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 am of two minds regarding Frasier’s fourth season and how it stands in relation to its predecessor. But I can state with certainty that I find this year the more immediately gratifying — which is a fancy way of saying that I think Season Four is funnier than Three. In fact, I’d go so far as to announce that I generally enjoy this year more than last week’s… however, I do so while also not entirely believing that it’s an objectively better collection of episodes — especially on behalf of these characters. For starters — and on a generic note — it’s simply easy to argue that the show’s decline is consistent as we move further out from the Golden Age of Season Two, for each ensuing year represents an inevitable drift away from what the series was and how it operated during its height. That is, although some years after Two may seem more enjoyable than others (like, spoiler alert, Eleven vs. Ten), Frasier actually less resembles its peak-era identity the more it goes along — for many reasons: changes in character, era, staff, etc.… Speaking of staff, gone this year are second (and third) season staples Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo, along with Steven Levitan — who left to ready Just Shoot Me!. So, if the goal for any season is to be like Two (and that’s obviously a too-simplistic metric, but you understand the rhetorical point), then there’s no doubt that Three is more like Two than Four is… More specifically, though, I think the most unfavorable difference (and really, the only unfavorable difference) between Three and Four is a subtle downtick here in the (previously discussed) character-rooted tone. Now don’t get me wrong; the show is still very driven by its regulars, and they’re all well-defined, informing both the comedy and the stories with regularity. (And this is nothing as alarming as what we’ll find, frankly, in, say, Ten, so keep it in perspective.) But, now we’re starting to see more freedom in the show’s comedic timbre — a loosening of its grip on the characters.
This makes sense; as any show progresses, the number of potential stories shrinks. The solution then is two-fold: evolve the regulars, to expand the narratives they can motivate (the preferable plan — we saw Frasier try this last year, albeit with only moderate success), and loosen their depictions, so there are fewer restrictions on the narratives they can motivate (the riskier strategy — we’ll see more of it later). So, when we start to observe Frasier being freer in how it uses character for its definition, remember that this is common and only in response to the inevitabilities of series television… Nevertheless, you may be wondering: how does this slow tonal dilution, sparked by the loosening of character, manifest itself in Season Four? Well, as with most long-running series, the spectrum for what constitutes logical, relatable, and believable character-based happenings grows wider alongside the mounting demand for new plots. And for a series like Frasier, which was built in the logical, relatable, and believable character-based MTM tradition, sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the stranger stories (ex: Niles getting a bird stuck on his head) with the “realism” that the show itself has already established. Here, we as viewers determine our own thresholds of permissibility. Personally, while (like Three) there’s another slight increase in comedic beats that make me cringe, I’m not yet at a place where I think the series’ broadening, the push towards extremes, is troublesome. In Four, the characters are still grounded, they’re still well-defined, and they’re still evolving believably — driving most of the ideas and informing the laughs. Also, the side effects of the show’s general narrative and comedic ante-upping remain few. Therefore, I’m able to enjoy the laugh-filled superiority of Four without any legitimate concerns as to how it’s getting there. And, as such, no “red line” is to be drawn after Three — that reckoning, for me, is still to come…
Meanwhile, I also personally enjoy Four because the former doesn’t have to answer to the same mandated, tenuously motivated, and only partially successful crusade for story-based character growth that we saw last week. If you’ll recall, I found some of the prior year’s half-hearted “arcs” (like Frasier’s romance with Kate) to be more plot-driven than they nobly intended to be, and thus, not so laudable in light of our ever-present preference for character-led comedy. Four, fortunately, is much less ambitious on this front, and I think may actually succeed in growing the players more because of it (all the while securing those bigger laughs, too). I’ve always maintained that although characters need story for exploration, less is more — and it’s better to be a narrative minimalist than a maximist (that’s not a word, but you get the idea), for it’s easier to connect with a character’s humanity when he or she — and not a story — is a show’s driving force. (Frasier is generally pretty astute with its characters, primarily because of the tonal qualities discussed in our opening post — each script is practically drenched in its protagonist’s voice — but some periods are better than others.) Yet, that’s also not to say this season undervalues its stories. On the contrary; I’d argue that even as the players may evolve as much (or more) in Four than Three, the year supplants its growth objective with a comedic one, and while there are many great character moments here, a lot of memorable laughs are fueled from inherent Victories in Premise (ideas too good to pass up) — especially now that the series is embracing more of its farcical leanings (evident in classics like “The Two Mrs. Cranes” and “Ham Radio”). Now, farce may seem plot-dependent and unrooted in character on the surface, but I think this style of comedy — silly and frothy, but with a simultaneous sexual sophistication — is borne from the series’ tone and implanted, again, from the established depiction of Frasier. This, then, is indeed character-driven — and worthy, when done this well, of celebration.
