Saturday, May 15, 2010

Frasierquest 2.7: The Candidate

Frasier and Phil Patterson
Holden Thorpe: So a guy like you, unmarried, didn’t serve his country, sees fit to criticize a patriotic family man who fought in the battle of Grenada...

I kind of hate politics.

As necessary as they are, they’re deeply unpleasant and confrontational, and dominated by stupidity. When we can’t understand the issues fully (and who can?) we make decisions based on irrational first impressions and superficial judgement calls. “The Candidate”, which actually aired the evening of the 1994 U.S. elections, lightly spoofs some of the sillier aspects of our democratic process, but it can’t help but induce some of the same frustration that the real thing inflicts on us. I was hesitant to revisit this one, because again it’s an episode that’s technically well done but hits just a little too close to home. Still, it’s more fun than I recall.

Martin surprises the boys when he shows up in a local commercial, supporting right-wing (presumably) and tough-on-crime candidate Holden Thorpe for Congress, using his own experience being shot in the hip as fodder. Frasier and Niles are dismayed, both leaning towards the more liberal side of things, and despite some ethical misgivings Frasier decides to publicly back Phil Patterson (Boyd Gaines), an idealistic underdog. His ethics, however, are further tested when he finds that his candidate of choice secretly believes he was abducted by aliens years ago, and that they invited him to a conference to tell him their concerns about what mankind is doing to Earth.

A secret like this is no fun unless it gets leaked, so that’s what Frasier inadvertently does when he hears that Patterson is in a scandal involving aliens (actually a misunderstanding with some exchange students.) Needless to say, Frasier ends up ruining everything. It’s more of a bummer than usual, since it’s not just his ego that suffers; a good guy loses, not because his policies are inferior but because he holds an ultimately irrelevant belief. (Part of my problem with this episode is I’m not sure being a UFO abductee would harm a candidate in a regional race, though the script lampshades this near the end.)

And this is the problem I have with politics. The results of elections matter, and matter for a long time, which means too much rides on a short cycle, which means craziness abounds. I may never truly understand the mindset it takes to be a political person- you need to have both the conviction that winning the conflict is important, and the perspective to pick yourself up after losing. It’s this admirable zen detachment that Patterson displays in the episode’s final scene, which does help take some of the sting off.

Of course, for all that this episode is about politics, it goes out of its way to not be too polarizing. Not only are no political parties mentioned, but I don’t think we ever hear the words “conservative” or “liberal” either. Holden Thorpe is “tough on crime” and gets connected to Grenada, while Patterson is a “bleeding heart” who helps out at soup kitchens. Both sides get mocked to some degree- I wouldn’t call it balanced, but it’s not trying to be.

Luck Hari shows up as a Café Nervosa server again after her memorable turn in “My Coffee With Niles”, which is a touch I enjoyed for some reason. Like Eric being promoted from bit player to breaking Daphne’s heart, it shows that the staff recognized talent- Hari would appear several more times up through 1997. I’ll keep an eye out. She’s cute, okay?

There’s also some more interesting stuff about Frasier’s professional ethics, both as a psychiatrist and public figure. He’s not sure he should get politically involved at all, and when he does he runs into the question of whether Thorpe’s little close encounter means anything to his endorsement and whether he should tell anyone. (Niles comes up with a workaround for the latter, though I’m not sure that’s characteristic of him.)

The episode ends on something of a sweetly redemptive note, which at least helps Frasier get over the guilt he feels. Our boy has been through a lot of stress, much of it self-inflicted, over the past couple of episodes, a situation which I can empathize with. But things are about to get interesting.

Guest Caller: Sydney Pollack as Holden Thorpe

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired November 8, 1994

Phil: Maybe I’ll run in California. A thing like this could actually help me there.

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