Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Frasierquest 2.21: An Affair to Forget

Niles: En garde!

Frasier: Oh, yes, that’s just what we need, a fourth language!

I think I’ve pinpointed the precise moment where Maris became unfilmable. There’s a point in the action where we hear a love letter apparently composed to her by a German suitor, who describes her as his Nichteinmenschlichfrau. I’m not sure this is an actual German compound word (though they are fond of those), but the translation is “not quite human woman.” In that moment, I think it became clear that no actress could embody her, and that the visual effects required to properly render such an entity would bankrupt the series. “An Affair to Forget” does more with this invisible character than any episode in the series has to date, and in the process presents us with one of its grandest stories, loaded with incident and going in some really wild directions.

Frasier gets a call from a German woman named Gretchen (Glenne Headly), who is worried her husband Gunnar (Brian Cousins), a fencing instructor, is having an affair with his wealthy new student. He later hears that Maris is taking fencing lessons from a German man, and later gets some further information from Gretchen- i.e., the above letter- that confirms his suspicion. He tries to take this up with Maris, but a miscommunication with the Cranes’ housekeeper means he ends up telling Niles. He is naturally distraught and tries to find a way to win back his razor-thin beloved. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, swords are drawn.

Maris exists on the cusp between “character” and “force of nature”; I’m not sure whether, strictly, she even counts as a character on the basis of having no scenes, no lines, and no physical presence. Even the Cloverfield monster popped its head into frame on occasion. Here, the episode draws her so vividly we can pretty much see her, between Gunnar’s loving desription and the fact that she’s taking fencing lessons and brushing up on her German. It just conjures up the image of a slight, pale, haughty woman in dueling gear. We do learn a bit more about Maris as a person from the story, and she’s shown to have her redeeming qualities.

This is the first episode to feature Marta, the head housekeeper for Maris and Niles, played wonderfully by Irene Olga López. She is, in a word, adorable. She’s energetic and perky despite working for what may be the most neurotic woman in the Pacific northwest, and seeing her pop up now and again is a gratifying bit of continuity. Clearly the production staff grew fond of her, as it would have been easy to have a new character/actor each time a member of Maris’ help was required for a story, without having to track down the same actress each time.

Everything in this episode comes down to a failure to communicate. Nobody ever actually sees Maris and Gunnar in any compromising situation; obviously we can’t, but Frasier himself never has anything to go on but accounts from others, first Gretchen then Niles. He lets Niles overhear his suspicions because of a miscommunication with Marta (who is still working on her English, but knows a smatter of German thanks to a German family who moved to Guatemala shortly after the war.) The final confrontation between Niles and Gunnar has to intermediated by both Frasier and Marta due to the language barrier, and Frasier’s crucial slip- which I knew just enough Spanish to catch- makes things even more awkward.

What makes this episode so much fun is that it keeps building, with Frasier making himself look increasingly ridiculous on-air in order to get more information from Gretchen, Niles sweetly going to pieces at the thought of losing Maris, and so on up to the climax. The sword fight is a brilliant piece of physical comedy, with both participants veering between murderous rage, goofy clumsiness, and a hilarious pause when Gunnar accidentally smashes a vase. I’m not sure how the thing was executed in terms of stunts, but it comes off as both hilarious and convincing.

This isn’t the first sign we’ve had that Niles and Maris’ marriage is, well, complicated. There’s usually some conflict taking place, and while obviously we wouldn’t be hearing about them if nothing was happening, the sheer quantity is a bit worrying. For once, it’s not actually the fault of either of them; Maris resists Gunnar’s Teutonic temptation, and the whole thing could have been resolved with some frank talk if it weren’t for the pesky language barrier. Future problems won’t be as easy to solve, but “An Affair to Forget” still ranks as one of the best Maris stories and one of the show’s very best episodes.

Guest Caller: Gleanne Headly as Gretchen

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired May 2, 1995

Martin: Seattle’s a big city. There must be a bunch of German fencing instructors, each one of them with dozens of students.

Frasier: Yes, but are they wealthy students?

Martin: No, they’re inner city kids trying to work their way out of the ghetto with nothing but a foil and a dream.

(Note: That would make a good movie.)

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