Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Frasierquest 4.1: The Two Mrs. Cranes

The happy couple
Frasier: Speaking of old chums, Daphne, a Clive called for you earlier.

Daphne: Clive? Did he sound British?

Frasier: No, he was one of those fiery Mexican Clives.

We kick off the new season with an episode I’m pretty sure was not meant to be here. “The Two Mrs. Cranes”, despite being the season premiere, manages not to be much about Frasier at all, instead being an ensemble farce centered around our lovely Miss Daphne Moon. With Joe Keenan writing again and David Lee directing, it’s easily up to the standards of previous farces, upping the stakes by dragging the entire cast into an elaborate masquerade which soon becomes self-perpetuating until it finally collapses in on itself. There’s a slightly different feel to the season which is hard to articulate, and I’m not sure whether it’s the show’s continued maturation or just it getting closer to how I remember it at its peak.

Daphne gets a call from an old flame; she was once engaged to a man named Clive (Scott Atkinson), and tried to break it off by telling him they could try again in five years, and he’s shown up right on schedule. He comes over to the apartment for a drink, and Daphne has a hard time letting him down again, but Niles, having heard of Clive’s impending visit, just happens to be there, and Daphne decides to pass him off as her husband. This suits Niles just fine, and he tries to get Clive to stay so he can play out his dream a little longer, and Frasier gets roped into it, pretending to be staying over because of a fight with his wife Maris. When Roz shows up, she takes over the role of the other Mrs. Crane, and when Martin appears he decides to play along and be an astronaut. Eddie remains Eddie.

You may be wondering, where’s Joe in all this? Daphne’s real boyfriend would have been as good a shield as any in all this; more importantly, when Daphne starts to reconsider letting Clive go in the third act, nobody brings up the fact that she isn’t single. I can’t avoid spoilers on this (I think 15 years is an okay statute of limitations anyway), suffice it to say there is a breakup in Daphne’s near future, and I’m pretty sure what happened was this episode was supposed to come some time after that one. Even a popular and critically acclaimed show isn’t immune to random reshuffling by the network, even today as serialization has become more prominent in American TV; I’m sure it happened several times in Frasier’s run, and this is just one of the more obvious cases.

That plot hole aside, this is one of the more elaborate stories the gang have gotten themselves tangled up in. Everyone has their own motivation to play along; Niles because it’s fun, Frasier because Daphne’s promised to take Dad on one of his Army reunions if he does, Roz because there’s a hot guy, and Martin- for his own amusement, really. The more insane the lie gets, the more they make it work. Particularly fun is how, as Daphne attempts to make herself available again to a more-responsible-than-he-looks Clive, the masquerade becomes increasingly dark and twisted, with she and Roz trading allegations of blackouts and pregnancy. Martin’s increasingly ridiculous astronaut stories (oh, the days before Wikipedia) seem almost designed to throw the whole thing off the rails. Clive is a trusting, credulous sort, and it doesn’t take a lot of work to convince him of what he’s seeing- the problem isn’t that he’s going to catch on so much as the lie itself driving its perpetrators insane.

So this is crazy business, and the increased complexity of it is a sign of a shift in the show. When Frasier started out, stories tended to be simple, almost Spartan, uncomplicated by subplots and tangents. We didn’t even get into farce until Season Two. Now the show can hit the ground running, expecting the audience to know the characters enough that we laugh at the incongruity of their situation. The episode does take pains to re-establish some things- Roz’s use of Frasier’s opera glasses to spy on a bodybuilder across the street reminds us of how man-crazy she can get, and we establish that Niles is married to Maris and estranged to her in an early scene so that Frasier being made her husband makes sense as a joke even to the outside observer. But the density of information needed to make the farce work is delivered at a good clip, and the pace builds from there.

Atkinson’s performance as Clive Roddy is an interesting one. His accent is pure Dick Van Dyke, to the point where even American viewers will pick up on the fakery pretty easily; sure, Jane Leeves doesn’t exactly sound Mancunian either, but you have to know the specific regions to pick that up. That said, some critics and viewers, especially those in the UK, tend to make a much bigger deal of this than I think it actually is. A character’s voice need not be authentic to get the job done, and Atkinson gets the important part right, playing Clive as trusting, good-hearted, and only the tiniest bit slow.

Even if it’s slightly out of place, “The Two Mrs. Cranes” makes for a good premiere simply because it’s an excellent signpost for the series. This is Frasier at cruising speed, densely plotted, mindful of its characterization, and heavy on quips. But even as it draws on our familiarity with the characters, “The Two Mrs. Cranes” stands apart as an all-time classic comedy episode, perfectly accessible to anyone who doesn’t already know the series just because it’s that good. And the best part? I’m not even sure it’s the best episode of this season.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by David Lee
Aired September 17, 1996

Clive: There comes a time in a man's life when he's gotta look a woman straight in the eye and say...

Niles: Cheese nips?

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