Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our coverage on the best of Frasier (1994-2004, NBC), a Peacock Network staple during their ’90s Renaissance and one of my favorite multi-cam classics! The entire series is available on DVD and streaming services.
Psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane lives with his father, an injured retired cop, while dispensing mental health advice on a Seattle radio show. Frasier stars KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane, DAVID HYDE PIERCE as Dr. Niles Crane, JOHN MAHONEY as Martin Crane, JANE LEEVES as Daphne Moon, and PERI GILPIN as Roz Doyle.
I consider Frasier’s sophomore season to be the series’ peak — the Golden Age of its character-steeped writing — and I don’t think, despite the strength of every year under Christopher Lloyd (especially those that won Emmys), that Season Two has much competition. For even if upcoming years also boast similarly strong episodic success rates, a season like the one that I’m thrilled to be highlighting here now speaks for itself, and there’s nothing more complimentary I can think to do than just share my picks for the year’s best offerings — many of which constitute the series’ best offerings — because my blog has seldom felt so connected to its mission statement of sharing and discussing my favorite entertainments. However, for the sake of formality, I have to provide a few thoughts before getting to the entry’s raison d’être. First, I promised last time that I’d expand upon my brief musings concerning the series’ ensemble. I’ve already made known my sentiments regarding Frasier’s most important relationships — with Martin, as the premise would have it, and Niles, as the actual scripts would have it. But alongside Frasier and Niles, whose dynamic I’ve already charged with being the primary reason for the show’s success, Martin is always going to remain one of the linchpins of the series’ design, for the premiere established him as the classically molded contrast to Frasier, and now by proxy, Niles. If the relationship between father and son(s) isn’t as distinctly comedic as Frasier’s is with Niles specifically, it’s still the meatiest in terms of emotionality — and the usage of the Crane men, as a trio, will often be how these best episodes secure their merit. With regard to outings centered around Martin’s well-defined character, the more they directly involve his relationship with his sons, the better; when he’s paired with Daphne in the early years, or even Roz in the later ones, he isn’t fulfilling his function, and therefore, naturally isn’t as satisfying.
Perhaps this says more about the women in the ensemble than Martin. However, the strength of the Crane men’s definition would have likely dwarfed the dimensionality of any non-blood members of the cast. So, when I point out that the women aren’t as well-defined and aren’t as well-used (or as often), it’s only because the standards of character work are so high with regard to the guys. This sense of relative value certainly — in these early years, which are otherwise Frasier’s finest (rendering many nitpicks nearly null and void) — is most felt in the depiction of Roz, who gets the least play of any regular because she’s generally station-bound and requires that any home or family-based story contrive a reason to get her integrated with the rest of the ensemble. (Thank goodness for the coffee shop — the place over which any conflict can be mulled and the show’s twains can always meet!) Unlike MTM’s similarly built flagship of the ‘70s, where most of the cast resided in the workplace and the best stories often took place there, Frasier’s family is emotionally weighted as so much more important than his co-workers, so one can’t help but feel that Roz doesn’t fit. Because of this design, which guarantees that her stories are distractions from Frasier’s strongest relationships, Roz won’t be a solid story participant until after the series’ best years… In the meantime, the show tries to find things for her to do by filling out the station — her turf — with several memorable recurring players, like Dan Butler’s Bulldog, an amiable macho man who’s not ideal for story, but easily appears in anywhere between six to ten entries annually (before becoming a less-used special guest in the latter half of the run). Meanwhile, other station gems include Edward Hibbert’s Gil and Patrick Kerr’s Noel, both of whom are great for quick laughs (because they can be broadly crafted). So, while the home — primarily in the Lloyd years — is inherently richer, the series does what it can in the workplace, successfully mitigating some of the imbalance.
As for Frasier’s other leading lady, Daphne, the first year saw a few subtle refinements and tweaks in how she was depicted. Initial episodes were more obvious about using her eccentricities (specifically her role as a psychic) as a means of establishing for her a comedically poised characterization. But as the show gained more of an understanding about itself and how it best operated, Daphne became less beholden to these writer-established constructs and was allowed to develop a more natural personality — a comedic duality that emphasized her innate sweetness while also revealing a strange, salty undercurrent — borne from her upbringing and life experiences, which could better contrast her against the Cranes (all of them, including her frequent narrative cohort, Martin). Truthfully, though, it’s hard to talk about Daphne alone because the show, only three weeks into its run, decided to frame her character’s emotional dimension through Niles’ unrequited feelings for her. This sneakily durable notion gave her character a further connection to the Crane brothers, beyond her premise-based proximity and relationship to Martin, and, as we’ll see, makes sure that most of the series’ best moments in which she participates are related to this narrative idea. However, at the same time, it’s hard to deny that by defining a part of Daphne with Niles’ (presumably) unrequited feelings for her, the show limits itself with what it can do for her depiction, and thus, her story usage. The Niles/Daphne episodes are much more concerned with him and his development than her and hers, and even though she may indeed have great beats within this arc (like when she, for a brief period in Season Seven, gets to drive the action), I often wish it was actively doing more to make her a viable story-provider. More of my thoughts on this long-running romantic narrative thread can be found in upcoming seasonal and episodic commentaries; stay tuned…
Pivoting the discussion… this season won the series its second of five consecutive Emmys as the Outstanding Comedy, while also racking up more wins for both Writing and Directing (for episodes discussed below), another trophy for Kelsey Grammer, and a first for the brilliant David Hyde Pierce, whose extreme characterization, balanced by a heady dose of MTM’s palpable humanity, put him at the center of many of the year’s funniest moments. Although I seldom look to the Television Academy to tell me what’s great and what’s not, in this instance, I have to admit that I’ve yet to find a stronger sitcom on the tube during the 1994-’95 season, and so much of the credit here, beyond last season’s implanted design and these generally perfect performances, goes to the writing staff. As we’ve discussed, what most impresses about Frasier is how its writers let the characters, particularly Frasier (and, to an extent, Niles, whose voice is a less modulated off-shoot of his brother’s) influence the scripts’ tones and comedic rhythms, thus allowing the stories to not only be driven (that is, motivated) by the core cast, but also completely drenched in them… To this point, Season Two introduces an MVP in the form of Joe Keenan, a terribly smart scribe who knows the Frasier/Niles voice well, and will go on, most notably, to helm some of the series’ trademark farces. I credit his addition as being one of the main reasons that Season Two is so strong — an elevation from a first year that had already improved quite a bit before its stunning conclusion. Here, Keenan joined the returning showrunner Christopher Lloyd, along with staffers Flett-Giordano & Ranberg and Morris & Rauseo (who were added late in Season One), and marvelous creative consultants Levine & Isaacs and, of course, the legendary David Lloyd. New writers included Steven Levitan (Wings, Just Shoot Me!, Modern Family) and one-season wonders Elias Davis & David Pollock, a veteran duo with experience on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, MASH, and The Carol Burnett Show.