But Season Four doesn’t shy away from romantic arcs and relationship-driven developments either. Even though Frasier himself doesn’t get any semi-serialized love, the show continues to move slowly through the dissolution of Niles’ marriage to Maris (and his accompanying feelings for Daphne, which I think hit their dramatic zenith in an entry discussed below), and also gives Martin a recurring — and hilarious — love interest in the form of Sherry (Marsha Mason), a rambunctious barmaid whose personality irks the stuffy Crane brothers. Sherry is a great addition to every script that can make legitimate use of her presence, for she connects directly to the show’s original thesis: the unresolved tension between a father and son (now sons). You see, giving Martin a regular paramour — by itself — isn’t a character-ripe notion. But giving him a regular love interest that allows the show to exploit humor and pathos from his relationships with the other members of the ensemble is wonderfully character-ripe, and Sherry symbolizes a victory for this year’s team of talented scribes, which, incidentally, is bolstered by several one-year wonders, including Michael B. Kaplan (Herman’s Head, Roseanne, Girlfriends), William Lucas Walker (Roseanne, Cybill, Will & Grace), and F.J. Pratt & Dan Cohen (Ellen, Less Than Perfect, Sullivan & Son). Alongside established gems like Lloyd, Keenan, Flett-Giordano & Ranberg, Martin, Greenberg, and contributing legend David Lloyd, this crew turns out many of the series’ funniest moments. In fact, Four earned the company its fourth consecutive win as Outstanding Comedy. Based on the list below, I think this honor is well-deserved, for even with its own unique challenges — like Kelsey Grammer’s battle with substance abuse, which held up production early in the year and forced Frasier out of an episode that had to be rewritten (not entirely successfully) for Niles — Frasier persevered without skipping more than that one beat… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 73: “The Two Mrs. Cranes” (Aired: 09/17/96)
Daphne calls on Niles to play her husband when an old beau visits.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
Another season, another classic farce credited to Joe Keenan (who, based on the scripts on which he has his name, seems to be adept at helming these types of grand and comedically premised outings). Boasting more laughs than almost any other episode here, this offering’s comedy — predicated on ye olde “let’s pretend to be married” shtick, which erupts into further chaos from there — is such that this was a very competitive MVE contender: one of the finest entries in Frasier‘s farcical genre and a terrific start to this more humorously poised season. What works so well? Well, aside from the high laugh quotient, every member of the ensemble is allowed to participate in-character within the action, while Niles’ feelings for Daphne are effortlessly reinforced via the narrative without being overbearing or extraneous. It’s a great reminder of what Frasier is and of what it’s comedically capable. Among the series‘ funniest.
02) Episode 78: “Mixed Doubles” (Aired: 11/19/96)
Niles prepares to tell Daphne of his feelings for her.
Written by Christopher Lloyd | Directed by Jeff Melman
Above I mentioned that this season contains the dramatic zenith of Niles‘ long-simmering unrequited feelings for Daphne (note: his for her), and I say this in advance of the show’s explicit attempt to revive the arc in Season Seven (the groundwork of which is laid in Six) to comment on the fact that the show put itself into a box by not having Niles act upon his feelings for her once Maris was no longer a major obstacle. Because, by this point in the run — especially after this excursion — when nothing materializes from this development, it’s much harder to make the audience care about entries that engage with these themes, for they all seem nothing more than manipulative retreads of a beat that no longer has a narrative reason to be prolonged. I think this installment isn’t hilarious — the story itself, with the doppelgänger, is a touch contrived and unoriginal — but it is emotionally potent for Niles, and it’s the last time his Daphne drama can elevate a comedic middler (until the perspective shifts and she drives).
