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.)

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