Together, this crew proves itself adept at implementing a character-based wit that’s still never too high-brow for a really base joke, as long as it’s motivated. And it’s interesting to note that while we’ll soon be docking upcoming seasons for episodic stories that seem broader than the baseline during this wonderful Golden Age, I think the record should show that Frasier always made time for broad, big laughs — like farce. The trick in pulling these off in a way that didn’t feel counterintuitive to the show’s established identity was keeping the humor somehow character-connected. That’s the beauty of Frasier during this peak period, and honestly, in most of the surrounding years, too… One more note; although we think of Frasier in tandem with NBC’s comedic renaissance of the mid-‘90s, represented most ostentatiously by Must See TV Thursdays, the series actually spent far more years anchoring the crucial 9:00 spot in the network’s Tuesday line-up of comedies, which was developed during the ’93-’94 season (when Frasier was indeed on Thursdays and its future Tuesday slot was inhabited by the poorly rated The John Larroquette Show, coming here soon). But when Frasier took on Tuesdays — a move that worried many — the Alphabet Network actually got scared and moved out its aging anchor (Roseanne) in favor of something newer and then better-rated (Home Improvement). Tuesdays became comedically competitive. Over the four years Frasier was opposite Home Improvement, the doc was never able to best ABC’s family hit in the Nielsens — the best he could do, in Season Five, was a tie — but Frasier held its own, and its success there put a whole new sitcom line-up in rotation: NBC’s “B-comedy block,” where Frasier would be its A+ star. This second night of sitcom real estate furthered the Peacock Network’s claim to sitcom dominance in the mid-‘90s, and proved that NBC was much more than just Friends, Seinfeld, and their wannabes… So, as usual, I have selected ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 27: “The Matchmaker” (Aired: 10/04/94)
Frasier’s plan to play matchmaker for Daphne creates a misunderstanding.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
The first episode credited to new staffer Joe Keenan, this is typically considered the pioneer of Frasier‘s farces, built around a grand misunderstanding that ends up yielding riotous laughs. In this case, Frasier is unaware that a co-worker he hopes to set up with Daphne — the gent is played by Eric Lutes of lesser Must See TV’s Caroline In The City — is really under the impression that Frasier made the date for himself. Given the intellect of the Crane brothers, whose temperament the writing has already adopted (especially now that Keenan’s on hand — he really has their voices down), it’s not a major surprise that the show should feel able to engage in such silly, frothy comedic hijinks — the kind that the brothers would presumably enjoy seeing on the stage or in other “high-brow” art… However, these stories are terribly difficult to pull off, requiring equal parts solid construction and faith in the characters, who must be allowed to work within (if not drive) the action. And with Frasier misunderstandings in particular, one must be sure the players’ established wits remain intact. (The relative lack of brains among Three’s Company‘s characters was always why, I think, people too hastily poo-pooed the series itself as being unintelligent.) Judging by the scripts that bear his name, Keenan is great at these kinds of entries — his credited work is often farcical, but with a strong command on the series’ identity (a.k.a. character), thus enabling big story-based laughs alongside a delicious abundance of well-earned moments. It was a tough choice in this outstanding season, but because this classic, which won director David Lee an Emmy, represents a new form of excellence — and a style we’ll see more often, but seldom better used — it’s my MVE.
02) Episode 31: “The Candidate” (Aired: 11/08/94)
Frasier has second thoughts about publicly endorsing a congressional candidate.
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano | Directed by James Burrows
Admittedly, I’ve struggled to work though my thoughts on this popular excursion, for while I’ve been able to appreciate the strength of its laughs, I also feel that most of the entry’s big comedic centerpieces are not motivated by the decisions that the characters make. That is, the conflict actually comes from a more story-rooted development — here, the political candidate’s confession to Frasier that he was once abducted by aliens — which means that most of the character moments have to be found in the response, not the motivation. Ultimately, though, this is not a lot different from the way farces are conceived — for those often have similar story leaps sparked by an external event — and since none of the other contenders for this list, though strong (after all, this is Frasier — Golden Age Frasier) are as funny, or can do as much with Frasier from an admitted plot point, this smart teleplay earns its spot. Note that One Day At A Time‘s Boyd Gaines guests as the eponymous (and allegedly abducted) candidate.
