Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frasierquest 4.12: Death and the Dog

Dr. Arnold Shaw: What do you imagine would be human Eddie's favorite cologne?

Martin: Aqua Velva. It's a little strong but I think he can pull it off.

Daphne: Grey Flannel. I don't know why!

Frasier: Cologne? Well, actually I think he would prefer toilet water!

Niles: By the way, same answer for favorite beverage!

Wisdom comes from strange places. Sitcom episodes are rarely known for it, but Frasier's just a little more thoughtful than the average, and while I'm not sure anything it's ever said would qualify as philosophically profound, "Death and the Dog" casts a familiar problem in an interesting light. Sometimes we just feel bad for no reason, and sometimes we look for reasons to feel bad. The fragile nature of our emotional states is the subject for an episode that's hilarious, poignant, and yeah, kind of insightful.

The story is told to us in flashback as Frasier, having only one caller, tries to assist that caller with her sudden unanticipated bout of depression. In his flashback, Eddie is suffering from a full blown doggie funk, listless and prone to limping around. The vets say he's physically fine, so Martin decides to call in a dog psychiatrist (played by Zeljko Ivanek). Frasier and Niles have a lot of fun taking easy shots at Dr. Arnold Shaw's vocation, but in the end he delivers an unsettling diagnosis- Eddie is depressed because someone in the house is passing their depression onto him. As the gang sit around and think of reasons they might be sadder than they know, pretty soon they're depressed too.

The biggest laughs of the episode come from Frasier and Niles' reaction to the mere concept of a dog psychiatrist, as well as the odd questions Dr. Shaw ends up asking. It's a particularly rich kind of low-hanging fruit; we know that they can't resist making jokes, and even the very easy and obvious ones are funny because of the great joy taken in them. There are some doozies, I gotta say.

The overall motion of the episode is from the absurd to the sublime. We go from the heights of silly jokes to the recognition by all the show's ensemble (Roz thankfully included for once) that they're not that happy, that they're plagued with doubts, that their lives aren't quite what they should be, and that death is never far from their minds. But it's not that these are the most wretched souls in the world; the implication is we all can feel this way. We're all aware that we're one day going to die, we're all aware of the imperfections and shortcomings of our lives, and it just takes that examination to throw us into a funk. (It must be mentioned, of course, that the episode doesn't begin to deal with true clinical depression, a problem of brain chemistry that's less easily confronted in dramatic form.)

But of course, this is not a show to leave its characters mired in existential ennui. They, and we, receive a reprieve, and with it a certain revelation. Like a lot of animals, Eddie included, we're prone to major emotional swings based on minor stimuli, which means that while we can easily talk ourselves into a bad state, a favorite toy or simple pleasure, applied at the right moment, can pull us out. Obviously we can't be happy all the time, but that doesn't mean misery is our default state.

"Death and the Dog" may not be the final word on human emotion, but it paints a surprisingly complex picture of how our circumstances and our choices both affect our moods. It's one of the show's landmarks, an episode that balances humor with poignant and thoughtful scenes, and shortchanges neither the jokes nor the emotion. Eddie's mostly been used for visual gags and moments of cuteness, but after this episode it's impossible to imagine the show without him.

Guest Caller: Patty Duke as Alice

Written by Suzanne Martin
Directed by James Burrows

Aired February 11, 1997

Daphne: If Eddie were one of the Beatles, I think he'd be George. I don't know why! 

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