Friday, April 30, 2010

Frasierquest 2.6: The Botched Language of Cranes

Frasier faces the city he's dissed.
Roz: Frasier, after you left, the station manager stopped by. He's taking a lot of heat from the sponsors and he says if you cannot smooth this over, he
may have to suspend you.

Frasier: Suspend me? Well, what's he going to put in my timeslot?

Roz: He'd have to run "The Best Of Crane."

Martin: What will he do on the second day?

As I’ve said before, vicarious embarassment is something I’m prone to. Sitcom episodes that revolve around characters getting embarassed can be tough, at least when they don’t entirely bring it on themselves (I still watch THE OFFICE every week, after all.) So “The Botched Language of Cranes” is an episode I personally enjoy less than most, but at the same time I can’t say it’s below average. It’s very sharp, and in its unfairness to the character it actually scores a few points about provincialism and manufactured outrage. (Those following the UK press will probably find this relevant.)

On a particularly rainy and miserable day, Frasier advises a caller unsatisfied with her lot that she might try changing things, even moving to a new city. The locals (fuelled by a Derek Mann column, in a nice callback) take his apparent snub of Seattle to heart, and after some angry calls Frasier is moved to apologize. However, he doesn’t realize he’s on air when he gripes about having to appease a bunch of crybabies, and the reparations are quickly undone. So he has to buy some very expensive seats at a benefit for a church hospital, and give some funny remarks at the event. It’s a great idea, but fate intervenes.

One thing I’d forgotten about this episode was the part Derek Mann plays. That Frasier’s little controversy is actually driven by a rival media personality ends up not making much of a difference, since Frasier basically takes the bait; he apologizes insincerely and lets slip his real feelings, because in the end he doesn’t feel he owes Seattle an apology.

And honestly, does he? Frasier’s said nothing wrong, Seattle will not suffer from the loss of one exterminator. It’s just some people in the city being thin-skinned, a phenomenon easily demonstrated by opening any local newspaper to its letters page. I’ve never liked provincial attitudes or the idea that a city/nation/etc. can’t be fair game for criticism or jokes, so I’m biased, but the show’s first act does emphasize how absurd the whole problem is.

Of course, as Martin points out, it doesn’t matter who’s right. Ultimately Frasier has to buckle down. The episode’s final scene veers a little bit from this conflict, in that what undoes Frasier this time has nothing to do with civic pride and everything to do with bad timing. (Having said that, his routine kind of stinks regardless of the circumstances.) In fairness, how often do bishops capsize these days?

It’s increasingly becoming the case that the show’s main plot is buoyed by side-exchanges and material for the supporting cast; there’s a sense of the ensemble becoming tighter. Roz tries to run damage control, Niles attempts to hook up a new TV and watches Maris pounce on new social connections, Daphne gets neurotic about not answering the phone, and Martin is content to say “I told you so.” We’re watching the show for everyone, not just the characters who have the plot ball, and this is something we weren’t seeing so much in the last season, which had a more focused quality. I kind of prefer this approach, and think it creates a sense of the show as a welcoming environment for the viewer.

So, one disc into the season, the show’s already growing and maturing. “The Botched Language of Cranes” is actually a bit better than I recall- my visceral empathy for Frasier’s predicament may have blinded me to the episode’s cleverer bits of writing and acting.

Guest Callers: Alfre Woodard as Edna, Sandra Dee as Connie

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by David Lee
Aired November 1, 1994

Frasier: [re: the benefit] You really think it's a good idea, Niles?

Niles: Well, worked for Nancy Reagan. After her first year in the White House she was widely criticized for her lavish spending. She responded by appearing at a satirical dinner wearing cheap store clothes and performing "Secondhand Rose."

Daphne: And that made people like her again?

Niles: Yes, briefly.

[Transcript courtesy Nick Hartley at]

Friday, April 23, 2010

Four Years Later: The Short Version

So, I really should have prepared something for this, but a very busy week leaves me with little time. Suffice it to say that this marks the fourth anniversary of Club Parnassus' first post, and we're still around, and hoping to be around for at least four years more. (It'll take me at least that long just to finish Frasierquest.)

I want to thank everyone who's still reading. Hopefully I can continue to expand what I write about here, and maybe even spark some discussion. Seriously, you folks are quiet. It's an eternal struggle to try and keep my material fresh and interesting without just posting pictures of hot chicks (though I am not above that), and I feel I've kind of lost touch with the blogosphere (go and check how much of my blogroll is still active), so hopefully I can find some stuff to engage with and memes to keep things lively.

I've always got ideas, though, so look for a few things to be tried out in the year ahead. Keep reading, and have fun.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Frasierquest 2.5: Duke's, We Hardly Knew Ye

Frasier and Niles at Duke's
Frasier: You buy into an investment GROUP, Eddie, you don't know!

One of the problems with doing this feature is that when I’m watching these episode, I have to be on the lookout for things to write about. A weekly television comedy, even one of the very best there is, is not going to have a big important episode each time. “Duke’s, We Hardly Knew Ye” is particularly difficult because it’s almost the definition of a bottle show; it’s about a place we’ve never seen before and never will again, and though it again deals with Frasier and Martin’s glacially evolving relationship, it’s hard to articulate how its treatment of the subject is different from past episodes.

Niles convinces Frasier to go halvsies on an investment in a development group planning to build a mini-mall in Seattle. On a seemingly unrelated note, one night Martin invites the two over to come over to Duke’s, the bar he frequents with many of his fellow cops. The two do their best to try and fit in, until they hear that the bar is being shut down and demolished in order to make room for the mini-mall they’ve invested in. Niles decides to keep mum, but the guilt tears at Frasier until one sleepless night (which finally gives the writers an excuse to use “Sleepless in Seattle” as a title card.)

My first observation is that this seems like it actually may have been a fairly expensive episode. We get a big (albeit not that elaborate) set built for a location that will be seen once, loaded with extras and bit players, and demolished by a wrecking ball at show’s end. I don’t know much about TV budgets, but it’s interesting to think how a seemingly standard episode of a sitcom can create unique logistical issues.

Again, we’re going to the core Frasier v. Martin dynamic which the show was built around, but there’s progress to be seen. By this point both have come to terms with their living together, and while Frasier has frequently made overtures to try and get involve with whatever his dad is interested in, for once Martin invites him. Ironically, if he hadn’t done this, Frasier would possibly never find out that he was partly responsible for destroying something his father loves- a lot of the episode hinges on whether or not it’s better to know these things, at least when it gets to a point where you can’t do anything about it. Frasier, Martin, and Niles are ultimately helpless in the face of progress.

I have to say the story resonated with me a little bit more than I remembered. Losing a bar or regular hangout sucks, and can really damage a social circle; Frasier tries to console Martin that he’ll still see his cop friends, and to a certain extent he does, but he knows it’s never the same. (I still bear a certain resentment towards whoever decided to turn Columbia, MO’s best karaoke joint into an upscale steakhouse.) What we see of Duke’s ain’t pretty- it’s one step above Moe’s Tavern- but there is a good sense of loss conveyed at its passing.

There’s something resembling a B-story here, with Daphne (now out of the dating doldrums) about to go on a third date with a man named Derek, and being made aware of the apparently uniquely American tradition of the third date being when things get intimate. There’s not much to it since we never actually see Derek ever, but I like the payoff. It’s also good to see how Roz is included in the story despite not having much to do; her snarkiness spices up a couple of exposition scenes, and the cattiness between her and Niles is given some nice twists. (She basically helps him convince Frasier to co-invest by insulting him in the worst way.)

“Duke’s, We Hardly Knew Ye” is hardly the last we’ll see of Marty’s social circle, and eventually he’ll find a new place as one must do. So I guess this episode does advance a few things after all. Still, it’s less enjoyable for anything significant happening as it is for just having some funny business, be it from the main plot or from Roz or Daphne on the sidelines. It’s not the most disciplined episode, but whatever works.

No Guest Caller

Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo
Directed by James Burrows
Aired October 18, 1994

Frasier: Maybe we're even performing a community service. Men with guns will have one less place to go and liquor up.

Niles: There's always Roz's place.

(Quotes via David Langley at

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Frasierquest 2.4: Flour Child

Niles and his enriched pride and joy.
Martin: For God's sake, Niles, calm down. I think it's time you realized something. That is not a person, it's a bag of flour. There's an easy trick to tell the difference: people don't usually come with pop-over recipes on their backs.

“Flour Child” is the kind of story that can easily go wrong. It happens in every sitcom- a premise where one or more characters enters into an inherently “wacky” or weird situation, usually involving an obvious visual gimmick. “Niles adopts a flour-sack baby” is a funny sentence, but it’s really easy for the novelty of such a thing to wear off.

That “Flour Child” manages to be not only more than a cheap laugh, but an outright classic episode, is therefore a significant accomplishment. Behind the really goofy picture, there’s a sweet, thoughtful story about the desire to have children, one which handles the subject with surprising grace. There’s also a B-story, which is another thing sitcoms do a lot, but for some reason it took FRASIER a while to get to that point.

Frasier’s car is in the shop one day, so he takes a cab home with Niles and Martin, when their driver, Arlene (Charlayne Woodward) suddenly goes into labor. The Crane boys help deliver her baby in the cab, and later, visibly charged by the experience, Niles says he’s been thinking of becoming a father. Not sure if he’ll be any good at it, he decides to try a variant of the “flour sack” experiment popular in many high schools, where teenagers have to treat a sack of flour like their own child. Niles takes the roleplaying exercise almost too seriously, and it doesn’t help that he manages to injure his starchy offspring on several occasions. Meanwhile, Frasier signs what he thinks is a birthday card for a station security worker, only to find that he’s actually in the hospital for kidney surgery, and his message joking that he’s closer to death is bound to come off wrong. So, of course, he steals the card.

I actually wonder if, despite the title, this didn’t start off being a story about Frasier’s workplace faux pas. It’s the thread that starts the episode, and in truth gets almost as much screen time. But while Frasier’s story is kind of thin (dependent on him not seeing any “Get well soon” messages in the signatures on the card, not impossible but a tiny stretch), Niles’ is so strong that it has to dominate the episode. It’s inherently a great fit; Niles has been established as brittle, fussy, and uncoordinated, so putting him in charge of a delicate object is just Comedy 101. And since flour sack babies are pretty funny themselves as high school responsibility lessons go, and because Niles is alternately cute and terrifying as a doting father to a thankfully nonexistent child... it’s just too good.

Niles’ experiment also provokes some funny reactions from the rest of the cast. One thing that can be fun to do when watching a show like this is paying attention to the actors who aren’t the focus of a scene; their responses and side business can sometimes be revealing. Daphne gives a warm, amused smile when Niles is telling Frasier about having nightmares involving his flour sack child, kidnappers, and muffins; she finds the whole business as silly and sweet as we do. She’s barely in the episode, but a couple of little moments keep the character alive in our minds.

We end up getting a surprisingly thoughtful resolution to Niles’ storyline. He wants a baby, but not quite enough; the experiment is really more an attempt to psych himself up. While sitcoms do sometimes tease a couple having a baby and then backtrack because the change in status quo would be too great, “Flour Child” goes a step further and overtly states that sometimes it’s more responsible not to have children, even if you are wealthy, at the right age, and in a committed relationship.

Again it’s interesting that parallel action was slow to creep into FRASIER; perhaps it was the “play-like” concept and the need to establish basic story models that delayed it. Frasier and Niles’ stories don’t intersect much thematically- Niles’ is about responsibility, Frasier’s is about his distance from his coworkers- but they do both end up in a hospital and that’s good enough to put them together. And I have to say, the punchline to the get well card story is growing on me.

Guest Caller: Amy Madigan as Maggie

Written by Christopher Lloyd (again, not the one who was frozen today)
Directed by James Burrows
Aired October 11, 1994

Niles: It's not as careless as you make it seem. After all, a real child would have cried before it burst into flames!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Frasierquest 2.3: The Matchmaker

Daphne unwraps a gift from her employerFrasier: Don’t take this wrong, but it never even occured to me you might be gay.

Tom: It never occured to me you might be straight.

Frasier: (uncertain) Thank you.

I’ve been waiting to call this for a while, and because I happened to watch this episode with commentary I feel confident in doing so: “The Matchmaker” is, officially, FRASIER’s first outright farce. It’s interesting to think that something for which the show is well known didn’t even become a part of it until the second season, and from all accounts, this had a lot to do with the hiring of writer Joe Keenan onto the staff. After this episode Keenan became known for Wodehousian farces, and the story mode itself became a key formula.

Of course, “The Matchmaker” is also the first episode to deal with the other elephant in the room. Even now, after the show has finished its run, people will still ask the question, “Just how gay are Frasier and Niles anyway?” A well-groomed, well-dressed man with a passion for opera, sherry, and French cuisine can’t help but fool some people, and the creative staff thought this was a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions and stereotypes. And be really, really funny.

Daphne’s been having trouble finding a man, and Frasier, alerted to this problem when her smoking in bed causes the fire alarm to go off at 3 A.M., decides to help her out. Roz offers someone from her little black book, but Frasier snubs her, instead setting sights on the new station manager, Tom Duran (Eric Lutes.) Roz, feeling a little resentful, decides not to let Frasier know that Tom is gay, and so Frasier invites his boss to dinner in hopes of putting him and Daphne together, not knowing that Tom has his eyes on someone else.

This is Joe Keenan’s first episode as writer (at least in terms of airing), and it actually took a couple of tries to get accepted by the rest of the staff. They thought that the premise of Frasier inadvertently going on a date with his boss was funny, but would probably run out of steam early. The key to farce, as Keenan and director David Lee explain in the commentary for this episode, is to always escalate the action. It’s not just that Tom arrives at dinner and thinks he’s dating Frasier while Frasier thinks he’s dating Daphne. It’s that Niles shows up, and is naturally a little jealous and tries to disrupt things. And that he finds out about Tom’s intentions before Frasier does, and tells Martin first, waiting to drop the bombshell at the latest and most inconvenient moment. In the meantime, misunderstanding and situational irony simmer, investing each expression and bit of casual conversation with unintended innuendo.

It almost goes without saying that this demands a lot from the cast. They have to convey a lot that they don’t say, and Lee gets some amazing expressions from his cast. Lutes, who would go on to a regular role in CAROLINE IN THE CITY (which would itself do a very brief FRASIER crossover in a closing credits gag), is especially good. A former model, he’s handsome, charismatic, and at several points incidental and reaction lines of his were cut because his facial expressions said enough. (This is another one-episode station manager, though presumably he stays on offscreen for some time after.) The regular cast do some amazing nonverbal stuff as well, particularly David Hyde Pierce’s barely-contained glee at knowing Tom’s not-meant-to-be-a-secret and Kelsey Grammer’s awkward coyness trying to set the whole thing straight- er, to rights.

Speaking of which, a lot can be written on how the episode handles its sexual politics. According to Keenan and Lee, throughout the first season people had been suspecting that Frasier and Niles were being written as a couple, disguised as brothers for the sake of network sensibilities. This had mostly to do with the fact that as both men were fussy, fashionable, and a bit effete, they registered as “gay” to anyone familiar with the common stereotypes. The staff wanted to show that there is a difference between being a gay man and being a fop, and though the two categories can overlap, Frasier and Niles are firmly in one circle of the Venn diagram. To this end, Tom, despite being a snappy dresser and an opera buff, comes off as more traditionally masculine. And though Frasier does feel a little distressed when he learns of the misunderstanding, panic eventually gives way to a mature resolution. (This episode won a GLAAD media award in 1995 for its handling of the issue.)

This is one of the greats. The first act sets things up so well that the second is just one long series of complications and payoffs. The script is chock full of great lines, and the actors never miss a beat. It’s just really great television and a defining moment in FRASIER’s progression. Not a minute is wasted.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
DIrected by David Lee
Aired October 4, 1993

Frasier: Do you realize what this means?

Niles: Yes, you’re dating your boss. You of all people should know the pitfalls of an office romance.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Comics Page #25: The Wonder Woman Chronicles, Vol. 1

Wonder Woman Chronicles cover and Amazon link
I’d been waiting a long time for DC to give Wonder Woman the CHRONICLES treatment. The character’s original Golden Age stories, written by William Moulton Marston (under the not-quite-a-psuedonym Charles Moulston) and illustrated by Harry G. Peter, are the subject now of a lot of disdain and misunderstanding, most of it down to the creator’s fondness for bondage and how thinly this was disguised in early renderings. Comicdom’s first female superhero has a lot of baggage attached to her, but in my view it’s the unusual and problematic aspects of the character’s history that make her enduring. Contrary to Jules Pfeiffer’s assertion that Wonder Woman felt like a corporate attempt at a lady superhero, the early Wonder Woman stories have the feel of authentic fantasy to them. They’re the singular vision of someone who had a genuinely unusual way of looking at the world, and though the stories collected here are hardly masterpieces, there’s an energy and enthusiasm to them that gives this collection more than just historical value.