03) Episode 81: “Dad Loves Sherry, The Boys Just Whine” (Aired: 01/07/97)
The Crane brothers hate their father’s new girlfriend.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by James Burrows
Marsha Mason makes her debut in this boisterously funny outing that quickly clears out the residue of last season’s never-utilized romance for Martin (with Jane Kaczmarek) in order to give him a partner that’s not only more comedic, but also a better launching pad for story that can capitalize upon his relationships with other members of the ensemble — particularly his sons. Now, I spent half a paragraph already extolling the virtues of this Sherry arc and what it does for the year, so to keep from being redundant, I simply want to point out that the episodes in which she gets to participate are well-written (comedically brilliant, focused on the main characters and their interactions). However, this isn’t just a well-executed story decision on the page — it’s a well-executed story decision on the stage, too, and this intelligent offering, which is unsurprisingly credited to Keenan and is positively dripping in the Frasier/Niles voice (thus ratcheting up the dramatic consequences of Sherry as the outsider), is another MVE almost.
04) Episode 84: “Death And The Dog” (Aired: 02/11/97)
Martin is worried when Eddie seems depressed.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by James Burrows
This sneakily strong ensemble outing rarely makes anyone’s list of the series’ best. That’s because there’s so much competition, as Frasier is loaded with classics. (One of the reasons that I long ago decided to pick ten highlightable entries from seasons that only produced 22 or 24 is so that I could provide a “buffet” of enjoyment — something for everyone — including great excursions that often get overlooked. I put this installment in that latter category.) But this tightly plotted low-concept story, centered around a “main character” (Eddie), is what truly allows the episode to showcase the series’ unusual proficiency with regard to character comedy, and with a design that allows all members of the ensemble to interact and be introspective together, this one has almost everything we want from Frasier. It’s not an all-time classic, but it’s a strong example of why this show was so good for so long: it routinely provided simple showcases for character. (Also, Zeljko Ivanek has a memorable turn here as Eddie’s shrink.)
05) Episode 86: “To Kill A Talking Bird” (Aired: 02/25/97)
Niles throws a dinner party that’s ruined by his new pet cockatoo.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by David Lee
On every list, there’s always one contender that had to battle it out with some Honorable Mentions to secure the “coveted” tenth spot, and this week, it’s this entry (credited to future staffer, Wings‘ Jeffrey Richman), which likely wants to reside on Frasier‘s esteemed roster of indelible farces, but goes a little too broad and isn’t quite as character-rooted — and thus, keeps its figurative soufflé from rising as highly as it should. However, if it’s not top-drawer in comparison to other gems, the script still manages to work in the appropriate number of laughs and with a premise that, while broader than perhaps Frasier‘s reputation would warrant, doesn’t contort the players beyond the initial leap that the audience must make to accept some of its story-based charms. In this way, the outing is a symbol of changing times for Four at large: more laughs than Three, but some required liberties within the storytelling. Note, also, that Patricia Wettig and Rosemary Murphy guest, and David Lee won an Emmy for his direction.
06) Episode 89: “Roz’s Turn” (Aired: 04/15/97)
Frasier inadvertently has Bebe kill Roz’s chance for a promotion.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Joyce Gittlin
Harriet Sansom Harris is back as Bebe Glazer, Frasier’s wicked agent, in this funny episode that’s (as expected) credited to the same scribe who drafted both of her prior appearances. Now, I can’t claim that this go-round is as comedically charged or as narratively fresh as the Bebe installments that preceded this one, but I can point you towards a very amusing comedic centerpiece — broad and wacky, but still in-keeping with what we know of Bebe (and within the show’s own theatrical comedic timbre: implanted by Frasier’s characterization, of course). As is usually the case with teleplays credited to this particular scribe (Keenan), there’s an abundance of laughs, and since we’re willing to make certain story leaps because of the aggrandized nature of Bebe, we have no reason not to go along for the fun. Plus, Roz is well-used — which is no small feat (even at this point) and represents a triumph. Oh, and Kathryn Joosten appears!
