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.
After weeks of discussion surrounding a figurative “red line” said to represent the point at which Frasier’s noticeable-but-not-egregious descent in subjective quality first becomes significant enough to warrant a stated demarcation, we finally arrived at Season Five, which I argued was my line. Despite no shortage of classic installments, Five saw a growing number of relatively unflattering excursions and, worse, a heady uptick in truth-suppressing broadness, where either the cumbersome narrative trappings or the laugh-driven heightening of these otherwise inordinately well-defined players looked more troubling than anything seen in the four years prior. However, these concerns were tempered by both the baseline quality inherent throughout all of Frasier — especially during the years overseen by Lloyd and Keenan, both of whom know these characters’ voices so well that their scripts’ specificity and general consistency will never cease to be miraculous — and also by my conviction that Five and Six couldn’t exist together behind my first red line. That is, last week I suggested that Five was more “better than Six” than it was “not as good as Four,” and for this reason, Five could be the line… but it couldn’t be the first year to exist after the line — the first to exist in the moment where our standards really have to recede, alongside an institutionalized descent in quality, in order to maintain a genuine appreciation for the series. That moment comes in Season Six. For here, the middlemost year of Frasier’s eleven-season run, the show is even broader than it was in Five — asking the audience to take more leaps with stories and beats, tolerate bigger and more obvious forms of comedy, and excuse episodes that are as often led by their flashy narratives as they are by these (still) wonderfully voiced characters. And although this evolution has been progressive, the difference between this year and say, Four, is glaring enough to make this a new concern.
Before we discuss why Six requires acknowledgement of a qualitative decline, I want to make clear that my deliberation over this goofy “line” placement was truly complicated by the fact that I don’t think Five is as different from Six as many appraisals suggest. Not only are many of my opinions from last week still applicable here — except more boldly — but also, the show was still well-regarded enough by its peers in the industry to remain competitive in top Emmy categories: David Hyde Pierce won again, while Jay Kogen was recognized for writing a memorable farce featured below. (The series was also nominated as the year’s Outstanding Comedy — but lost to Ally McBeal.) These bestowed honors, remember, aren’t exactly fair representations of quality, but again, they’re associations that tie Six to its five predecessors, which we’ve already established as being strong. For actually, it turns out that what’s good about Six is the same as what was good about Five (big laughs, ideally still well-connected to character), and what’s not good about Six is the same as what’s not good about Five (comedic failures, usually related to some form of character subduction). Therefore, I don’t want to be overly harsh on Six. The show still delights — often. The main problem, quite frankly, is that there’s a long stretch here where the series’ episodic success rate slows for the first time since it warmed up in mid-Season One. Why? Well, as usual, a lot of this seems story-rooted. Now, I’m not talking about the official end of the Niles/Maris marriage (single, poor Niles actually yields several memorable installments — in fact, his emotional arc makes for many of the season’s best episodes; he’s growing, while some of the other characters, specifically Frasier, aren’t). I’m also not talking of the related introduction of the Daphne/Donny romance (which is contrived, but not insultingly so)… No, I’m thinking of the residual strain brought about by last year’s cliffhanger, in which Frasier, Roz, and most of the recurring characters at KACL were laid off when the new owner decided to switch to an all-Latin music schedule.
As Six opens, Frasier, in a story-driven scenario from the prior year’s finale, has lost his job. From conception, there are two extremes that the “sitcom” has taught us to expect: either this development is merely going to be a frivolous cliffhanger that’s resolved in the season premiere when Frasier gets everyone their spots back or it’s going to be a complete reformatting of the series that explores the possibilities of Frasier being out of work (before he eventually settles down in a new position somehow related to his occupation as a psychiatrist). It’s either a 15-minute change or it’s the biggest change the series has experienced yet… Actually, though, it ends up being neither. And, okay, okay, I think it was smart to buck expectations and not go for anything obvious. But I also think that by shying away from both extremes, and settling in the non-committal land of in-between — in which Frasier and company do get their jobs back, but only after nine episodes of treading figurative water, while nothing changes in their lives — the storyline insults the audience… because, aside from refusing to commit to either the sensationalism of the cliffhanger or the boldness of altering the series’ construction, the entire storyline is rendered an unnecessary time-filler when it does absolutely zilch for the characters. And what’s more: it’s an unnecessary time-filler that also doesn’t yield many great outings — never mind that the story opportunities have theoretically increased. Thus, I’d go so far as to label the opening half of Season Six, where this “arc” is half-heartedly engaged, as Frasier’s first “drought” — the first obvious stretch where the show’s established baseline quality is not being met (not counting early Season One, before any standards could be established). And I’m of the opinion that because Six begins so relatively unspectacularly, the entire year gets a bad rap… even though the drought ends by the time Frasier returns to KACL, and the second half of the season puts the series back on track — cranking out classics once again.
