Monday, December 24, 2012

Frasierquest 5.9: Perspectives on Christmas

Tensions rise in Santa's Village

Martin: You know the only part about Christmas I don't like? How quickly it's all over!

Frasier: Yes.  Come December 26th, it's all just a memory.  With nothing but your light decorating touch to remind us.

The problem with a Christmas episode coming up near the actual holidays is that I have to either rush to get to it on or before December 25 or postpone it to at least February or March, when people aren't sick of Christmas stuff. So here we are looking at Christmas of 15 Years Past, and at a brilliant example of the Rashomon approach to sitcom writing. Instead of dissecting a single incident and pitting the characters against each other, though, "Perspectives on Christmas" poses a series of interconnected hassles and stress-inducers for everyone in the main cast, showing how the holidays drive people insane at the same time they bring them together.

The framing device for this is that each character is getting a massage, and telling the masseur (Albert Macklin) what they've been going through over the Christmas holiday. Martin got roped into a church Nativity play, requiring him to sing "O Holy Night" despite having a voice comparable to a wounded moose. Daphne manages to completely misunderstand his secretive visits to a church and decides he must be dying of something. Niles gets trapped in an elevator with a giant Christmas tree and some very annoying passengers, and Frasier accidentally is the first to let Roz's mother know that she's pregnant. By the time of the actual Christmas Eve gathering, everyone is bitterly angry for some reason or another.

Normally the Rashomon device (which sounds less like a plot element and more like the MacGuffin in a 60s spy caper) is used like it was in the original story and film; people offer conflicting narratives of a single event to try and serve their own ends. "Perspectives on Christmas" takes a subtler approach. Nobody really manipulates events in their favor so much as explains their point of view. Daphne interprets a come-on from Niles as a helpful piece of advice about standing under mistletoe, and omits one of Martin's stranger side-stories about Eddie. When Niles tells his story, the dress Daphne wears becomes just a little bit shorter and sexier, and he manages to maintain a bit of dignity even after being covered in tree sap and grease. Similarly a lot of stories play on our knowledge of what we've already seen; even after Daphne's story is over she still keeps hearing the wrong things about Martin, and so on.

The device is also a convenient way to tell a bunch of short stories related to the holiday, rather than focusing on a specific idea like earlier Christmas episodes. But the masseur's presence is a good indicator of the episode's theme of Christmas stress. A common theme for stories about the holiday is the various things that get in the way of enjoying it as we think it should be enjoyed- simply by being a holiday it's supposed to be a small vacation, but we work ourselves up choosing presents, dealing with relatives, and being roped into gatherings and rituals. It's a broad theme, but the central plot device keeps the episode from being completely incoherent.

Not that it wouldn't be funny if it were. This one episode isn't really a farce, but it has the manic energy of one; tensions are high, people shout at each other, and pratfalls are taken. (David Lee directing may have something to do with the heightened mood, though it's often hard to know who to credit.) It's fitting that the major climax is Roz and Frasier arguing while playing Mrs. and Mr. Santa Claus at the mall, which is the unique kind of absurdity you can only get one time a year.

None of what the characters go through is really too traumatic, though, and it's all easily solved with a call to a masseur and a jolly sing-along under the end credits. Some great Christmas stories are about finding joy and solace in the midst of real suffering; others, like this, simply deflate the minor irritations and excessive anxieties that start to roll in with Thanksgiving. They can't all be It's A Wonderful Life- sometimes it's just gotta be A Christmas Story. Hopefully this particular treasure won't be quite as overexposed, though.

Written by Christopher Lloyd
Directed by David Lee

Aired December 16, 1997

Roz: What is wrong with you?  I'm going to kill you!

Sally: You're going to kill Santa?

Frasier: No, little girl, Mrs. Claus just wants to kiss me.

Roz: Yeah, I'll kiss you.  Come 'ere, I'll kiss you good!

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