Diana is the princess of Paradise Island, a mystical Mediterranean realm that is home to the Amazons, a society of warrior women sworn, thanks to past treachery, never to consort with the male of the species. This poses a problem when American pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the island in an attempt to stop Axis saboteurs; nursing him to health, Diana falls for him and wishes to accompany him back to “man’s world”. Her mother Hippolyta initially forbids it, but when Diana secretly wins a contest to become champion of the Amazons for this important task, she is given leave to travel to the outside world as Wonder Woman, superpowered defender of righteousness. Through an unlikely coincidence Wondy also ends up taking the identity and nurse’s credentials of Diana Prince, and in her secret identity she becomes privy to many ofthe problems Trevor faces wrestling with Nazis and fifth columnists. Inevitably these problems require the intervention of a superstrong woman with a magic lasso and bracers that can deflect bullets; in a pinch, Wonder Woman calls upon her rotund friend Etta Candy and the girls of a local academy to run interference.

From the start, WONDER WOMAN blends ancient fantasy, science fiction (the Amazons have much advanced technology, most notably a telepathic communicator), and anti-fascist action, the results having the feel of contemporary serials and pulp adventure. If there’s one thing that I dislike about the subsequent Iron Age reboot, it’s that it focused on the Greek myth element to the minimalization of these other aspects, in the name of thematic coherence; what we get here may be a little bit slapdash, but it also feels organic and original.

Now, for the most part, the weirdness that many remark on with the old school WW stories is restrained in this volume; I have a feeling Marston wanted to make sure the character was a mainstream comics success, and so for a start sticks mostly to reasonably straightforward stories involving Axis spies in weird environments. A story set at the circus, and another in the wild west, are marred in modern eyes by old school Golden Age racism, though both have odd enough plotlines that they’re memorable otherwise. There’s also an interesting trip into Superman-esque social commentary in a story where Wonder Woman confronts a cartel driving up the price of milk, which turns out to be another Nazi plot to weaken America’s youth by depriving them of healthy teeth and bones. What I’ve seen in various comms has led me to believe that Marston eventually threw in some weirder adversaries, but for the first few issues it’s all WWII stuff.

Harry G. Peter’s art has the crudeness common to Golden Age illustration, a problem with the early comics industry being a blotter hungry for ink. Quality control pretty much gave way completely to having 64 pages done in time no matter what, but though there are some odd expressions and muscle contortions here and there, the art has a pleasingly rounded, almost classical look. It’s pleasant, though Wondy herself has a tendency to look a little stoned.

The major criticism one sees of these early stories is that Marston’s interest in bondage colors the action more than it should. You’ve got the lasso, which Wonder Woman uses to put bad guys under her power, you’ve got several sequences in which she herself is captured, her magic bracers are the reminders of a brief period in which the Amazons were enslaved due to Hippolyta’s carelessness, etc. For some this taints the feminist ideals of the character, but I honestly don’t see it as that great of a conflict. Bondage and fetishism in general are not incompatible with a belief in female equality, or even the female supremacy that Marston apparently espoused. The bondage elements- muted enough that anything sexual would easily go over the heads of the children reading- make the story a bit stranger than your traditional girl-power narrative, but I’m almost inclined to put that in the plus column. It makes the subtext something that’s genuinely transgressive, both then and now (albeit for different reasons.)

The flip side of Marston’s slightly demented dream is the presence of a lot of downright whimsical elements. The concept of Wonder Woman being helped by an entire sorority is downright charming, and though Etta Candy is the target of many, many, many fat jokes, this somehow does not prevent her from kicking ass when called upon to do so. She’s actually a lot more tolerable than most sidekicks of the era, mainly because once the jokes are over she can actually do things. Then there are the giant kangaroos of Paradise Island, the purple healing ray, and of course, the invisible plane, which would be explained at some point in the Silver Age but here is just another incongruous example of Amazon technology. Marston was willing to put in some things that didn’t immediately make sense, or couldn’t be explained by the story’s main conceit, and I think that’s the mark of true fantastic worldbuilding.

I can’t help but think that something was lost when Wonder Woman’s backstory was cleaned up and reshaped; some of the changes were welcome (Etta Candy is now a government agent without any obvious chocolate addiction), and arguably the whole thing was necessary, but a certain subversive magic runs through the original stories in all their goofiness. In fact, looking at the old stories suggests why so many writers since Marston have struggled with the character. It may just be that you have to be a little crazy, a little willing to embrace fantastic whimsy and AVENGERS-esque sexual undertones (Emma Peel, not Janet van Dyne), to do Wonder Woman justice. Maybe that’s why I’ve enjoyed Gail Simone’s run so much, and though J. Michael Strayczinski is a talented comic writer I’m not sure he has the right touch. I hope he proves me wrong. In the meantime, it’s good to have the classics in an affordable collection, and I eagerly await future volumes.

Grade: B+