Sunday, March 21, 2010

Frasierquest 2.1: Slow Tango in South Seattle

Frasier and Clarise (Constance Towers) reunite
Martin: So this whole book is about the night you conceived Frederick?

Frasier: Very amusing, Dad. You’ll be happy to know that wasn’t my first time.

Martin: Hey, I’m happy to know it wasn’t your only time.

And we’re back. By the time the second season started, FRASIER was a palpable hit. Critics liked it, the ratings were good, Emmys were starting to pile up- now that the show had proved itself, it was time to step up the game. There are no major shifts in the second season (apart from better video quality and the main title being in red instead of blue), but the plots start getting a little more elaborate and the humor more ambitious. It feels more like the show is going at full speed, and I’m looking forward to a lot of the episodes coming up.

“Slow Tango in South Seattle” is an episode I feel like I’ve seen more often than most, and I’m not entirely sure why, but a case can be made for it being one of the classics. It has a genuinely inspired premise and unusual structure, and the script has a number of great exchanges. (There are some times where I ponder turning my traditional two-quote bookends into something even larger, but that way lies full transcripts of episodes.) There’s nothing in it that particularly marks it as a season opener, but that was more or less the way things went in the show’s early years. But it’s a good way to get started again- a Frasier-centric show with side business for the other characters and a few guest stars thrown in.

“Slow Tango in South Seattle” is the name of a romance novel that has all the women in Seattle and beyond a-flutter. Frasier recognizes the author, Thomas Jay Fallow (John O’Hurley), as a man he knew from Cheers, and upon closer investigation finds that the story is one from Frasier’s own life, one that he confided to Fallow long ago. It doesn’t help that this story is of his first sexual experience, with an older and welcoming piano teacher. Frasier gets Fallow to admit the debt he owes to him, but in the end, that’s not enough. The book makes him realize that he left his first love abruptly, without closure, and he decides to make amends.

Some things never change, among them the occasional inexplicable popularity of not-terribly-well-written books. Granted, Fallow’s offering has no conspiracies or undead creatures, but other than that it’s pretty recognizable. The brief excerpts we hear are wonderfully purple, and pitched just right at a Spinal Tap level of ridiculousness- you can imagine this selling even as you recognize how over-the-top it is. (I’m almost 100% sure the specific target is THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, but I barely know anything about that book so I’m just going by the geographical element.)

We learn a few things about Frasier, possibly more than we cared to. (Reports that he can bring women to hidden realms of ecstasy with his panther-like prowess are unconfirmed, but SOMETHING has to keep bringing in the hot guest stars.) The episode shows him at his worst, then his best; he lets his desire to get fair credit for Fallow’s success get to his head, and is humiliated for it, but as is normal for him, he digs a little deeper, finds a sin from his own past and decides to make it right. For once, Martin is wrong when he criticizes Frasier for being too introspective; it turns out that Clarise Warner (Constance Towers) doesn’t feel bad about what happened, but trying to get closure was the right thing to do anyway.

As the season premiere, “Slow Tango” gets us reintroduced to all the regulars, even if, in terms of the plot, they serve only to jolt Frasier’s memory. Not only do all the main cast get some funny business, but the episode also throws in Bulldog and Gil, who has gone from sycophantic threat to Frasier’s career to merely ribbing him once in a while. We get some physical information on Maris, and I think this is about the point where she drifted into the realm of “impossible to show.” This was supposed to be a misdirect; the writers wanted to tease the character out but eventually reveal her, but when Niles talks about her quadraceps being “so tight she’s incapable of straddling anything larger than a border collie”, you can hear the list of possible actresses shrinking. Just about every character gets at least one good laugh line (Eddie excepted), cementing the show’s ensemble nature.

(In yet another case of something I can’t fit in anywhere, Daphne’s threat to give Eddie “a little spank on his fanny” becomes weird when you realize that British slang puts the fanny, well, adjacent, and absolutely nowhere on a boy dog. In fairness, this was before Urban Dictionary.)

“Slow Tango” may just be a memorable episode; it’s not a plot the show did very often, the character beats ring true, and there’s a lot of funny business surrounding them. And making fun of bad literature will hopefully never get old.

Guest Caller: James Spader as Steven

Written by Martin Weiss
Directed by James Burrows

Aired September 20, 1994

Frasier: (reading to himself, in voice-over) “He had been a teenage Balboa, an explorer of the rising pinnacles and gently curving slopes of my body, and in one explosive burst of discovery he had staked claim to the Pacific Ocean that was my soul. But now he was leaving. Vanishing like a solitary boat on the lonely horizon. Departing like a train, rolling ceaselessly through the night. Exiting swiftly, like...”

(Frasier sighs and skips ahead a few pages)

Frasier (v.o., cont’d): “...and so, he was gone.”

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