03) Episode 33: “Adventures In Paradise (II)” (Aired: 11/22/94)
Frasier is out-of-sorts when his romantic getaway is interrupted by Lilith.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by James Burrows
Cheers alums Ken Levine and David Isaacs, who again were credited as Creative Consultants for the year (which likely meant they came in one day a week to be puncher-uppers), took on this narratively ambitious two-parter — the first half of which culminates in the surprise return appearance of Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), who’d made her Frasier debut in the duo’s Emmy nominated contribution from last season. I think this is more a Victory in Premise than anything else, but the script is screamingly comedic, and the sheer joy we get from seeing Frasier sparring with his ex-wife — the reason that Part II is far more enjoyable than Part I — guarantees that few installments from this otherwise “cream of the crop” season are as memorable. Plus, it’s usually pertinent to take note of a Levine and Isaacs script because they tend to do a fine job of reconciling Frasier’s Cheers characterization alongside his new one. (Oh, and that’s JoBeth Williams, from Keenan’s Gloria Vane pilot, as Frasier’s love interest in these two offerings.)
04) Episode 41: “Daphne’s Room” (Aired: 02/28/95)
Frasier tries to make amends with Daphne after invading her privacy.
Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo | Directed by David Lee
One of my favorite Daphne outings from the first few seasons, this narrative actually doesn’t concern her relationship with the Crane man who harbors a secret love for her (although, happily, that’s also naturally incorporated). Instead, it deals with her relationship to the titular Crane, who sneaks into her room uninvited and is caught. It’s a simple, small premise that’s ingeniously creative, predicated on a relatable scenario borne from the particulars of the construct and with plenty of space for great character dynamics to secure all different types of laughs. Also, this episode launches the last third of the second season, which is likely the strongest period in the show’s entire run — filled with classics and a high baseline quality. Smack dab in the Golden Era, this installment showcases the uniquely-conceived comedy-forward style of writing typical of the period. Perhaps the best Daphne (alone) showcase ever.
05) Episode 42: “The Club” (Aired: 03/21/95)
The Crane brothers compete for entry into an exclusive club.
Written by Elias Davis & David Pollock | Directed by David Lee
Gaining distinction for its depiction of the Crane brothers’ proclivity for competitiveness — a natural, believable, and relatable source of conflict in light of the fact that they were, contrary to Sitcom 101, designed not as opposites, but as constitutionally alike characters who differ only because of their circumstances — this episode is one of Season Two’s classic relationship-driven entries, similar in spirit to last year’s “Author, Author.” Like the aforementioned first season show, this excursion plays with the alternatively bonded and combative nature of the Frasier/Niles connection, deriving comedy from their mutual snobbiness and their inner struggles for superiority over the other. However, while ideally premised, if there’s any room for criticism with this offering, it would stem from the broad conclusion, which is technically in-character, but doesn’t come across as well-motivated in the execution. But that’s small potatoes.
06) Episode 44: “Breaking The Ice” (Aired: 04/18/95)
The Crane brothers go ice fishing with their father in an attempt to bond.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Although it’s more exclusively focused on the three Crane men, I always conceptually associate this outing with last season’s “Travels With Martin” (which, in contrast, made it a point to include Daphne), for they nevertheless share a similar core: the Crane brothers go off with their father to do something they wouldn’t normally do, just so they can spend time with him. This is exactly the kind of installment that embodies the series’ premise, which, as we’ve discussed, was originally built upon Frasier and Martin — who resented each other and seemed to be polar opposites — but was quickly expanded to include Niles (similarly unalike his father, but also competitive with brother Frasier). Thus, this is another of those relationship-driven shows that delights without having to earn an A+ on the comedic front. (That is, it can get by while being B+ comedically because the narrative, and its telling, both affirm the show’s thesis.)
07) Episode 45: “An Affair To Forget” (Aired: 05/02/95)
Frasier inadvertently tells Niles that Maris is having an affair.
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Credited authors Ranberg & Flett-Giordano won an Emmy for this script, which builds upon our growing conceptualization of the unseen Maris, while also, we know with hindsight, setting in motion an ongoing arc in which her marriage to Niles becomes especially strained. More importantly for us, I would cite this episode as being one of the funniest of the entire series — and I came very close to making it my MVE — with a broader, more physical form of humor that’s made possible by the exquisite character writing, for Niles primarily. The narrative allows for a string of indelible moments, including the achingly hysterical (and much remembered) fencing sequence — something only Frasier could pull-off in a manner character-driven and not alienatingly broad — and the memorable translation scene with Marta, the brothers Crane, and the instructor. As with both “The Matchmaker” and last year’s “My Coffee With Niles,” this outing is not just one of Frasier‘s best — it’s one of the sitcom’s best. Miraculous.
