Sunday, April 18, 2010

Frasierquest 2.4: Flour Child

Niles and his enriched pride and joy.
Martin: For God's sake, Niles, calm down. I think it's time you realized something. That is not a person, it's a bag of flour. There's an easy trick to tell the difference: people don't usually come with pop-over recipes on their backs.

“Flour Child” is the kind of story that can easily go wrong. It happens in every sitcom- a premise where one or more characters enters into an inherently “wacky” or weird situation, usually involving an obvious visual gimmick. “Niles adopts a flour-sack baby” is a funny sentence, but it’s really easy for the novelty of such a thing to wear off.

That “Flour Child” manages to be not only more than a cheap laugh, but an outright classic episode, is therefore a significant accomplishment. Behind the really goofy picture, there’s a sweet, thoughtful story about the desire to have children, one which handles the subject with surprising grace. There’s also a B-story, which is another thing sitcoms do a lot, but for some reason it took FRASIER a while to get to that point.

Frasier’s car is in the shop one day, so he takes a cab home with Niles and Martin, when their driver, Arlene (Charlayne Woodward) suddenly goes into labor. The Crane boys help deliver her baby in the cab, and later, visibly charged by the experience, Niles says he’s been thinking of becoming a father. Not sure if he’ll be any good at it, he decides to try a variant of the “flour sack” experiment popular in many high schools, where teenagers have to treat a sack of flour like their own child. Niles takes the roleplaying exercise almost too seriously, and it doesn’t help that he manages to injure his starchy offspring on several occasions. Meanwhile, Frasier signs what he thinks is a birthday card for a station security worker, only to find that he’s actually in the hospital for kidney surgery, and his message joking that he’s closer to death is bound to come off wrong. So, of course, he steals the card.

I actually wonder if, despite the title, this didn’t start off being a story about Frasier’s workplace faux pas. It’s the thread that starts the episode, and in truth gets almost as much screen time. But while Frasier’s story is kind of thin (dependent on him not seeing any “Get well soon” messages in the signatures on the card, not impossible but a tiny stretch), Niles’ is so strong that it has to dominate the episode. It’s inherently a great fit; Niles has been established as brittle, fussy, and uncoordinated, so putting him in charge of a delicate object is just Comedy 101. And since flour sack babies are pretty funny themselves as high school responsibility lessons go, and because Niles is alternately cute and terrifying as a doting father to a thankfully nonexistent child... it’s just too good.

Niles’ experiment also provokes some funny reactions from the rest of the cast. One thing that can be fun to do when watching a show like this is paying attention to the actors who aren’t the focus of a scene; their responses and side business can sometimes be revealing. Daphne gives a warm, amused smile when Niles is telling Frasier about having nightmares involving his flour sack child, kidnappers, and muffins; she finds the whole business as silly and sweet as we do. She’s barely in the episode, but a couple of little moments keep the character alive in our minds.

We end up getting a surprisingly thoughtful resolution to Niles’ storyline. He wants a baby, but not quite enough; the experiment is really more an attempt to psych himself up. While sitcoms do sometimes tease a couple having a baby and then backtrack because the change in status quo would be too great, “Flour Child” goes a step further and overtly states that sometimes it’s more responsible not to have children, even if you are wealthy, at the right age, and in a committed relationship.

Again it’s interesting that parallel action was slow to creep into FRASIER; perhaps it was the “play-like” concept and the need to establish basic story models that delayed it. Frasier and Niles’ stories don’t intersect much thematically- Niles’ is about responsibility, Frasier’s is about his distance from his coworkers- but they do both end up in a hospital and that’s good enough to put them together. And I have to say, the punchline to the get well card story is growing on me.

Guest Caller: Amy Madigan as Maggie

Written by Christopher Lloyd (again, not the one who was frozen today)
Directed by James Burrows
Aired October 11, 1994

Niles: It's not as careless as you make it seem. After all, a real child would have cried before it burst into flames!

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