Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Frasierquest 2.23: The Innkeepers

Daphne helps Niles with his eel problem.
Daphne: Owning a restaurant is hard work. If you don’t scald yourself or lop off your finger with a clever, you spend your whole time gagging at grease fires, killing rats, and brawling with labor racketeers. (Beat) Me auntie had a little tea room.

An absolute classic, “The Innkeepers” takes FRASIER’s newly developed farcical element to magnificent extremes. This is an episode almost everyone remembers, and while the fact that it’s easily summed up as the one where Frasier and Niles open a restaurant is obviously part of that, it’s plain and simply one of their most memorable shows. The premise is novel but just close enough to believable, the humor builds from understated to insane, and it’s easily the most ambitious thing the show has yet undertaken from a technical perspective. It all works so well that you never stop to consider how it couldn’t.

Gil Chesterton gets things rolling by letting Frasier know via his show that Orcini’s, an ancient and respected restaurant where the Crane boys went as kids many times, is closing down. A farewell visit to the old place finds her a swiftly-crumbling ruin with grim lighting and a decrepit skeleton crew of a staff; Frasier and Niles decide they can turn this thing around, and buy the restaurant. The rechristened "Les Fléres Hereux" is bright, glamorous, and packed to the rafters on opening night. It is also inevitably doomed, as arguments over soufflé service lead to a mass defection of the kitchen staff, forcing Frasier, Niles, and Daphne to handle the cooking while Roz plays waitress. For a brief period it looks like they may get out of this okay, but we know better.

Looking back I have to admire the ambition it took for FRASIER’s producers to attempt this show (an homage to Blake Edwards, if the script book is to be believed. And script books have never let me down before.) It’s a story loaded with physical comedy, prop business, and elaborate gags performed at a breakneck pace in an environment that’s not quite live theatre but where there’s still an audience who would like to go home eventually. Sure, the cast and crew are very talented, but from a logistical perspective this must have been a nightmare.

And from a creative standpoint it’s also a bit risky. Buying a restaurant is a big, broad comic premise; it’s a departure from the show’s core story engines, and the heavy slapstick craziness a departure from the show’s more highbrow tone. The major problem is how you get the audience to go along with all of this business.

“The Innkeepers” answers these challenges with a very strict, disciplined approach to what it’s trying to do. The first couple of scenes aren’t much different from your normal Frasier episode, and Frasier and Niles’ restaurant venture at first seems like another doomed collaboration, like their book. And to be sure, sibling rivalry provides the impetus for most of the evening’s problems; they argue over the soufflés and drive away the head chef, they both manage to injure wait staff during their comings and goings from kitchen to dining room, and they both take it upon themselves to load up the cherries jubilee with extra brandy. (The repercussions of which, in retrospect, should have been obvious.) There’s plenty of typically urbane banter throughout the evening, so the slapstick builds without making us feel that we’re going too far afield. The scope of the disaster is also slow to build up; at first a few misunderstandings, some mixed signals or wrong words spoken, then the characters get put into absurd situations, and then the really unexpected happens.

The pace of the action really demands a lot of the actors. The higher the pressure and the faster everything moves, the more character can be buried or reduced to shrill stereotypes. But even to the casual viewer flipping by, this episode establishes the basic personalities of all participants, and Grammer, Pierce, Leeves, Gilpin all hold on to the reality of their characters as the evening grows worse. John Mahoney is very good too, but he doesn’t have quite the same job; Martin knows this is not going to work and is determined to enjoy the carnage. It sounds callous, but you really can’t blame him. Edward Hibbert and Dan Butler both provide backup, and it’s interesting to catch an early bit part by Diedrich Bader, later of THE DREW CAREY SHOW, OFFICE SPACE, BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, and something now on NBC that we won’t hold against him.

In many ways this show pushed the envelope; at the time it probably seemed atypical, but afterwards everyone knew they could tackle this material. Many more grand disasters await the happy brothers in the future, and while losing the restaurant didn’t seem to dent them much financially, it looms like an omen over all their later schemes. Murphy’s Law never applies so well as to a Crane venture.

No Guest Caller

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by James Burrows

Aired May 16, 1995

Niles: How much firepower do you suppose is necessary to imbed a cherry in an acoustic ceiling tile?

Frasier: Another question we should have asked ourselves before we entered the exciting world of food service.

No comments: