Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Frasierquest 3.8: The Last Time I Saw Maris

Niles keeps his thoughts organized.
Niles: I'm not denying my feelings. I'm so in tune with my emotions
that I was able to move through them quickly. In fact, I've logged them all in my journal. Let's see, where are we? Here... [reading] ‘5 AM: Blissful confusion. Something's happened, but what?’ ‘5:01: Ah, yes. An overwhelming sense of emptiness and despair.’ ‘5:07...’ - this one's hard to read... oh, right! - ‘Wept uncontrollably.’ ‘6:15: All cried out. Hungry now. Ate entire box of Frosted Flakes, they're gr-r-r-reat!’

FRASIER, like most sitcoms, is not prone to big changes. There’s a comfortable status quo which shifts subtly over time, depending on what the writers see working. One of the things I like to do when writing these reviews is note the subtle shifts in character relationships and attitudes, and see how they evolve over time. But for once we’ve got ourselves a shake-up, one whose effects will be felt through the rest of the series. Niles and Maris are on the rocks, and it happens so naturally that we wonder why it didn’t happen before.

Frasier gets a phone call from a frantic Niles, who can’t find Maris anywhere. He thinks she may have been kidnapped, or worse, but some quick detective work by Martin reveals that she’s merely jetted off to New York for a shopping spree. Niles is relieved, but also upset, and after some prodding by Frasier he stomps off to confront her about her irresponsible behavior (a confrontation preceded by Niles’ primal-scream smashing of several vases.) She responds by asking for a divorce. Niles is out of the house and back into bachelor life, but though he seems cheerful enough, Frasier knows he’s not ready.

There have always been hints that Niles’ marriage was dysfunctional; Maris was a delicate, emotionally fragile creature who, as a bonus, was also self absorbed and egocentric. There have been tests before, as with “A Midwinter Night’s Dream”, but for once the characters start to acknowledge that maybe this just isn’t going to work. Maris’ dominance is unhealthy, and this one instance of inconsiderate behavior on her part is the final straw.

But is it the straw on Niles’ back, or on his brother’s? Frasier’s tendency to meddle in dangerous matters is highlighted here, and it does take his prompting for Niles to finally open up about how he feels about Maris’ thoughtless treatment of him. Up until now Frasier has made his wry jabs at Maris, but also respected his brother’s wishes. He may not like Maris very much, but he has tolerated her because his brother loves her. But this act pushes him to push Niles to finally push back at Maris, and the first time he does so it blows up to something he never expected. Little wonder, then, that he tries to engage Maris and patch things up. Ultimately the decision to leave is Niles’, but it’s interesting how he’s not the sole actor in this conflict.

I’m becoming convinced that what makes the best, or at least most memorable FRASIER episodes, is the embroidery: the things that happen that aren’t directly linked to the main plot. At half an hour the show has to be economical, and the plot itself has to work, but the little things count too, and bits like Noel Shemsky’s bizarre petition to make Roz a STAR TREK character, Daphne fake-whimpering to tease Frasier into giving Eddie some food, or Frasier’s wry jabs at Mahler stand out as memorable moments even if they’re not very important. Marta’s reappearance is also a good piece of continuity, mainly because the character is just so likable.

Despite the episode’s title, this is far from the end for Niles and Maris. There’s at least a part of him that still loves her, and a part of her that won’t let him go. The unraveling of their relationship becomes a major part of the show’s landscape, yielding many, many plots and a remarkable sense of uncertainty as to how it will end. And of course, the ramifications for Niles’ other great love are obvious, though in the episode itself we don’t even get the standard joke about his crush.

Even though this is a big step for the series, there’s also a sense that it’s overdue. Ultimately, a woman who is so emotionally unavailable that we can’t even see her is no companion for a character we like and care about. Just as Daphne deserves someone who can do more than smell her hair, Niles deserves someone who can actually be there for him. It will be a long road, but then, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Guest Caller: Paul Mazursky as Vinnie

Written by Ian Gurvitz
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired November 28, 1995

Noel: Hi, Dr. Crane. Could you sign this petition someone 'anonymously' posted in the lunchroom? It's to the talented producers of 'Star Trek,' suggesting a new character.

Frasier: [reading] 'The all-powerful space vixen... Rozalinda! Four-breasted queen of the planet Rozniak!' I'll sign that.

Roz: Frasier!

Frasier: [signing it] Well, Roz, television will never improve unless the viewers speak out!

Transcript by Michael Lee at

No comments: