Saturday, July 10, 2010

Frasierquest 2.13: Retirement is Murder

Frasier and the suspect
Frasier: Ah, yes. Another beautiful Saturday night. The moon is full, the city lights are twinkling, lovers steal kisses in the park... and here, Chez Crane, my father and his assistant sit hunched over twenty year-old photographs of a murdered hooker. Life is a banquet.

Of the things one expects out of an average sitcom episode, “brutal unsolved murders” is probably not on most people’s lists. (And if it’s on yours, I’d like to know what sitcoms you’re watching.) “Retirement is Murder” focuses on what had been a background element for Martin in prior episodes- an unsolved case from his time on the force- and brings it to an early but satisfying resolution. The show doesn’t break genre to do this, though; it’s basically another attempt by Frasier to get involved with his dad’s interests, with comically mixed results. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace, written and directed by people who didn’t write and direct the show normally, and while normally it’s a bad sign when a sitcom plot casts far afield of anything related to its core premise, this holds up pretty well.

For a while Martin’s work on the “Weeping Lotus” murder, the grotesque killing of a Seattle prostitute decades ago, seemed to Frasier a morbid hobby. But as of late Martin’s been unusually distracted by his attempts to crack the case, even taking notes while in the stands at a Supersonics game. Frasier wants to help, and when Martin is away for a bit, he, Niles, and Daphne hover over the crime scene photos to try and put something together. One of the suspects is an animal trainer whom Niles has seen putting on a show with some very talented chimpanzees, and though he has an alibi, Frasier deduces that he could have gotten one of his apes to pull the trigger. Not wanting to spoil dad’s sense of accomplishment, he tries to rearrange the photos to point him in the right direction, and sure enough, Martin has a eureka moment- but Frasier’s not sure the theory will fly in the end, and wonders whether to tell his father the truth.

Every sitcom ventures outside the boundaries of its original concept given enough episodes; it’s how they grow. The growing pains, of course, include the occasional episode that doesn’t fit, or feels so disconnected that it’s irrelevant to the series as a whole, and for an episode revolving around an ancient, off-screen murder mystery, this was a very real danger. But from Daphne’s early pronouncement that there’s nothing Brits like her enjoy more than a grisly killing and a nice cuppa, we feel safe at home. This is the world of drawing rooms and esoteric clues and eccentric individuals deducing facts from as little evidence as possible. Frasier’s tried to play detective before and failed, but he’s not letting that stop him.

Frasier’s solution to the mystery is precisely the sort of over-elaborate explanation he would come up with (though to be fair, Niles helps.) So, perhaps inevitably, he is wrong and the real answer is more mundane. A detective would say that Frasier’s fatal mistake is in assembling a theory of the crime without looking at all the evidence first, while I’d say his fatal mistake in the end is not asking dad what theory he’s actually telling the police. So much embarrassment could have been saved, but alas, asking for clarification is not something anyone in Frasier’s world is terribly used to.

There’s a faint echo of “Burying A Grudge” in Martin’s motivation for trying to crack the case, having promised the victim’s mother he’d find the killer and her not having a lot of time left. This, and the other dark elements of the story, are nicely underplayed, not so much that they’re completely overlooked but enough to keep this firmly in the prime-time comedy realm.

So that’s basically how you present a murder on a sitcom. A little bit of silliness, some familiar mystery tropes, and a cozy atmosphere make this an episode that, rather than violating the show’s ethos, pushes at it and opens up the scope of the series a little more. We’ve had politics, the media, and the neutering of pets as subject matter, and now we can throw in murder mysteries solved at the dinner table. Truly, this show contains multitudes.

Guest Caller: Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie

Written by Elias Davis & David Pollock
Directed by Alan Myerson
Aired January 10, 1995

Niles: It was an exquisite meal, marred only by the lack of even one outstanding cognac on their carte d' vijastite.

Frasier: Yes, but think of it this way, Niles: what is the one thing
better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.

(Quote assist by Mike Lee at

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