Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Frasierquest 3.23: The Focus Group

The other side of the mirror
Leader: Now I know, you’ve been eyeing this two way mirror, but the only people behind there are data consultants, so please, speak freely. There’s no one involved with the show whose feelings could be hurt.

Roz: If anybody says anything bad about me I’ll kill myself.

One of the consequences of being too smart for your own good is overthinking things, and expecting rational answers where none can be found. Like people’s opinions; it’s good if they’re objective but sometimes they just aren’t, and their likes and dislikes can’t be helped. “The Focus Group”, an episode probably with some roots in the writers’ personal experience, is about the fact that no matter how good you are, somebody is going to dislike you, and it’s not even their fault. Despite falling firmly into the “humor of discomfort” category more than I normally like, it’s a really strong episode buoyed by a fun subplot and some superb acting.

The titular focus group is one being run for Frasier’s show, as is done with a lot of radio shows. The random 12 people chosen seem to like it a lot, with the exception of the soft-spoken Manu (Tony Shalhoub), who doesn’t like the show and doesn’t like Frasier. He’s too shy to be very forthcoming as to why he doesn’t like him, and his lack of a reason drives Frasier nuts. Finding Manu running a newsstand, Frasier sets out to discover what specific complaint he had, and needless to say his attempts at subterfuge and diplomacy do not go well.

Frasier’s insecurity here seems to reflect one that people in the media sometimes suffer; on the one hand, feedback is good because it means your work is being seen/heard/read and generates a response, but no matter how many times you hear “You’re doing great”, it’s those few negative comments that resonate more. I’ve had it happen myself now and again with my various non-review ventures. Obviously Frasier takes this to an extreme, because he’s Frasier. It’s probably worse because he’s a psychiatrist- he helps people, he sees himself as one of the good guys. How could anyone not like that?

The territory is a little similar to that of “I Hate Frasier Crane”, with the key difference that Manu is really a nice, humble guy, who does his best to try an back out of the oppositional situation he’s in once he realizes it. That’s what edges us into discomfort territory, especially with Shalhoub having gained so much experience earning audience sympathy on Wings. But Frasier’s attempts to get a clearer answer (or really just win him over) are so ludicrously disastrous- and done in full view of a completely disbelieving Martin and Niles- that it’s just plain hilarious.

Niles and Daphne get the episode’s main subplot, but it’s not what you think. With both characters on edge due to their own troubles (Niles being billed for art repair after a gallery mishap, Daphne’s boyfriend being off in Vegas on their anniversary), the two back into a full-fledged argument with each other, and though they quickly come to their senses and make up, Niles is frankly turned on. It’s a nice twist on their normal relationship- we, the audience, get a little nervous seeing the two fight (well, I did, can’t speak for you), but the fact that it only excites and attracts Niles to her even more is at once surprising and also so very much him. And though it’s not closely related to the main plot, the fact that it’s about an irrational dislike boiling up and becoming more fuel for an irrational attraction at least keeps it in the same ballpark.

I’m sure Frasier was subjected to a lot of test screenings and focus group meetings itself, and that all the writers, Rob Greenberg included, have been on shows which were given even more scrutiny. Rather than mock the process itself, though, “The Focus Group” deals with how we react to criticism- and specifically, the worst way to do so. It seems like it’d be nice to know just what problems people have with us, but the moral of the story is that you have to accept that you’ll never please anyone. That, or fighting with girls is fun. One or the other.

No Guest Caller

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie

Aired May 14, 1996

Martin: Vegas, huh? Great! Tell him not to miss the show at the Diamond Lounge; “A Topless History of the World”! If they’ve still got the same Bathsheba he’s in for a real treat.

Daphne: Oh, yes, that’s just where I want Joe spending our anniversary. Some smutty show in Vegas!

Martin: No, it’s very tasteful and historically accurate. Except at the end, where Eleanor Roosevelt and Eva Braun settle World War II by wrestling in pudding.

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