Thursday, November 17, 2011

Frasierquest 4.14: To Kill a Talking Bird

Niles and his new friend

Niles: I don't think my reputation can suffer more than it already has.

Frasier: I wouldn't be so sure about that. Wearing a white bird after Labor Day...

Niles is in a transitional phase in his life. He's not quite divorced, not quite reconciled, and while he's been living on his own we really haven't seen him doing so. "To Kill A Talking Bird" gives us some stability, in the form of the Montana, a high-end apartment building where Dr. Crane will make his home for several years. It's a lovely place, old and stylish and full of stuffy people, the Gallifrey of sitcom settings, but entry to a place for which Niles is suited so perfectly comes at a price. Just what that price is, is explored in a welcome return to farce, featuring one of the first of many disastrous Crane dinner parties.

So Niles has signed a lease to said swanky apartment complex, his own unit being larger than some people's houses. (It may be bigger on the inside- there's that Gallifrey thing again.) Getting the apartment does mean, however, that Niles has to give up his Maris-esque dog, though it's only now that Frasier makes him realize the resemblance. Finding himself still wanting some companionship, Niles buys a cockatoo named Baby. Baby is talkative and learns quickly, but has a tendency to be easily startled. Frasier decides to help Niles throw a dinner party to greet the neighbors, and his decision is not at all influenced by meeting a particularly lovely one named Stephanie (Patricia Wettig), who, as far as he's concerned, is the perfect woman. (Granted he based this impression on about five minutes of conversation, but that's what he does.) It's a good idea until, shortly before everyone is due to arrive, Frasier lights the fireplace, startling Baby, who decides to alight on Niles' head, and won't come off. Niles hides in the kitchen, still convinced he can salvage this somehow, while Frasier runs interference with one gorgeous woman and four very dull people.

Dinner parties are, of course, the Crane family curse. They're the single most common set-up for the show's farce episodes, useful because A) so many things can go wrong and B) society people are brittle and easily offended. Complicating matters is Niles' still troubled relationship with Maris. He's especially worried about his position in Seattle society because he wants to look good in front of her, either to win her back or show her up, he never quite decides. When he sees that one of Maris' girl friends is a guest, that only makes him more determined to hide. The great irony of this episode is that when he is persuaded to emerge- Frasier appealing to his duties as a host- being honest about his predicament seems to work. At least until the bird pipes up with a few choice bits of gossip it overheard in the kitchen.

It's nice to see how the show continues the arc of Frasier's desperation, which has now become so severe that he takes Roz's advice to just stop trying. It's when he actively commits to not looking that he runs into Stephanie, at which point- well, desperation seems to leap right back. He puts so much energy into trying to seal the deal that it makes the entire party situation more frenetic. His caring less about his brother than his chances with a woman he barely knows comes back to bite him in the end. Frasier's just manic enough for this not to be depressing.

Though the dinner party gets things off to a rocky start, Niles stays at the Montana, and for a good time to come. it's a really gorgeous set, I have to say- sitcom apartments are usually excessively nice by the standards of real life (especially on multi-camera shows, due to the logistical demands), but Niles' place goes the extra mile in terms of opulence. Then again, he can afford it. (In retrospect the layout seems modeled after Dr. Campbell's house from "A Lilith Thanksgiving"- it wouldn't surprise me if elements were re-used.) Baby is not as constant a premise, but she has some good moments ahead.

"To Kill A Talking Bird" works both as a farce and as a snapshot of Niles in his single life, finding a place of his own and trying to make his own way in society without Maris' connections. As innately prissy as he can be, he has a hard time of it, and an interesting recurring theme through the series is how much he and his brother, snobs to the bone, don't fit with the snobby crowd. They're too screwed up to really belong, but we love them all the same.

No Guest Caller

Written by Jeffrey Richman
Directed by David Lee

Aired February 25, 1997

Daphne: You know, I've always been fascinated by these birds that can actually learn how to talk.

Martin: Oh, they can't talk. They just drill a few words into 'em at the pet shop and they never learn anything else after that.

Frasier: It is attractive, though.

Martin: Yeah, well that's the way they are. Cute but stupid.

Baby: Cute but stupid!

Frasier: (to Daphne) You know, Daphne, perhaps we should just leave these two alone. I sense a real battle of wits shaping up here.

No comments: