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.
Several weeks ago, we discussed how many critically engaged fans tend to draw a figurative “red line” at a place in Frasier’s trajectory where the generally stellar series takes its first significant dip in quality following its Golden Age, which I believe to have occurred with Season Two. While I went into how and why both Three and Four didn’t match the heights of that gilded year, they both still — in my personal judgement — kept us at a level of excellence that’s a relative rarity in the American situation comedy. Thus, I wasn’t quite ready to make note of any devastating changes in the show’s enjoyability… yet. However, going into coverage of this season, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d be drawing my line before its premiere or after its finale, for Four and Six, as bookends to Five, seem of completely different eras, and represent the first dramatic dip of the entire run. So, I knew my first line was somewhere between Four and Six. But I had to decide where the bigger difference was: between Four and Five, or Five and Six? I suppose this is a trivial rhetorical framework that’s more dependent on personal preference than evolutionary quality; yet for the kind of subjective analysis we do here, it is nevertheless helpful to divide and categorize the series into easily digestible qualitative parts. (“Four is better than Five, but not better than Two,” etc.) Of course, it’s also true that we can only do this after first admitting that seldom is everything quite so simple. That is, Frasier, like every long-running series, is a living entity that changes a little bit week-to-week, and as we know, every ensuing season moves the show and its characters further away from that well-written novelty-boosted second year; both Five and Six open with a status quo more estranged from Two’s than I’d like… Because of this, I’ve decided to further torture my own tortured metaphor and say that I’m drawing my red line both after Four and before Six. In other words, my red line is Season Five.
Maybe it’s a cop-out, for if Five itself is my “line,” then I may never have to answer whether the year’s enjoyability is closer to Four’s or Six’s. And yet, it’s also the most perfect answer, for both facts are true: Five is not as good as Four, but it’s better than Six… Oh, okay, I suppose this is as we’ve always known: Frasier‘s track after Two is a gradual, ever-downward slope (albeit, in this case, I can’t claim the year begins better and ends weaker, which would literally take us from Four to Six; rather, Five, while episodically inconsistent, is collectively on the same liminal level throughout). So, I’m not going to cop-out of associating Five to one of its neighbors. If you’re wondering, I think it’s more “better than Six” than it is “not as good as Four,” meaning that my enjoyment of Five is closer to my enjoyment of Four, and Six, therefore, is the first year to really exist beyond my own personal notation of strained quality (for reasons we’ll discuss next week; stay tuned)… Five, however, is the first year where the strain (defined here in relative terms, of course; we’re dealing with Frasier — Lloyd-era Frasier) becomes evident. In fact, there’s another troubling increase in the show’s generalized broadness, as these episodes push for bigger laughs in stories that may not be as well-suited for the characters as those from earlier seasons were. Once again, this schism between installments that are purely character revealing and outings with sexy Victories In Premise (narrative ideas that are inherently interesting — character be darned) grows wider, and the juxtaposition becomes more obvious. For instance, the premiere is a gaudy story-led Victory In Premise (V-I-P), while the year’s sophomore outing is the opposite — a (perhaps too) quiet, character-driven affair. These dueling styles don’t fall alongside qualitative lines though; as you’ll see below, both of those aforementioned episodes eventually hit their respective marks by committing to their goals and succeeding.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of farce in the below list, and while I maintain that Frasier’s regular forays into this comedic genre stemmed from Frasier’s own characterization (and it’s something that I think energizes these writers and makes for many of the series’ finest half-hours), sometimes these entries can be story-driven and shakily motivated. Yet, as our standards move, so does the figurative goal post; now, even when a story isn’t driven by decisions made by an established characterization, if it can at least showcase the characters well, it gets to be considered smart and well-built. Additionally, given the nature of the narratives being used, the old “end justifies the means” excuse becomes more valid, for if an episode can get its laughs and do so believably, then an ostentatious premise not rooted in character can be overlooked in deference to the results. (A great example? “Roz And The Schnoz,” whose narrative sits atop one joke and isn’t propelled by character, but nevertheless is amusing and doesn’t damage Roz through its use of her. It’s not well-designed, yet it fulfills its comedic objective — and, arguably, not at the character’s expense.) Naturally, the threshold for what we’re willing to accept in terms of broadening (potentially divestment-inducing extremes) is unique to every viewer, and even as I try to adjust accordingly, these moments of dilemma increase for me in Five. In general, I find that because everything is larger here, it’s almost easier to tolerate an extreme V-I-P that simply displays character (“Roz And The Schnoz”) than an extreme character moment that arises from a V-I-P (Niles’ breakdown in “The Maris Counselor”), because the latter suggests future and deeper problems in depicting its regulars… Nonetheless, there’s, once again, room in Season Five to derive enjoyment from both (see below) — within this prism of reduced expectations suggested by the year’s qualitative descent. Is it noticeable? Yes. Is it bothersome. Yes. Is it worthwhile? Mostly, but not always. That’s why Five is the line — it’s the gray area.
However, although most of the season’s installments have something worthwhile going for them, I think the year — for the first time since Season One — has a handful that simply fall beneath the series’ baseline quality (like “The 1000th Show”). This creates a feeling of episodic inconsistency — at least, to a degree unlike we’ve yet seen. (But save your worry; when the number of duds increases next week, the big picture will become clearer: there are still enough classics here, classic by any definition of the word, to laud the season in familiar ways — ways we can’t with Six…) Meanwhile, it’s also interesting to point out that Five’s episodic success is not necessarily correlated to the year’s most pronounced arc, which is thrown to Roz — the most ignored member of the ensemble, inevitably — and her surprise pregnancy. Now, regular readers know how I feel about babies in the sitcom — I hate them — so the prospect of a tot entering the weekly plots is unappealing. Yet I actually don’t mind its inclusion. Oh, sure, giving a character a story-driven development, like a pregnancy, doesn’t automatically grow or deepen her definition — that’s up to the scripts — but it does inherently open up new story ideas. And in Roz’s case, while I’d argue that her growth is situational — whenever an episode needs her to seem evolved — and the baby itself never proves rewarding as a narrative development unto itself (read: it doesn’t bring great stories), the arc nevertheless proves its worth by enabling her further integration into Frasier’s ensemble. That is, because of this storyline, the show is better able to organically work Roz into stories centered around the apartment and the family. Perhaps this blending of Frasier’s work and home was constitutionally bound to improve over time, but the pregnancy provides a necessary excuse to motivate their enhanced comingling. This sets the table for Roz’s increased usage and presages her elevated presence in the (otherwise porous) post-Lloyd era. So, the whole idea seems like a dreadful gimmick, but it benefits her.
As for the year’s other primary stories… well, the deconstruction of the Niles/Maris marriage continues, as does the former’s unrequited feelings for Daphne, although they’re no longer as pressing or engaging as they were in years past, and therefore don’t anchor weekly stories quite as well as they once did. Also, the Martin/Sherry break-up is anticlimactic, and her character, who came on with a bang in Season Four, leaves here with a whimper (which describes her Season Five usage in general). I’ll save my thoughts on the year’s cliffhanger for next week… Now, before we get to the list, I want to return to that “red line” talk, because many fans take out their imaginary ink pens and draw it after Five — un-coincidentally, the last year, the fifth consecutive year, that the show took home an Emmy as the Outstanding Comedy Series: an honor that Frasier would never win again (despite being nominated in the category for its next three seasons). This is something that the first five years have in common and the last six don’t; it’s an external dividing line. Naturally, I don’t base much of my analysis on this fact, but I do think the high-profile wins — Grammer and Hyde Pierce were both victors again — or more accurately, the series’ ability to remain just as competitive as it was during its Golden Age, indicates a show that is still a marvelous, terrific, hilarious enterprise — one giving the sitcom a good name. And, as always, this is a credit to the year’s talented crew of writers, which consisted of folks like Lloyd, Keenan, Greenberg, and Martin, with contributions from consultants Levine & Isaacs and David Lloyd, and new staffers Jeffrey Richman (The Jeffersons, Wings, Modern Family), Jay Kogen (The Tracy Ullman Show, The Simpsons, Malcolm In The Middle), Rob Hanning (Malcolm In The Middle, 8 Simple Rules, Castle), one-season-wonder Ron Darian (Mad About You, Seventh Heaven), and late-in-the-year addition Lori Kirkland (Wings, Jenny, Desperate Housewives)… So, with nothing more to note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 97: “Frasier’s Imaginary Friend” (Aired: 09/23/97)
Frasier has trouble convincing others that he’s seeing a supermodel.
Written by Rob Greenberg | Directed by David Lee
Sela Ward guest stars in this popular entry that, as mentioned, I think represents a school of episodes here that don’t portend to be smart, character explorations — but rather, mere Victories in Premise, with amusing stories and a more obvious laugh-centric appeal. Personally, I’ve struggled with this outing before (it proves, again, that Season Five is consistently more troublesome than Four) because way too much of its value is placed in the idea — not how the characters benefit (or, more ideally, motivate) the idea. However, just as we discussed, it is possible to legitimately enjoy installments of this ilk if they fulfill their comedic objectives without doing damage. And in this offering, which gives Grammer the chance to clown — every essential Frasier has to take care of its star first (yes, Niles stories are often divine, but they’re lacking if Frasier is sidelined) — I can mute my concerns and go along for the laughs. It’s not Golden Age fodder, but then again, in a few weeks, this may seem like the stuff of classics…
02) Episode 98: “The Gift Horse” (Aired: 09/30/97)
Frasier and Niles compete when selecting their father’s birthday presents.
Written by Ron Darian | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Credited to a staffer who doesn’t appear to have lasted the season, this is the example I provided above of an installment that’s exactly the opposite of the premiere: it’s a simple, character-rooted story that’s fixated on the series’ primary relationships (those between the Crane men). It may suffer for not being as comedically boisterous as other broader and more ambitious outings, but it’s born of a sturdier stock, and as long as the material is believable and amusing, this is my preferred design. In this case, while there’s always fun in the exploration of Frasier and Niles’ competitiveness (and those laughs are here), I think the real treasure of this offering exists in the moments afforded to Martin, who gets added emotional dimension that, for a change, occurs beyond how he merely stands in relation to his two sons. That is, while their interplay makes this dramatically sound, it’s Martin in particular who provides the weight.
03) Episode 99: “Halloween” (Aired: 10/28/97)
Frasier causes a misunderstanding at a Halloween party.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Although I have a habit of reflexively rejecting installments with BIG narrative objectives — like this episode, with its clear goal of introducing Roz’s pregnancy arc and concluding on the cliffhanger reveal that, hey, she really is pregnant — I’m quite thrilled with this particular excursion, which couches its potentially heavy and story-driven concerns in a classic form of comedy at which Frasier has proven itself excellent: farce. In focusing much of the entry’s action on the Halloween party (with an appropriately literate theme — a reflection of Frasier, and by proxy, the series’ established tone), there’s also a high-energy bounce that not only incorporates every member of the core ensemble (and folks like Gil, too), but also guarantees plenty of laughs in accompaniment. So, while it seems grand and gaudy, it’s series-specific, character-laden, and quite funny. A favorite. (Also, Part II, “The Kid,” is a de facto Honorable Mention.)
04) Episode 102: “Voyage Of The Damned” (Aired: 11/18/97)
The Cranes take a cruise and run into Maris.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Pamela Fryman
There’s more than a whiff of the farcical running throughout this oft-overlooked outing, too — and as with several of Frasier‘s most notable entries, the action takes place in another new location: shipboard. Now, I can’t pretend that “Voyage Of The Damned” is as sharp or as worthwhile as the series’ other trademark farces (or that it’s even as funny as the season’s top-drawer classics), but I think it’s a unique contribution to the year, and one that stands out for not just giving us something different, but doing it in a manner that’s, at the very least, amiable. Frankly, I appreciate this episode beyond its laughs, for in addition to engaging with the current status of the Niles/Maris relationship, it also manages to incorporate Roz as the leading lady; this is a particular rarity, for normally if there’s room in a Frasier script for an ingenue, it’s either Daphne or a guest. So, its uniqueness (for this era, anyway) elevates its overall quality, emphasizing what’s good and de-emphasizing what isn’t. (Also, Stephanie Faracy guests.)
05) Episode 105: “Perspectives On Christmas” (Aired: 12/16/97)
The group recounts interconnecting Christmas stories.
Written by Christopher Lloyd | Directed by David Lee
Season One’s Christmas excursion has always been fairly popular among the fanbase, and while I highlighted it on that list, I’ve typically had trouble with the treacly final centerpiece (which lacks a boffo climax). In contrast, this Christmas-themed offering, a genuinely accurate representation of the year’s storytelling tropes, is laugh-filled! Not only is it, again, on the farcical end of the spectrum (with secrets, reveals, and miscommunications) — which is where many of this year’s hits reside — but it’s also told in a conspicuous way that calls attention to the storytelling: a variation on Rashomon, with each of the main characters simply filling out more of the tale. It’s a loud and distracting device — because a normal episode of Frasier can thrive without such pomp and circumstance, merely relying on character — but because the end product is nevertheless enjoyable, most complaints are moot. That’s Season Five in a nutshell.
06) Episode 109: “The Maris Counselor” (Aired: 02/03/98)
Niles learns that Maris has been sleeping with their marriage counselor.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Jeff Melman
Niles’ Maris saga continues in this other well-regarded entry — credited to iconic contributor (and MTM legend) David Lloyd — in which Niles is buoyed by the progress he believes he’s making with Maris in marriage counseling, only to learn that she’s having an affair with their shrink. It’s a flashy premise, but it’s a logical leap based on what we know of this crazy woman and Niles’ relationship with her. And the elements of the plot — the bed scene, the fact that Maris would cheat on a shrink with another shrink, the group therapy scene — all seem, on paper, ideal to Frasier. However, the execution misses a few beats, and as evidence of the year’s own internal aesthetic battle, there’s a clash here between its sincere character-based intent (shown in the scenes with the Crane boys, and later, the Crane men) and the need for a comedic climax, which comes in Niles’ group therapy scene. That moment is too extreme to be properly motivated; it doesn’t work. We’re going to see this conflict more as the show tries to hold onto its character-driven identity in the face of a growing association with dangerous high-comedy.
07) Episode 110: “The Ski Lodge” (Aired: 02/24/98)
A trip to a ski lodge is filled with misguided romantic pursuits.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
My pick for the best episode of the season (MVE), this was one of those weeks where I didn’t even have to think twice. When I conceptualize classic Frasier farces, this is the installment that comes to mind first. In fact, if not for the inevitable exclusion of Roz from the main action, I’d go so far as to call this the single most perfect offering of the entire run, for the plotting, the laughs, and the strong relationship between the story and the previously established personas given to these main characters, are all brilliantly realized. That is, their known traits and competing interests, largely introduced before this entry, are used to drive the story — the only convenient plot point is Martin’s hearing, and by the time we can think about questioning its merit, the laughs are too fast and furious for us to care. Also, unsurprisingly, this teleplay is credited to Joe Keenan, who has a reputation for farces, and there are, as usual, too many moments of sublime humor to single out now — baked-in to the obvious story intentions, but all rooted in character and the show’s own comedic timbre. This is the kind of theatrical fun that only the multi-camera sitcom offers. If I were to pick a favorite of all 264, this might be it!
08) Episode 111: “Room Service” (Aired: 03/03/98)
Niles and Lilith endure a night of passion.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by David Lee
For the first time since Season Two, a script is credited to the consulting duo of Ken Levine and David Isaacs, who’d first written for the title character back in 1985 (Frasier’s debut season). I look at this as a companion piece to their classic Season One outing “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back,” which reintroduced Bebe Neuwirth’s iconic character to TV audiences and proved that she could also thrive in this new narrative environment (given her emotional history with Frasier, and by extension, the other Crane men). It’d be erroneous to claim that I like this one better than the prior, simply because I think there was more emotional sincerity in that debut shot, which succeeded at the highly difficult task of setting the future tenor of her place on this series. Also, I think it requires more of a leap to imagine Lilith and Niles falling into bed together (as opposed to Lilith and Frasier, former man-and-wife). In this regard, the leap we have to take to accept this heightened story is very of Season Five. Yet, as with many here, the script’s laughs and inherent character knowledge make the leap justifiable and worthwhile.
09) Episode 116: “First Date” (Aired: 04/28/98)
Niles seeks Daphne’s help with a woman he erroneously claims to like.
Written by Rob Hanning | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Last week I discussed how I think the show reached the dramatic climax of its exploitable sexual tension between Niles and the unknowing Daphne, the woman for whom he’s harbored secret feelings since their first meeting, when it simply spent too long emotionally manipulating the audience by delaying a story point that didn’t logically have to be delayed. (The only way to make it exciting again? Have Daphne be the driving force; stay tuned…) That sentiment maintains for this installment, which doesn’t pack the same dramatic punch that these stories did in earlier years, when the idea was fresher and the figurative football hadn’t yet been yanked away so often. However, I appreciate the quieter, character-based material afforded here to the two of them, who share long scenes together and interact with more truth than most episodes have allowed the pair. It’s believable, amiable, and quite charming — a nice balance to this list.
10) Episode 117: “Roz And The Schnoz” (Aired: 05/05/98)
Roz is surprised when she meets her baby’s paternal grandparents.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Ken Levine
A broad, laugh-seeking excursion centered around Roz, this one seems to hold a controversial place among the fanbase, with some loving it and others loathing it. Not surprisingly, I see both sides. This, as mentioned, is one of the most audacious examples of a gaudy, conspicuous, and not-so-character-driven Victory in Premise, which, also, is predicated on a single joke: big noses. (Incidentally, it’s a lot like Newhart‘s “I Like You, Butt…”) By design, it’s contemptible. And yet, when it comes to comedy, I don’t think it undermines the regular characters — particularly Roz, who finally gets to be the fulcrum of a hilarious entry. And it only asks that we condescend to grant Frasier permission to engage in such infantile humor. So, in the same way that I can make allowances for the gimmicky and reaction-based “The Candidate” from Season Two, I can do the same now — for the big laughs, and for the sake of Roz’s increased utilization, which isn’t only narratively beneficial to her, but also leads her to greater depth (evidenced even here).
Other episodes that merit mention now include — well, once again, I’ve trimmed this down to only feature the ones I thought about actually highlighting above — “The Zoo Story,” the annual Bebe entry, which falls on the broader side of the aisle (I find the broad outings above slightly funnier, and the character installments above more needed) but was the closest to making my list, and “Party, Party,” a decent farce credited to David Lloyd that, perhaps, tries a little harder than some of its peers. Of more Honorable Mention quality — and again, I’ve slimmed this section down — are the funny “The Life Of The Party” and the more character-driven “Desperately Seeking Closure,” an underrated gem that’s built on Frasier’s neuroses.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Frasier goes to…..
“The Ski Lodge”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!