Monday, July 23, 2012

Frasierquest 5.2: The Gift Horse

Niles and Martin with Agides

Roz (reading Sherry's invitation): "Come one, come all, to jump and jive, Marty Crane's turning SEX-ty five!"

This episode is a bit of a nostalgia trip, not just because I caught it on the first airing but because it takes place in a distant age when big-screen TVs were giant monoliths requiring heavy labor to install. This may not seem like a big deal, but a major plot element of the episode- Frasier weighing his desire to buy Martin the perfect birthday gift against the damage a giant slab of a television will do to his apartment design- is one that's almost foreign in the age of sleek flatscreens and tiny speakers. It's appropriate that this part of the plot feels out of date, since "The Gift Horse" is really an episode about things- or rather people- being out of date. Martin Crane is turning 65 (or "sexty-five" according to Sherry), and while his sons bicker over what to get him for his birthday, they're overlooking what this passage of time really means.

Most of the episode revolves around Frasier and Niles in a gift-giving war. They've agreed to a spending limit this year, but Niles is just a hundred dollars or so either, and so Frasier inevitably has to try and top that, but Niles is always a step ahead.  Hearing that his brother has secured the ultimate in gifts, Frasier bites the bullet and purchases a TV that from what I can tell is roughly the size of the Apollo lunar lander. Niles, amazingly, is still in the lead- he's gone and purchased Agides, the horse Martin used to ride on mounted patrol, and put him up at a posh stable for his father to visit anytime he likes. But the gift arouses a melancholy in Martin, and his sons are left wondering why they can never quite please him.

Back when I frequented the newsgroup (and if you don't know what a newsgroup was, you're probably lucky), one of the things I learned was that, apparently, the single most common spec script the Frasier crew ever received was "Martin and the boys buy a racehorse." For some reason this is a common story in the Big Book of Sitcom Plots (though you don't see it much these days), but it's probably for the best that this is the closest the show ever got to that particular chestnut. (Which I will not be calling a horse chestnut.) Instead, the gimmick of bringing in a horse is used in a more subdued way- the horse is a window to Martin's past. Agides reminds him of a time when he was respected and admired and able to do his job, and the reminder does a number on him.

While Martin's story gives the episode a bit of emotional heft, the pure comedy is handled mostly by Frasier and Niles' endless game of one-upsmanship. There's at least a good reason for them to be dedicated to this particular feud- they want the approval of their father, as in "Breaking the Ice"- but it's also about fighting each other because they must. And there may be no better symbol for their feud growing grotesquely out of control than the arrival of an obsidian monstrosity of a big-screen TV. This part of the story feels almost quaint, but it's a good gag nonetheless. Sherry is back to contribute some bawdiness, and she feels like a member of the ensemble already. Roz even gets a little spotlight time at the start.

The overall tone of the episode is very sweet and understanding. It's a story where both Frasier and Niles, as selfish as they are in trying to one-up each other, are also trying to do right by their father, and end up giving him a more meaningful gift than they realize. There's a light and celebratory element to the whole piece which tempers the sadness of the whole "age and decline" angle. Martin Crane is not the man he used to be, but he's still got plenty to celebrate. Including his stupid, bickering children.

No Guest Caller

Written by Ron Darian
Directed by Pamela Fryman
Aired September 30, 1997

Frasier (caught kissing Roz): Hello, Niles. You know, this isn't what it looks like. You see, her ex-boyfriend was just... (to Roz) Oh, just stop that!

Niles: Please, no explanation necessary. I assume that at the next meeting of Seattle's "Haven't Kissed Roz Club," it will just be me and the Archbishop.

Roz: I'll save you the club dues.

(She kisses Niles and exits. There is a beat.)

Niles: Everyone kisses better than Maris!

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