to design aesthetics. Since the whole show is based around Frasier’s dad moving into his life, the chair makes a great symbol of that intrusion; even if Martin isn’t in the apartment for a scene or two, the chair reminds Frasier and us of his presence. It makes sense that Frasier’s first (and only really sustained) attempt to remove this blight comes in the first season; it was a plot hook from the moment Martin had it wheeled in, and eventually the writers had to run with it.

Frasier decides that replacing Martin’s chair is something long overdue, reasoning that, as the chair is a “transitional object,” getting rid of it would actually be good for his father, to complete the process of settling into his new home. So, without Martin’s knowledge or consent, he has the thing taken out, and a sleek black recliner with Swedish massage put in its place. Despite rave reviews from Niles and especially Daphne on this new feature, Martin just doesn’t take to the new arrival, and wants his old chair back. Unfortunately, Leo the building lackey (Phil Buckman) forgot that Frasier has a storage space, and put the chair outside, where it was quickly snatched up, meaning that in order to appease his father, Frasier must scour Seattle for the billious monstrosity.

It’s interesting how little set-up is needed for this plot to get moving; there’s no particular embarassment which causes Frasier to want to throw the chair out, he just decides that enough is enough. This episode could fall almost anywhere in the season, or even the next few, and while that’s true of other episodes, the Frasier v. Chair conflict is an element which doesn’t change for a long time.

If the beginning isn’t much, then the climax is an interesting twist, as Frasier finds the chair being used as a prop in a high school play. Valerie Curtin (who actually is related to Jane, surprisingly enough) is great as the increasingly frazzled drama teacher who is deadset on keeping what is, by far, the most interesting thing on stage. It’s an odd direction for the story to go, and a great little mini-story in itself. Come to think of it, between Curtin, Buckman, and a great voice appearance by Malcolm McDowell as an eccentric psychiatrist being interviewed by Frasier, the guest stars do a lot to carry this one.

This is also a return to the show’s initial conflict between Frasier and Martin, which was sidelined for the last few episodes. To Martin, the chair is a reminder of the life he used to have, bound up with all sorts of positive memories, including those of Hester. (Hester is sort of the trump card in these arguments.) Ultimately Frasier can’t deprive his father of that; while some change may be inevitable or necessary, that’s no reason to cut ties with the past entirely.

And so the chair wins this round, as it will many others. There are certain forces Frasier cannot prevail against, and comfortable bad taste is one of them. The chair’s vengeance is mighty; violate its will and one must not only repent, but go to even greater lengths to atone than it ever took to confront it in the first place.

It will not be moved.

Guest Caller: Malcom McDowell as Dr. Bruga

Written by Anne Flett-Giordano and Chuck Ranberg
Directed by James Burrows
Aired March 17, 1994

Niles: Well, at least I don't have to live with something unattractive.

Frasier shoots Niles a look from under raised eyebrows. Niles, taking
his meaning, looks offended.

Frasier: Oh Niles, Niles, I'm just having some fun with you. Actually,
I think Maris is rather attractive - in a, a minimalist sort
of way.

[Quotes again via John Masson and IMDB, seriously, you are losing ground here.]