Sunday, June 30, 2013

Frasierquest 5.13: The Maris Counselor

Niles: Fifteen years with Maris, I end up in bed with her lover.

The shoe finally drops. In a way this was an episode that people had been waiting for, for many years. I don't think anyone believed that Niles and Maris would stay together by this point; it was a relationship that was fundamentally broken, and after a while it was just no fun to see Niles suffer. So "The Maris Counsellor" is only mostly sad, a bittersweet picture of the end of a relationship that, however toxic, still meant a lot to a person we care about.

As it starts, things are looking up. Niles and Maris are seeing Dr. Schenkman (Bob Dishy), and he's apparently really caused some major breakthroughs. Niles has realized in therapy that he needs to be more spontaneous, and goes to surprise Maris with a romantic bedroom scene. However, he ends up sharing the bed with Dr. Schenkman, who as it turns out is having an affair with Mrs. Crane. Niles is devastated, and sobs his way through a group therapy session he leads with Frasier. Though he briefly holds out hope that Maris is just undergoing transference (a common psychological phenomenon, or so we're told), but he soon decides that this is the last of the last straws and that he and Maris are finished.

There's no avoiding the sadness of this. The viewers have never been given any reason to love, like, or tolerate Maris, but we do like Niles and his pain is more than enough to hurt us. And yet much of this episode is as light as anything they've ever done, and specifically the scenes that should be the most immediately painful, that of Niles discovering Dr. Schenkman in Maris' bed and his meltdown in the group therapy session afterwards, are the funniest instead. The former is a beautiful silent farce, playing heavily on David Hyde Pierce's willingness to look ridiculous- the sight of him spreading flowers like a foppish satyr is unforgettable. The hurting can wait; we the viewers need to be assured that as bad as it is, it's not the end of the world.

Of course it's not, though- we never did like Maris very much, after all. Niles is better off free of her, and the true arc of the episode is him coming to that realization. For much of the last season or so, we saw things starting to thaw between them- therapy agreed to, anniversaries celebrated, trysts arranged- and it seems clear in retrospect that it was all leading up to this, starting with Niles at his most optimistic about the marriage's future so that he could get the final shock that convinces him that it can never be. It's significant that Daphne is absent for most of the episode, and the only reference to Niles' attraction to her is at one remove- it wouldn't be appropriate for him to be thinking about that, but of course, we in the audience are (and were at the time) thinking about the possibilities.

Running alongside the main plot is a story involving Martin's flirtation with an (unseen) younger woman in the building- who as it happens is just trying to set him up with her senile mother. It's essentially set up so that at the end we can have all three Crane boys unlucky in love, comparing their scars (and we don't need a reminder of Frasier's scars this episode. We've seen plenty.) The ending is sad, but captures an eternal, futile optimism as well.

One of the things that distinguishes Frasier among sitcoms is that it could pull off unfunny moments like this. Just because a show is called a comedy doesn't mean it can't handle sadness, and the sophistication of this show doesn't prevent it from being emotionally earnest when it needs to. "The Maris Counsellor conflates farce and tragedy, and in the end is a moving and accurate portrait of not only the pain of lost love but the giddy, fearful freedom. Niles has lost a lot, but also gained something.

Guest Callers (They're back!): John Waters as Roger, Rob Reiner as Bill, and Bess Myerson as Mary

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired February 3, 1998

Niles:  You see, every Friday evening Maris spends an hour meditating in her spirituality gardens.  Invariably she comes inside randy as a stoat.  Well tonight, she's going to find me, waiting in her bed, as randy as a...nother stoat.

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