07) Episode 90: “Ham Radio” (Aired: 04/22/97)
Frasier enlists his friends to help him put on a classic radio murder mystery.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by David Lee
Am I going to be boring and cite the offering you all expect me to cite as being the year’s best — my pick for Season Four’s MVE? Oh, I’m afraid so. Sure, I could have selected the hilarious premiere or the incredibly smart introduction of Sherry, but truthfully, there’s no installment more memorable or as shamelessly big, bold, and raucous as “Ham Radio,” an entry credited to legendary MTM vet David Lloyd (whose contributions usually are big, bold, and raucous). Utilizing a subject matter very near and dear to my heart — old-time-radio — this joke-filled outing builds to a beautiful climax: one that’s incredibly satisfying, but not altogether surprising based on these characters, and how the plot has heretofore used their developed personas to motivate its laughs (which might otherwise seem to stem from the premise; the fact that the results are so character-driven is why it’s miraculous, and my favorite here). Kelsey Grammer gets to shine the brightest, as Frasier’s egotistical bossiness gives both the actor a chance to play manic, which he does well, and the character a chance to be obnoxious, which (because we know him so well) is actually endearing — and obviously, very funny. Just sublime!
08) Episode 91: “Three Dates And A Break-Up (I)” (Aired: 04/29/97)
Frasier’s recent luck with the ladies is threatened by Martin’s strained relationship with Sherry.
Written by Rob Greenberg | Directed by Jeff Melman
Let me tell you a little Sitcom Tuesday secret: by choosing to feature one half of a two-parter, especially an entry that originally was broadcast in a single hour-long block, I really get to highlight both of them for the “price” of one. With competition on these Frasier lists being steep — and the Honorable Mentions category potentially crowded — this is a great way to pick the funnier part of a double-length outing (which, I admit, I often don’t like; I think supersized entries tend to be overblown) and label the other half a “de facto” Honorable Mention. That’s what I’m doing here with this well-liked two-parter, which benefits from its usage of Sherry, while once again deriving conflict from her presence in this world — particularly Frasier’s, whose romantic faux pas (sparked through actions motivated by Sherry’s personality) form the source of the story’s comedy. I think Part I has the edge over II because once the comedic beats are established, we get the gist of where it’s going. But, see both!
09) Episode 93: “Daphne Hates Sherry” (Aired: 05/06/97)
Daphne clashes with Martin’s girlfriend Sherry.
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne-Flett Giordano | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Another Sherry show, this companion piece to her debut (which is probably superior — because of both the strength of that teleplay and the simple fact that the humorous ideas with which she’s forever associated were newer and therefore more exciting) once again finds big laughs and big conflict from what she inspires in the ensemble members off of whom she’s contrasted. This time, however, it’s not the Crane boys with whom the story deals, but Daphne, as the show’s leading lady actually gets to participate meaningfully in a plot that is more about her character than anyone else’s (not even Sherry’s, the well-employed amusing catalyst). I think one could argue that all of these comedic notions have already been explored, and the narrative itself doesn’t really offer anything of great surprise or import, but the telling of it — and the way it prizes Daphne — is what makes it a standout in this generally fine year. Classic Season Four.
10) Episode 94: “Are You Being Served?” (Aired: 05/13/97)
Niles regrets signing the divorce papers he received from Maris.
Written by William Lucas Walker | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Launching the year’s final trilogy of more dramatic, emotionally resonant outings, this installment is another great exploration of the Niles character, as he frets over having signed the divorce papers sent to him by Maris. As with the following entry, “Ask Me No Questions,” the teleplay makes a lot of room for the show’s cultivated meat and potatoes: the brother dynamic. And the success of this episode, which I think is slightly funnier than the two following — due in part to an amusing Martin subplot that ends in a terrific sight gag (the “Hot ‘n’ Foamy” explosion) — I think can be directly correlated to what it has to offer on behalf of the Frasier/Niles relationship (the show’s richest). In this season of superior laughs (on this series of superior laughs), this is another offering that won’t ever be placed on Frasier‘s top shelf, but it certainly deserves to be singled out as a strong, under-praised showing of this great comedy.
Other episodes that merit mention here include many, but I’m going to stick with my recent pattern and only mention the ones that were actively in consideration: “Four For The Seesaw,” a funny showcase for the brothers that guest stars Megan Mullally and Lisa Darr and also boasts an amusing subplot for Martin and Daphne, and “Ask Me No Questions,” a criminally underrated installment that’s so simply premised that there’s nothing for the entry to hang its figurative hat upon but character — which is as it should be. Of more “Honorable Mention” quality is “The Impossible Dream,” which features a low-concept Victory in Premise and a script that earned Rob Greenberg a WGA nomination. (Also, in case you’re wondering, I’m not enamored of the popular “A Lilith Thanksgiving,” because I don’t think the teleplay does a good job of motivating the extremes in Frasier’s and Lilith’s depictions.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Frasier goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!