Friday, October 22, 2010

Frasierquest 3.1: She's the Boss

Frasier and his new boss at an impasse
Frasier: While Kitty laces up her leather bustier, this is Dr. Frasier Crane, KACL. All talk! All night! All naked!

It’s a new season! The logo is green, the image quality has improved a bit, and Daphne got a hair cut, but there are bigger changes in store. “She’s The Boss” kicks off something new for the series, an ongoing subplot involving a recurring guest star. Oscar-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl makes her debut as Kate Costas, KACL’s new station manager; she’s sharp, assertive, and intelligent, and inevitably she and Frasier begin butting heads. It’s about time he had a worthy adversary.

Kate has the station abuzz the day she arrives, meeting with the talent one at a time and canning Father Mike. With Frasier, she’s more charitable, as he’s one of the station’s big hitters, but she has a few suggestions, wanting him to do theme shows and give priority to the juicier calls. Despite Kate’s credentials (6 Golden Mic awards) and take-no-prisoners attitude, or perhaps because of them, Frasier stands up to her and refuses to make any changes to his show. She responds by bumping him to the graveyard slot, where his calls come primarily from bakers and convenience store workers watching themselves on security cameras and not liking what they see. It’s Hell on Frasier’s sleep habits and Roz’s love life, but Frasier won’t back down, even though it’s less about the changes Kate wants to make than the fact that she wants to make changes. Eventually he and Roz hit on a plan to force her hand, playing into what he imagines she wants by making the show as smutty and sleazy as possible.

Again we start with an episode that’s largely about Frasier (as surprising as that is.) There’s really no B story, though Niles tries to get a gun to try and calm Maris’ fear of burglars, and Eddie has a cone on his neck after a fight with another dog leaves him slightly wounded (but still annyoing.) The writers probably felt it necessary to focus on the Kate story, since she’s going to be a major force for several episodes to come. Roz does get more screentime than she usually does, which is always welcome, and it’s a sign of their developing friendship that she rushes to become Frasier’s partner in crime despite partly blaming him for forcing her to work the late shift anyway. Still, the others do get enough to do to remind us that we’re back on familiar territory; it would be weird to have one or more of the regulars absent or completely sidelined for the season premiere.

But the point is Kate. There hasn’t been a character quite like her just yet; she’s not a big one-off guest star, but she isn’t one of the utility players like Bulldog or Gil. She’s more a small arc unto herself, someone who will pose a challenge for Frasier on many levels and serve to put the temporary focus on his workplace as opposed to his home life. (Though it gets a little complicated near the end.) Frankly, it’s the kind of part you more often see in a drama series, where a guest star is brought in for several episodes to advance a specific storyline. (For some reason BUFFY’s big and little bads come to mind.) I’m not entirely sure just how carefully planned Ruehl’s arc was, but given that she’s an established actress they probably had to be pretty sure which and how many episodes she would be in.

It was a good choice in any respect; Ruehl has more than enough presence to establish herself as a formidable character from her first scene, and she makes some interesting choices in terms of line readings and gestures that give the character some flavor. (The way she intones “You did this to vex me” turns a somewhat pretentious statement into a genuine laugh line.) I’ve gotten the impression that some didn’t take to her in this role, and I can see why; she’s a strong taste, and suddenly throwing a powerful and antagonistic character against our hero can sometimes result in the audience hating that character too much. (I’m sure someone on TVTropes has already written up the Evil Poochie syndrome.) Still, I like her.

At first I was inclined to take Frasier’s side regarding the debate. Theme shows seem like a bad idea for a psychiatric call-in program; if someone needs help with their agoraphobia, it’s not very nice to put them aside because you’re talking about marital strife today. But the show’s not a substitute for actual therapy, and they refer callers to qualified therapists already, so I’m not sure it’s that big a deal. Frasier, of course, makes it a big deal. It’s all down to personality conflict; Kate is smart enough, successful enough, and self-confident enough to make Frasier wary of the suggestions she makes. And once he’s planted himself in opposition, it’s very hard for him to back down.

The first battle between Frasier and Kate ends in a compromise, a sign of further struggles to come. And so the new season strikes out in a new direction, promising more stories about KACL and a change in the status quo. The show won’t mutate into something radically different- this is a traditional sitcom, after all- but it will mix things up to stay fresh. Other changes are in store, and this leg of the journey should get pretty interesting.

Guest Callers: Matthew Broderick as Mark, Tom Hulce as Keith, Carrie Fisher as Phyllis, Teri Garr as Nancy

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired September 19, 1995

Frasier: Oh God, Roz, I don't think I've helped a single person tonight.

Roz: Helped? You'll be lucky if you don't get sued! You told a longshoreman to come out of the closet, and a gay guy to spend more time on the docks!

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