Six’s classics may be slightly less brilliant than the gems from years past, but following the “drought,” these funny, memorable outings inspire a similar form of positive, character-welcome hilarity (especially as the show continues to embrace a style of comedy that it does so well: farce). In essence, the series recaptures its mojo, and had the whole year operated at this level, it’s possible that I’d enjoy it as much, if not more, than Five. So, what changed mid-Six? It seems there were a few additions to the writer’s room. Returning scribes Lloyd, Keenan, Greenberg, Richman, Kogen, Kirkland, Hanning, contributing consultants David Lloyd and David Isaacs, and new additions Janis Hirsch (Anything But Love, Murphy Brown, My Wife And Kids) and Mark Reisman (Dear John, Flying Blind, Wings), were joined during the middle of the year by Alex Gregory & Peter Huyck (Late Night With David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, Veep), Jon Sherman (Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Royal Pains), and future showrunner Dan O’Shannon (Newhart, Cheers, Modern Family). Additionally, there appears to have been a renewal of focus, which — as long as it doesn’t encroach upon character moments — actually benefits the year by supplying these scripts with a sense of narrative propulsion. We see it first with the Daphne/Donny arc, which lays the groundwork for future Niles/Daphne story, and then later in the year with Frasier’s love triangle (with Faye and Cassandra). While that latter storyline is more plot-driven than I’d like — and it’ll indeed prove soon to be an overused template — the year’s quality has improved so much that the mere construction of these final entries justifies a certain investment… And, sure, it’s always been easy to knock Season Six, but this chronological survey has improved my thoughts on its overarching merits. (Interestingly, this is the year that found the series back in Must See TV territory, replacing the departed Seinfeld and ranking #3, behind only one other sitcom, Friends, in the year’s final Top Ten…) Now, without further ado, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 123: “Dial M For Martin” (Aired: 10/08/98)
Daphne considers moving on after Martin moves in with Niles.
Written by Rob Greenberg | Directed by Ken Lamkin
Arriving early in Season Six’s aforementioned drought (and following two disappointing episodes that opened the year by vainly trying to prove the comedic merits of the “Frasier’s lost his job” storyline), this entry comes across a bit better than it actually is. In other words, this house looks good because the rest of the neighborhood is shoddy. The reason, however, that this popular offering actually does deserve a spot here is because it attempts some logical, constructional growth within the ensemble — Niles has a bigger apartment than the currently unemployed Frasier, so maybe Martin should live with him. And if Martin can navigate stairs, does he still need Daphne, a physical therapist? The character-based consequences of this idea are fascinating. Yes, the comedic “meat,” with Martin believing his life is in danger, is one of the more unfortunate staples of the genre (read: hacky), but because the story finds a way to use this otherwise unredeeming arc and actually explore the characters, legitimately, it’s worthwhile.
02) Episode 127: “How To Bury A Millionaire” (Aired: 11/12/98)
In financial distress, Niles shops for a new apartment.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Pamela Fryman
With the intermittent Maris storyline finally nearing its conclusion, the sixth season seems to have fun playing with the emotional tragedies that have befallen Niles. (Like the saying goes, comedy comes from pain…) As discussed, these Niles outings tend to shine especially bright, for unlike Frasier, Niles’ life is actually changing — there’s no try-hard cliffhanger-led arc doing the figurative talking. So, this better-than-average installment from this weakened period relishes in putting Niles into financial straits, as he’s forced to move out of the fancy Montana and into the entirely unglamorous Shangri-La. With lingering ramifications for his character, a constant resolve to keep the laughs flowing underneath the drama, and some fine moments for the two brothers (in particular) — as first Niles comes to stay with Frasier — this becomes one of Season Six’s most well-intentioned. It’s not a classic, based on how earlier years define the term, but it’s one example of how the show continues to reinforce the best parts of its identity.
03) Episode 128: “The Seal Who Came To Dinner” (Aired: 11/19/98)
Niles’ dinner party at Maris’ beach house may be ruined by a dead seal.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
As you now know, one of the primary reasons I decided to draw that figurative “red line” (an overused cliché at this point, but an effective symbol nonetheless) on Season Five, leaving Six to be the first year to come after it, is that this year’s baseline quality seems to have slipped a bit from past weeks’. And an episode like such — a farce credited to Keenan, an author whose name is on many of the show’s absolute best outings (like last year’s MVE, “The Ski Lodge”) — stands out as among this year’s funniest and most memorable, while also revealing the era’s recently established lesser quality. You see, although the idea of a sneaky beach party that’s ruined by a dead seal is amusing and original, the entry isn’t as adept as other farces were at motivating story points from the characters’ actions and their own established flaws. (What does the seal have to do with Niles or Frasier?) This disconnect between story and character keeps great laughs from being divine ones, even if Frasier remains remarkably steeped in Frasier’s voice.
04) Episode 130: “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” (Aired: 12/17/98)
Frasier pretends to be Jewish for the mother of his new girlfriend.
Written by Jay Kogen | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
A better farce than the one highlighted directly above, this is the excursion mentioned in the seasonal commentary as having won its credited author, Jay Kogen, an Emmy Award. Well-deserved? Yes, I think so, for it’s another classic dip into a style of comedy that Frasier, and very few other series (especially its own contemporaries), actually do well. (Because, as we’ve noted time and again, farce is an extension of the characters’ temperaments, and is therefore often motivated, if not by their choices, then at least by their personas.) Introducing Frasier’s recurring love interest Faye, played by Amy Brenneman, this entry has Frasier pretending to be Jewish to please her mother (Carole Shelley). It’s a classic sitcom story that we’ve seen before — Bridget Loves Bernie, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, etc. — but it’s ideal for Frasier, particularly at Christmas, when most series go either unduly sentimental or forcefully irreverent. It’s a gem, and this laugh-filled offering manages to strike all the right chords. A fierce MVE contender.
05) Episode 134: “Three Valentines” (Aired: 02/11/99)
Frasier and his family members have radically different Valentine’s Days.
Written by Rob Hanning | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Now we come to the point in the season where the year begins to regain some momentum and free itself from both a lower baseline and the occasional dud. (Again, these may not be fully competitive alongside past classics, but they’re really, really strong showings — especially within this mini-era that, for many, consists of this season and the following.) Another holiday outing, just in time for Valentine’s Day, this “variations on a theme” excursion, with three little sketches for Daphne and Martin, Frasier and Roz (which introduces another recurring love interest for Frasier: Cassandra, played by Virginia Madsen) and Niles, is beloved. But most of that praise is reserved for the opening vignette, a BRILLIANT pantomime for David Hyde Pierce in which Niles prepares to host a date in Frasier’s apartment and ends up setting the couch on fire. It’s a tour de force performance, and even though the other sequences don’t live up to this height, I agree with the majority: the first scene alone is reason enough to earn the episode a place here.
06) Episode 135: “To Tell The Truth” (Aired: 02/18/99)
Niles hires a crude attorney to combat Maris in their divorce.
Written by Rob Hanning | Directed by David Lee
I’ll have more thoughts on the course that the series takes with the Niles/Daphne romance in our coverage of upcoming seasons, but here I’ll say that, while I think a lot of the air in their figurative tire has by now escaped, simply because the show has taken too long to actually move forward on any narrative developments between the two, I think this episode — in which Niles is free of Maris and the show introduces a new recurring love interest for Daphne, in the form of Donny (Saul Rubinek) — is the start of a conscious re-pivoting for Frasier. Now, the staff sets the table for the pair’s eventual coupling at the end of Seven by providing a new concrete obstacle for Niles — around which he (or in Seven’s wise reversal, Daphne) will have to work — in the absence of the non-entity that became Maris. However, these narrative goals aren’t made to be overbearing yet, for this entry is laugh-filled, thanks partly to a well-defined characterization for Donny (one that wasn’t as well-maintained as it should have been). Smart.
07) Episode 136: “Decoys” (Aired: 02/25/99)
Niles tries to split up Daphne and Donny by using Roz.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Credited to the legendary MTM veteran David Lloyd (and father of the series’ current show runner), I think this offering is an attempt at recapturing the magic of last year’s “The Ski Lodge,” because, well, the ensemble goes to another countryside retreat, where their various romantic entanglements propel the lightly farcical narrative’s comedy. Not surprisingly, it never rises as high as last year’s aforementioned gem, but the outing does score some additional points for not only incorporating Roz into the action (which I wish “The Ski Lodge” had found a way to do), but also for continuing the Daphne/Donny development in a way that’s beneficial to the other members of the ensemble — specifically Roz and Niles, whose crush on Daphne is clearly rehabilitated via the story, even if its emotional power has already been a bit bludgeoned. (Note: when Maris was the only obstacle, the writers ran out of ways to explore the crush, but now that Donny is the roadblock, Niles’ feelings are reignited as if they hadn’t been put on low.)
08) Episode 137: “Dinner Party” (Aired: 03/11/99)
Frasier and Niles struggle to plan a dinner party.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by David Lee
I’ve chosen this episode to be my MVE for Season Six, because even though I could have selected one of the grander farces from above (either “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” or “Decoys”), I’m inherently drawn to this offering’s simplicity. Yes, “Dinner Party” is the series’ second real-time excursion — regular readers know what a sucker I am for installments that play within this theatrical design: a unity of time, place, and action (because, frankly, this is what the sitcom was best and most intimately designed to deliver) — and just like Season One’s classic “My Coffee With Niles,” it’s a terrific showcase for the dynamic between the Brothers Crane. The low-concept idea of Niles and Frasier trying to coordinate a joint dinner party is so delectably small that there’s plenty of room for uproarious character moments, and there’s no doubt that this teleplay delivers more than can be mentioned here. It’s an example of Frasier in its rarest form, with character-driven comedy predicated on the electric Frasier/Niles interplay. And sure, other outings on this list pack laughs of a commensurate quality through more exciting narratives, but I’m not sure that any others are as funny, while also being as equally wise for the players. This doesn’t seem like it should belong to Season Six, but it does. Sublime.
09) Episode 138: “Taps At The Montana” (Aired: 03/25/99)
Niles’ party for the tenant board at his old apartment looks to be a disaster.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by David Lee
To be honest, this could be considered another half-baked Season Six farce that fails to touch the brass ring reached in previous years, and indeed, there may be some who wish to see one of the notable Honorable Mentions highlighted below in its place. However, I’m always going to prioritize a consistent supply of laughs over arc-sparked sentiment, as long as I’m not given any narrative reasons to divest — like breaches in character logic. And this episode does meet my basic haha requirement… in spite of the feeling of familiarity that’s engendered by the story and some of these comedic beats. (The guest whose death the host tries to keep secret? We’ve seen it before, even on Cheers.) Ultimately, though, I think it’s easier to single this entry out for praise because I have fewer qualms about how it handles its characters, for because it’s designed as a farce, there’s more leeway to separate the players from the plot; that is, if I dislike the story, I can still like how the ensemble is featured. That’s the case here in this Niles-centric spectacle. (Guest stars include Rosemary Murphy, Mimi Hines, and The John Larroquette Show‘s Bill Morey.)
10) Episode 139: “IQ” (Aired: 04/08/99)
Frasier and Niles take a test to see who has the higher IQ.
Written by Rob Hanning & Jay Kogen | Directed by David Lee
This almost feels like two offerings in one, and I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not I should count this jarring disconnect as a positive or a negative. I, frankly, think the installment’s here because it’s hard to dislike — it’s well-premised: centered on the relationship between the series’ two funniest and best-defined players, Frasier and Niles (who themselves set the show’s tone and comedic timbre), and derives maximum comedic juice from their long-established, ever-reliable competitiveness. So, simply because the outing is designed as such and doesn’t do anything wrong (okay, the second half goes broader than the quieter, more introspective first half would indicate, but that’s as much a recognition of comedic boldness as it is a critique of poor tonal modulation), it was a good candidate for my list. Is this a nevertheless routine story that also feels like it could have been done smoother — and with greater laughs — had it come earlier? Undoubtedly. But I cherish the character beats, particularly in Season Six.
Other episodes that merit mention here include the closest to the above list: “Shutout In Seattle,” the two-part season finale that crescendoes the story-driven triangle, but does so quite comedically and with a mind for keeping the characters’ integrities intact (I would have chosen Part II over Part I, incidentally), and “When A Man Loves Two Women,” which sets up the aforementioned conflict of Frasier having two ladies with a terrific and dynamically fun first act (and a slightly less rewarding second). Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Our Parents, Ourselves,” which I give space to here simply because it has an underratedly amusing teleplay (if not story) and notable guest appearances from Eva Marie Saint and Alice Playten, and “Dr. Nora,” which guests Christine Baranski and has a typically amusing Keenan script, but goes overboard in its caricatured depiction of Dr. Nora and in its broad climax, both of which I think stretch credulity too unpleasantly. (Also, between you and me: I wish “The Show Where Woody Shows Up” had a better grasp of its intentions, and I wish “Visions Of Daphne” found more laughs inside of its very clear intentions. They’re both unique and discussion-worthy.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Frasier goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Seven! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!