08) Episode 46: “Agents In America, Part III” (Aired: 05/09/95)
Frasier’s agent leads him in tough contract negotiations with the staton.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Bebe Glazer, as played by the exuberantly hilarious Harriet Sansom Harris, makes her annual appearance in this terrific excursion credited to wonder scribe Joe Keenan, whose name will often be placed on scripts featuring her outrageous character. Again, her wickedly larger-than-life ways are a perfect fit for Keenan, the year’s staff, and this installment, in which Bebe plays hardball while negotiating Frasier’s contract (even going so far as to have a sexual tryst with him over one drunken evening). It’s delectable lunacy whenever little Bebe’s around, because she brings out the worst in people — particularly Frasier, as Kelsey Grammer gets to go into his manic mode, which (when judiciously invoked) serves the character, and the comedy, well. This is the funniest offering ever afforded to this memorable recurring player and features her sharpest utilization, making it the best showcase for Bebe, and her rapport with Frasier.
09) Episode 47: “The Innkeepers” (Aired: 05/16/95)
The Crane brothers realize their dream of opening a restaurant.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by James Burrows
Legendary MTM scribe David Lloyd (responsible, of course, for “Chuckles Bites The Dust”) and father of showrunner Chris, makes the second of his two second season contributions with “The Innkeepers,” a well-remembered outing that many fans place alongside their all-time favorites. Regarded as another addition to the show’s growing list of farces, with plenty of physical comedy and a mounting tension aided by the theatrical energy that plays (largely) with a unity of time and place, I must admit that I’ve never been as enamored of this entry as many seem to be (especially in comparison to other farces); I think I find the premise a little more ostentatious than a lot of the year’s other classics. But I do think this is a terrifically well-produced episode — the performances are sharp, the direction is top-notch, and everything comes together to elevate an already solid teleplay. It’s not a favorite, but it’s still peak Frasier. (Also, look out for Diedrich Bader of The Drew Carey Show — which may come up here soon…)
10) Episode 48: “Dark Victory” (Aired: 05/23/95)
Frasier is a problem-solver during a power outage.
Written by Christopher Lloyd and Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo | Directed by James Burrows
Just as with the first finale (“My Coffee With Niles,” which I chose to be that year’s MVE), I’m drawn to this offering for its uncomplicated premise, which takes the simple theme of Frasier having to solve all of his friends’ and family’s problems, and uses it to tell several character and relationship-rooted stories that play within a limited space and over a limited time. (In other words: exactly what this medium, and the situation comedy in particular, does best!) I love that this episode, which gets added weight by being the year’s finale (and is co-credited to the showrunner and series backbone, Chris Lloyd), is otherwise so limited in its scope that its value is entirely derived from the ensemble, how they’ve been defined individually and collectively, and how the knowing script is merely able to give them air to do what they do best. This is classic Frasier and it’s an accurate represenation of this sublime series’ finest period.
Other episodes that merit mention here include almost all of them, but I’ll be conservative and highlight just the ones close to my list: a typically well-written Keenan offering, “You Scratch My Book…” which features Shannon Tweed and gives Grammer great laughs, and “The Show Where Sam Shows Up,” which was written by Levine & Isaacs and guest stars Ted Danson as Sam Malone (alongside Téa Leoni). The latter is a curio for Cheers fans; it’s not a terrific sample of this series, by the metrics with which we associate Frasier, but there’s some worthwhile moments for the title character as the show tries to reconcile his new life with his old one. Of more Honorable Mention quality is another charmer bearing Keenan’s name, the solidly penned (until the non-character-rooted finish) “The Botched Language Of Cranes.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Frasier goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!