Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Frasierquest 3.15: A Word to the Wiseguy

Frasier and Niles' new friend
Niles: You see, last week, my lady got on the wrong side of Larry Law, and since then, certain, shall you say, complications have arisen. And now things are hot, hot, hot. And we hear you're the man to turn on the air conditionin'.

Jerome Belasco: I sense you're a film buff, Dr. Crane.

After a couple of touching and relationship-intensive episodes, it’s good to dive back into silliness. “A Word to the Wiseguy” feels like an episode that was slated for an earlier season; it hearkens back to the status quo of Niles and Maris as a couple, with most of the comedy coming from an outside event. It does some interesting things for the Niles and Maris plot, but is mostly just entertaining because it’s funny to see Frasier and Niles dealing with gangsters.

Maris is in trouble. She’s got a huge backlog of unpaid parking tickets and moving violations, and the police have issued a warrant for her arrest. Niles sees this as an opportunity to come to her rescue and possibly work out their conflicts coming from a position of strength, but Martin refuses to help. Roz, after some coaxing, gives him the name of a man who once “helped” a guy she dated. Niles and Frasier contact Jerome Belasco (Harris Yulin), who makes Maris’ criminal record disappear with a phone call, and asks only that perhaps they might be in a position to do a favor for him. And so, eventually, they are; Jerome’s girlfriend Brandi(y/ie/the traditional spelling) (Faith Prince) refuses to marry him, but he thinks advice from the famous radio shrink Dr. Frasier Crane would change her mind. Frasier must choose between having his sacred trust with the public broken or having his bones broken instead, and he’s not even the one who needed the favor.

This is the first indication we get that Niles wants to reconcile with Maris. It’s an unheralded, unannounced wrinkle in the story, but it makes sense; he still loves Maris, and wants her back, but only if things will be different. He wants her to value him, and this is a step in that direction, even if it does involve organized crime.

For the most part the implications for Niles’ relationship are left as subtext, and most of the episode focuses on the more direct problems of what you do when you’re in a gangster’s debt and you have neither the desire nor the ability to break anyone’s kneecaps. Frasier gets placed in an ethical quandary yet again, and it’s not much of a fight- the more he hears of Jerome’s flaws as a boyfriend, the harder it is to pretend to help Brandy*. He makes a game attempt, though.

Jerome himself is a fun character, but probably too flat for anything more than a one-shot, especially since most of the humor comes from his not revealing much about himself. There’s no detail on who he works for, what he’s actually done or is willing to do to those who cross him; Frasier and Niles being easily frightened, he can afford to be subtle. Yulin’s performance is great, skirting the edges of stereotype but never falling into it entirely (and to avoid upsetting anyone, his character is kept ethnically indistinct.) The effervescent Faith Prince turns in a wonderful voice cameo as Brandi*, and gets some of the episode’s best jokes (though one relies on pronunciation and is impossible to replicate in print.) The picture we get of the two as a couple and as individuals is brief but vivid, one of those occasions where broad strokes work best.

There’s not a lot to talk about, not because the episode itself is that thin but because its substance is mostly good, solid joke construction. For all its relationship drama and character development, the show is rooted in sitcom tradition, and this is a premise you could imagine seeing on just about any show. Still, it’s good to see the old conventions when they’re done right. Developments on the divorce front aside, this episode is a fun detour into the more well-lit portions of the underworld, and a great opportunity for two really strong guest actors to strut their stuff.

Guest Callers: Randy Travis as Steve, Faith Prince as Brandie*

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired February 20, 1996

Brandi: Money ain't everything, especially when you got a sex life like ours.

Roz: He's not even good in bed?

Brandi: Who knows? We're never there long enough to find out.

Frasier: Oh for... you know this really isn't necessary...

Brandi: I said to him last night, "What the hell was that? I've been vaccinated slower!"

* All I know is, it’s “the traditional spelling.”

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