Friday, April 29, 2011

Frasierquest 3.19: Crane vs. Crane

Frasier meets fireman/hobo/industrialist Harlow Safford
Martin: What father doesn’t look forward to the day he gathers his friends around the TV and says, “Hey, that’s my boy! The one making the old man cry!”?

“Crane vs. Crane” is interesting because it teases a brother against brother conflict that ultimately never takes place. The old sibling rivalry`formula is given a twist, in that what they’re arguing about is ultimately too important for their petty disagreements. A potentially very serious issue, that of senility and senior capacity as it pertains to huge sums of money, is turned into a strong comic story that lets us revisit Niles and Frasier’s endless game of oneupsmanship without feeling like it’s just a retread.

The story starts with Niles being retained to appear as an expert witness at the capacity hearing of timber baron Harlow Safford (the legendary Donald O’ Connor), a trial which is going to air on Court TV and thus give Niles a bit of celebrity. Frasier is approached by lawyers for the eccentric Safford, and finds the man a charming and clear-headed individual who just happens to like riding the rails and giving money to charity. He agrees to testify as well, setting himself against Niles on the other side of the aisle. Niles refuses to believe that Frasier is doing this out of any sincere conviction of Safford’s sanity rather than a desire to hog the spotlight. Both men enter the courtroom with cutting speeches prepared, but fate intervenes.

Thinking about it now, there’s something topical about the entire “Court TV” angle of the show. The 90s often seemed like the decade of the sensational show trial, and by the time this aired most people were still trying to get the O. J. Simpson case out of their heads. Little did anyone know we had a Presidential impeachment to look forward to. So of course Niles sees the courtroom as his chance at stardom. The show doesn’t try to hammer this home in any way, and it’s only on my most recent viewing that I recognized Court TV fame as a contemporary emergent phenomenon. (And speaking of contemporary references, Daphne’s Eddie-repelling shriek sounds a lot like the battle cry of Xena, Warrior Princess. That's probably coincidence but I prefer to think that it isn’t.)

The irony of Niles’ paranoia is that for once Frasier isn’t acting in his self interest. Usually when these two clash it’s purely ego vs. ego, but Frasier sincerely believes he is in the right for once. It ends up being a question of perception- Niles just happened to visit Safford when he was less lucid- and for a time we share Frasier’s, as he visits Harlow in what turns out to be a particularly sane period. It would have been interesting to see this from Niles’ perspective.

It’s always disheartening to think that we must, inevitably, decline in our abilities as we grow older- that after decades of self-improvement there is a peak. Frasier’s worried about this before, and that’s why he falls under Harlow’s spell. O’ Connor does a great job playing both the lucid and less-so sides of his character, showing how easily he can put up the appearance of normality and be his old vibrant self.

In the end, Frasier and Niles shouldn’t be the ones deciding the old man’s fate, and taking the outcome out of their hands not only works as a basic comic twist but also a way of deflating the seriousness of the situation. There’s no indication that Harlow is going to suffer for his incapacity beyond losing control of his money, so that makes the audience feel a little better too. While Martin justifiably grouses about the rush to declare senior citizens incompetent, sometimes it’s unavoidable.

Ultimately, the episode is memorable for how it balances the “new” elements- the guest star, the jump to televised courtroom antics- with the familiar spine of Niles and Frasier trying to outdo each other. This is ideally how most sitcoms work on a given week, taking a basic formula and introducing things to spice it up. The trick is actually making it happen week in and week out, and while some more unusual episodes are coming up in the season’s home stretch, it’s shows like this that keep the show’s reputation up.

Guest Caller: Debbie “Mrs.” Fields as Beth

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired April 9, 1996

Frasier: Yes, but you weren’t fooled! Somehow you pick up on some tiny clue that I missed! Remember what it was?

Niles: (thinks) Yes. Midway through our interview he took off his trousers and tried to put them on the cat.

Frasier: I’d like to think that I might have picked up on that one too.

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