Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Frasierquest 3.18: Chess Pains

Frasier contemplates his next move.
Martin: Those guys at the park make it look great. Eatin’ baloney sandwiches, smokin’ cigars... sometimes a fist fight even breaks out.

Frasier: Well, let’s just start with name calling and see where it goes, all right?

So. Chess. A great strategic pasttime, and a game where it’s quite possible to lose 2 moves after you start. It’s the sort of thing Frasier would naturally gravitate towards, so “Chess Pains” is an episode they had to do sooner or later. The main plot is not really one that lends itself to being a main plot, and it ends up a little slow, but it is a return to the conflict between Frasier and his dad, which we haven’t seen in a while despite it being the premise on which the show was based.

Frasier has ordered an expensive and elaborate chess set, a glorious antique which has him itching for a game against someone. He ropes Martin into a game, and though dad is not a very experienced chess player, he whoops Frasier’s butt. This upsets the good doctor more than it should, and he spends a lot of time contemplating how he lost, concluding that dad just happened to blunder into a good offensive strategy. So he asks for a rematch, and loses again. And again. And again.

This is one of those cases where Frasier’s reaction to a problem makes it much worse than it is. Anyone else by this point would have assumed that Martin just has a mind for chess (there’s a bit of a plot hole in that he’s been shown playing the game before, but acts like it’s mostly new to him here). He’s not a dumb guy, as much as he acts like it at times- he was a detective, for cryin’ out loud. But Frasier refuses to be outclassed in an intellectual pursuit, at least not without some deep underyling reason.

Frasier’s reasoning in this case is that he is afraid of toppling his father, and he expects this conflict to resolve itself simply by his having confronted it. And there may actually be some of that at work. Obviously the episode doesn’t show us too many details of their games, and I wouldn’t know enough to analyze them if it did. (It doesn’t help that Frasier’s fancy chess set is sufficiently fancy that I’m not entirely sure which piece is which.) But the overall impression we get is that he’s just covering, and that Martin is just the better player. Still, it’s left open for us.

There are a couple of highlights from the supporting cast to help pad out a thin central story. Niles, at Daphne’s suggestion, decides to get a dog to keep him company during his separation from Maris. Said dog ends up being Maris’ canine double, a thin whippet with a haughty attitude. It’s kind of adorable in a bizarre way (the actual breed is lovable enough), and a nice touch is that nobody ever actually says she looks like Maris; we’re expected to connect the dots ourselves. I also like the touch that Niles naturally takes Daphne’s advice; it’s something people in love do, not even necessarily to impress the object of our affection but because they’re so wonderful that they must be right about something. Then there’s Daphne’s attempt to cheer up Frasier with a sock puppet, which is a trainwreck.

I find myself wondering now whether I wouldn’t like this episode a lot more if I didn’t have to write about it. It’s a story about which not a lot can be said, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. This is, in the end, a 30-minute sitcom, and in that format there will inevitably be non-special episodes in which amusing things happen for a while and then stop, without a lot of room for thematic dissection. “Chess Pains” could have been better, but it’s not without its redeeming elements- it’s entertaining, but not one for the ages. Given the streak we’ve been on, it was inevitable.

No Guest Caller (though Luck Hari graces us with her presence at the Café Nervosa)

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by Gordon Hunt
Aired March 26, 1996

Frasier: Daphne, I would rather have a tarantula lay eggs in my ear than listen to any more of this puppet show.

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