Thursday, May 31, 2012

Frasierquest 5.1: Frasier's Imaginary Friend

Frasier attempts to get it on film.

Frasier: I am dating a supermodel zoologist, whom I stole away from a football player, and she is off to the Galapagos Islands to artificially inseminate iguanas! Is that so hard to believe?

Season Five marks a lot of milestones. It has the show's one hundredth episode, some major character developments, earned the show a fifth consecutive Best Comedy Emmy, and it aired alongside the first syndicated reruns, which shows relied on to reach immortality before home video releases were commonplace. So a big year lies before us, but the premiere is focused on resolving a little bit of business from last season. When we last left Frasier, he was still going through a desperate romantic dry spell, which compelled him to board a plane to Acapulco. At long last, the dry spell ends, but in a way that so typifies what makes Frasier, well,  Frasier.

On the plane, Frasier meets Kelly Easterbrook (Sela Ward), famous model, and the two end up spending a night of passion together. So far, so good. But she's going through a breakup and doesn't want too much publicity, so she asks that they keep their relationship a secret for now. Frasier agrees, but when he tries to be discreet about what happened in Mexico, everyone assumes he went home empty handed, and his ego just can't take that. Of course, when he tells them he's dating a famous supermodel, nobody believes him, and there's no easy way to prove it. And doing so would probably piss her off.

Once again Frasier's dilemma is basically one of his own making. If he didn't care what others thought of him, he wouldn't agonize over them thinking he struck out on vacation, and wouldn't do anything to actually jeopardize his relationship. But the story twists in a way that give things a logical reason to keep going- Niles, Daphne, and Martin start to think that Frasier is not just lying but delusional, and are trying to intervene to get him to face reality. If there's one thing Frasier hates more than people thinking he's a loser, it's people thinking he's wrong about something.

The results are really consistently funny in a way that's true to all the characters, and helps us touch base with all of them. Nobody has to stretch too far to make the story work, and the fact that all the other regulars care for Frasier and want him to be happy actually drives the conflict. The dilemma most sitcoms face in the long run is that either everyone is too nice for there to be believable conflict, or too snarky for us to believe that they'd stay together unless forced to. Here the writers use the characters' essential warmth and togetherness as a source of tension.

A word must also be said for Sela Ward (beyond "wowie"), who makes believable the role of a gorgeous supermodel/zoologist who falls head over heels for a pompous, middle-aged radio shrink. There's actually some very good chemistry between the two, and her playing Kelly as a pretty normal person heightens the split between the reality of their relationship and how it seems to everyone else. (There's a good detail in her looking very different from her magazine photos, because, well, she would.)

The ending elevates a solid episode to near-classic status, when Frasier manages to screw up the relationship in the worst way possible, but in so doing also proves himself right to his family, and so, at the end of the day, counts it as a "win". It's always good to end a story by giving the audience what they expect in the last way they expected it; we expect Frasier to screw up his relationships, but we do not expect him to be so desperate that he'll settle for just having proof that he got laid recently. It also works on the larger level, to the extent that Frasier's dry spell counts as a character arc- the expectation is that he'll eventually meet someone, not so much that he'll be so anxious to prove he met someone that he'll get out the camera.

So we head into the season with Frasier his old, insufferable self. This is good, not just because you feel sorry for the guy now and again, but because he always causes the most problems when he's incredibly self-satisfied. This is the season where I started to follow the show week to week, keeping up with the fandom online, etc., so I'm really looking forward to this year and all the events therein. I'm not sure it's the best season, but it's basically my favorite, and we're off to a rollicking start.

No Guest Caller

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by David Lee
Aired September 23, 1997

Niles (on seeing Frasier dining alone): Oh, that is so sad…

Daphne: I'll say. Nobody's ever bought me caviar and I'm real.

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