Thursday, August 04, 2011

Frasierquest 4.5: Head Game

Niles and his patient have an impromptu consultation
Roz: This is Seattle. It rains nine months out of the year. We take our indoor sports very seriously.

Niles: Well, I know you always have!

Roz: You're a hero today so I'm going to let that one go.

I try to avoid talking too much about the personal lives of the people involved with this show, partly because this isn’t that kind of blog, partly because I prefer a more formalist approach to criticism, but mostly because I don’t actually know that much about them. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, though, as here, when Kelsey Grammer suddenly needed a leave of absence to go into rehab for his alcohol addiction, and an episode centered on his character- the guy who headlines the show- was rewritten to focus on Niles. As unfortunate as these circumstances are, however, they don’t prevent this episode from being an enjoyable one. “Head Game” wears its silly premise with pride, and doesn’t suffer from the rewrite, as apparent as it is in some places. It helps that the real life story didn’t get any worse.

With Frasier attending a meeting of radio psychiatrists in Aspen, Niles is asked to fill in on air. While helping the people and occasionally cats of Seattle, Niles runs into a guest of Bulldog’s: Reggie McLemore (Lorenzo Newton), a point guard for the Seattle Sonics who’s been having trouble with his game. (For reference, because I probably wouldn’t know either, the Sonics are a basketball team.) Niles gives Reggie some brief therapy, which seems to do wonders, and Reggie goes on to win the game that night and thank Niles on-air. After enjoying his status as the man who saved the Sonics, Niles takes his dad and Daphne to the game, where he makes a rather distressing discovery; his therapy seems to be wearing off, but Reggie regains his mojo by rubbing his head. Niles’ ethics make him uncomfortable with the role of good-luck charm as opposed to legit psychiatrist, but he doesn’t want to disappoint his dad.

It’s easy to see how Frasier would have worked in the original script. The changes seem to amount to a couple of different scenes and a few mentions of Niles feeling out-of-place at KACL, plus the usual unwitting innuendo by Daphne. Some of Niles’ dialogue even sounds like Frasier, especially when he interacts with Martin. Despite some of these changes obviously being done quickly, the show was fortunate in that Kelsey Grammer only really missed one episode, and even then was able to film the first scene. This may be a trivial thing in the face of a serious problem like alcoholism, but we can look back and be grateful, as Grammer has apparently managed to stay clean and sober not only through the end of the series but up until this day, a rare thing indeed. (I think this scramble may also have been part of “The Two Mrs. Cranes” coming first in the season, and Daphne is still with Joe in this episode.)

All of that aside, the story does work well with Niles in the lead. He’s a little smaller and more vulnerable than his brother, and his getting validation from the world of sports is as gratifying for us as it is for him. We like to see the little guy succeed. Without failure as a driver, the episode instead derives humor from Niles’ incongruence in the world of sports; not just in the sense of not being a jock and not really getting the whole game of basketball, but not willing to buy into an athlete’s superstition about the magical powers of his hair (which is still pretty nice this season.)

The way this episode resolves is rather ingenious. Neither Niles nor Reggie get to prove themselves right; instead Reggie comes up with a rather practical offscreen solution. And it just ends with that, because there’s nothing else to resolve; Niles’ ethical dilemma wasn’t that severe, and no matter what he decided he couldn’t follow the team everywhere anyway. Despite it being a thin story, it’s sold by the funny chemistry Pierce and Newton develop- their interactions are genuinely fun to watch.

So an episode with a lot of turmoil behind the scenes ends up coming together pretty smoothly. While I sometimes complain when the show does “slight” or thin-story episodes, this one is just too funny and likable to find much fault with. The writing is smart and the direction crisp, and it hits all the beats it needs to. Frasier will be back next week, but Niles does him proud with his time in the driver’s seat.

Guest Caller: Wendy Wasserstein as Linda

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by David Lee

Aired November 12, 1996

Niles: I want you to imagine yourself on the playing surface, doing whatever it is you actually do. Tell me what you see.

Reggie: Okay. Jeff’s passin’ me the ball... I’m bringing it up court... I’m dribblin’...

Niles: Don’t worry about your appearance.

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