Thursday, March 15, 2012

Frasierquest 4.21: Are You Being Served?

Frasier and Niles, at bay

Niles: You know, this is sort of exciting. Even as a child I always fancied I might make a first-rate society cat burglar. I think I'm right.

Frasier: Yes. All it takes is stealth, cunning and a key to the door.

The longer a show goes on, the more it has to do to keep our attention. Frasier had established itself up to this point as working from several formulae. There are the conceptual episodes, there are the silly farces, and there are episodes which mark significant developments for the characters and their relationships. "Are You Being Served?" blends all of the above with remarkable grace, with a strong central plot allowing for all kinds of humor. It does a lot with its premise, putting Niles at the forefront in a story that tests his resolve and his willingness to break with the past.

Maris serves Niles with divorce papers, prompting a bit of a panic attack on the latter's part. Frasier advises him not to cower, but cower he does, sending back the papers and begging her to take him back. In the meantime, however, Daphne has been cleaning out some of Martin's things, and they come across one of Hester's journals- apparently a study of Frasier and Niles, finding the younger brother to be extremely submissive, especially around the female of the species. Reading the passages, Niles decides to try and break his pattern and get the divorce papers back along with the letter he wrote before Maris can read it, bringing Frasier along. The two break into her house easily (having the key and all), but while Maris hasn't changed the locks yet, she did change the dogs.

The setup of the episode is very character-driven; upon finding out seemingly pathological things noted about them, Frasier and Niles set out to change their ways. In addition to Niles' submissiveness, we're shown Frasier's discomfort with easy physical intimacy (such as hugging people); it's something I'm not sure has ever been outright stated before, but it's entirely in character. Niles' story takes the focus, but Frasier's strained attempts to become more of a huggy person make for a solid running gag.

Once we get to the mansion, though, it's a quick left turn into theatrical farce. Maris' place is the perfect location for this sort of thing; a big house with big rooms, only one of which we actually see, with glass doors and various breakable objects. Oh, and there are guard dogs, because of course there are. The one really sad thing about Niles and Maris being on the rocks is that their marriage was a source of constant insanity, so it's good to step back into the world of the very rich and exceedingly strange. In the midst of a lot of silliness involving dogs and pills and so on, though, we do get a real step forward for Niles when he signs the divorce papers and signals he's ready to leave the marriage if Maris really isn't going to change.

The subplot of Daphne and Martin going through old things mostly plays like a silly side story meant to give the characters something to do, but the writers manage to integrate it into the plot in a couple of ways. First, it gives us Hester's journal, which turns out to be about a couple of lab rats, which in turn gives us the revelation that Frasier and Niles were named for said rats. A running gag about the other stuff Daphne has found- mostly Popeil-esque As Seen on TV products, including a device that pre-heats shaving cream- leads to a climactic visual gag that is too hilarious to spoil.

What I will spoil is that Maris eventually caves and agrees to counseling, putting off any major changes in that subplot for another time. We don't come to this show for the story progression anyway. "Are You Being Served?" is an episode that piles on the series' strengths, mixing genuine character insight with out-and-out wackiness. It's rarely mentioned as one of the show's best episodes, but maybe that should change.

No Guest Caller

Written by William Lucas Walker
Directed by Gordon Hunt
Aired May 13, 1997

Martin: Now the beauty of the "Hot & Foamy" is the ultra-quick heating action. You just plug it in and two minutes later, presto, guess what comes out?

Daphne:Well, the obvious answer would be shaving cream, so I'll go with... music?

Martin: You had a lot of sassy things to say about my clothes steamer, too. But didn't those snow peas taste delicious?

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