Monday, May 16, 2011

Frasierquest 3.21: Where There's Smoke There's Fired

Frasier and a smoke-happy Bebe
Daphne: Well, I smoked for years but I never became addicted. To this day, I can buy a pack, have a cig or two, toss them in a drawer and not crave another for months.

Bebe: You know there's a word for people who can do that. What is it? Oh, yes: bitch!

Does anyone like PSAs? They are treated as, at best, a necessary evil, and when a TV show or movie starts to bear even the slightest resemblance to a PSA we begin to get defensive. So the various attempts by the networks to primp up their image by reminding us that we shouldn’t smoke, or drink and drive, or get hooked on drugs usually wind up as examples of the worst episodes of their respective shows. (Ask a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan about “Beer Bad” sometime.) “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fired” manages to avoid this inglorious company, mainly because it’s only half committed to the bit. I can’t even be sure it was a network-ordered thing, though last season’s cigar party during “Adventures in Paradise, Part I” may have attracted a few complaints. But it’s not a story about smoking, it’s a story about Bebe Glazer, and her glorious scumminess overrides any sensation we may have that we’re being taught a lesson.

The station has yet another new manager, “Big Willy” Boone (Richard Hamilton), an aging Texas tycoon who asks (or rather orders) that Frasier cure his young fiancee of her smoking habit in time for their wedding, which is three days away. A challenging assignment becomes to Frasier nearly insurmountable when he realizes that the fiancee is Bebe, who is marrying Big Willy for pretty much the reason you’d expect. He gives her some pointers at his apartment one evening, but when she starts smoking again before she’s even left, it becomes an all-night intervention, and Frasier’s career and future stardom becomes dependent on getting one very dedicated and crafty woman to overcome one of the most powerful addictions known to man.

One of the reasons this episode feels much more substantial than some of the ones we’ve had recently is more involvement from the supporting cast. Because the story concerns the station and Frasier’s career, it’s enough to get not only Bebe, but Roz, Bulldog, and Gil involved. Daphne and Martin, who’ve been shown smoking in the past, also get dragged in, their habits stirred awake by Bebe’s professions of love for cigarettes. Niles has his own subplot involving an attempt to become more frugal, but offers some assistance to Frasier as well. For everyone to be involved, including a guest star and two semi-regulars, means there’s more places for the story to go and more it can do in the twenty-plus minutes it runs.

Writer Joe Keenan’s ease with farce may also have been a crucial element in getting this story to work as well as it does. The story may not completely fall into that genre- the action isn’t quite complex or chaotic enough- but Keenan knows how to shove people into high-pressure situations and find the humor in their responses. We get to see a side of Bebe we’ve never seen, one where she’s downright vulnerable, even childish, and it represents a fundamental upending of her and Frasier’s relationship, even greater than their tryst in “Agents in America, Part III”.

On top of everything, the episode is almost perverse in the way it handles the anti-smoking element. Bebe’s monologue about the near-sexual experience of smoking is almost a sales pitch, as well as a good depiction of just how personal our vices are to us. When Frasier does ultimately wean Bebe off of tobacco, it’s solely so that she can cash in on Big Willy’s almost certain incipient demise; in a final irony, that ends up happening anyway, and she goes right back to the cancer sticks. So, yeah, this probably wasn’t meant as a sop to the American Lung Association.

Harriet Samsom Harris again delivers a dynamite performance, and contributes a lot to making this episode as memorable as it is. It’s the kind of episode where everyone gets their moment to shine, though, and so we get to see the ensemble working at top form with some unusual subject matter. There’s something of a successful anti-smoking message to it, in that we see how addiction makes fools of the people who suffer it, but it doesn’t press for a message at the expense of quality comedy. Sometimes that’s the higher road to take.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie

Aired April 30, 1996

Bebe: I like the way a fresh firm pack feels in my hand. I like peeling away that little piece of cellophane and seeing it twinkle in the light. I like coaxing that first sweet cylinder out of its hiding place and bringing it slowly up to my lips. Striking a match, watching it burst into a perfect little flame and knowing that soon that flame will be inside me! I love the first puff, pulling it into my lungs... little fingers of smoking filling me, caressing me, feeling that warmth penetrate deeper and deeper until I think I'm going to burst! Then 'woosh!'... watching it flow out of me in a lovely sinuous cloud, no two ever quite the same!

Daphne: [Visibly aroused, as are the others] More potatoes, anyone?

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