Thursday, July 28, 2011

Frasierquest 4.4: A Crane's Critique

Martin connects with a famous author
Niles: We’re a stone’s throw away from one of the giants of American literature!

Roz: Not the way you throw.

“A Crane’s Critique” feels like a throwback. It has a fairly basic, slight plotline that only really makes use of Frasier, Niles, and Martin; it’s the kind of episode that would have worked easily in earlier seasons, but feels less than satisfying compared to some of the episodes around it. Which is not to say it doesn’t have its strengths, most notably a guest appearance by Robert Prosky, but it’s forgettable enough that I took a while to recognize it.

Frasier and Niles are taking their father clothes shopping when Niles catches sight of the reclusive author T. H. Houghton (Prosky), who wrote one earth-shattering book and then dropped out of public view. Frasier and Niles go on a wild chase after the man who changed their lives, only for Martin to befriend him at McGinty’s over a Mariners game and Bonanza discussion. Frasier and Niles keep missing opportunities to have a deep intellectual discussion with Houghton (who doesn’t seem interesting in that sort of thing anyway), but when he and Martin head to the stadium for a doubleheader, the brothers Crane accidentally find themselves in possession of something rather special: the manuscript for Houghton’s next novel. Of course they take a look.

This is an episode rooted in frustration and embarrassment, which puts it on difficult territory from the get-go. Frasier and Niles’ awkwardness as they try to relate to Houghton is palpable, and to a certain extent well-rendered; it’s a bit of a shock to them that such an important literary titan is more like their father than he is like them. It’s not entirely their fault- they don’t so much offend Houghton as perplex him- but it taps into how difficult it can be to meet our heroes.

It’s odd that this fairly simple plotline leaves no time for anything else; the episode doesn’t feel particularly slowly paced or, for that matter, particularly convoluted, so why Daphne and Roz are on the sidelines more than usual is hard to work out. I’m not sure that using all the cast necessarily makes for a better episode; it may just a personal preference. But I think we could have used a respite from Frasier and Niles’ continued exasperation, which does get a little one-note. The actors play it well as usual, but it could probably stand to be compressed a little.

The ending does leave us with a few interesting questions, though. From a comic perspective, what basically happens is that Frasier and Niles ruin Houghton’s book; he decides it’s crap and destroys it based on their attempts to offer their appreciation of it. Clearly they love it, so from their perspective the world has lost a masterpiece. But I wonder if this could really be blamed on them; Houghton is so down-to-Earth in earlier scenes that they may not realize just how deeply self-critical he can be, and in this specific case he’s really excessively worried by the potential damage done to his reputation by a structural similarity to one of the best known works of classical Italian poetry in the entire world. He overreacts, and the Crane brothers console themselves by thinking maybe they protected him from worse criticism later. That they, while clearly trying to make themselves feel better as they are wont to do, may not actually be wrong is an unusual twist.

So, not a top episode; I see what they were doing for the most part, but in the end, perhaps the story could have been taken further or developed into something more complex than simply the Crane brothers repeatedly failing to connect with their idol. Granted, there’s something to be said for setting out to do one thing and do it well, and while this episode gets a little crowded out by the bigger stories around it, I think most viewers can find something to like.

No Guest Caller

Written by Dan Cohen and F.J. Pratt
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired October 22, 1996

Niles: Are you quite finished undressing him with your eyes?

Roz: Oh, please. I'm already looking for my stockings and trying to remember where I parked my car.

(Note: they are not talking about Houghton, thank God)

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