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.
Season Eight marks the start of a new era in Frasier‘s history. If you’ve been following our coverage over these past few weeks, you know that this is the first year to exist after my second “red line” — a metaphor used to denote a significant reduction in the series’ quality. There are several reasons why I think Eight marks an important, and ultimately disappointing, shift, but I want to preface this discussion by softening the sting of my criticism, reiterating a valid school of thought that acknowledges how almost every series, as it ages beyond its finest moment, moves further and further away from the traits that once made it so rich. As usual, it’s clear that ever since Frasier‘s peak (which I believe to be Season Two) — despite seasonal irregularities — the series has little-by-little become less satisfying. Novelty wore, stories broadened, and some characters stagnated. Because of this fidelity to a nearly inevitable sitcom trajectory, I think we should be fair and excuse Season Eight for merely representing a comedown. This is not the first year to have a more enjoyable predecessor, after all. Rather, what the year should be held accountable for is the degree to which it represents a comedown… Okay, this adjudication is, as with everything else, subjective, but most fans would agree: the gulf between Seven and Eight is more striking than it should be — and wider than we’ve seen before with this series. One of the most commonly cited reasons as to why involves a decision made at the end of last year: the pairing of Niles and Daphne in an official romantic relationship. Yes, after a big narrative crescendo — and a slow-build that didn’t always maintain its momentum — Frasier put two of its five ensemble members together, and here, in the harsh light of Season Eight, it must now deal with the narrative aftermath and our accompanying high expectations.
Again, I’m more forgiving on this point, because Eight didn’t choose to engage with that potentially destructive development. It was just made to reckon with it on a weekly basis. (Why “potentially destructive”? Well, sitcom wisdom commonly cites that foreplay — the build — is far more exciting than the pillow talk — the new status quo. Even the Charles Brothers would agree: Sam and Diane were more interesting apart than together.) In this regard, I think Eight was already starting from inside a figurative hole, and although this new construct is inherently sticky, the season is not culpable for its existence. If we’re to argue, then, that pairing Niles and Daphne is genuinely correlated to the show’s decline here in Eight, then we must be more specific as to why — in other words, how exactly does Eight drop the figurative ball? And that’s assuming that Eight even drops the ball in the first place — does it? First, to answer the latter question, yes. After all, while putting together Niles and Daphne was a risky move bound to yield some unmet expectations, it could have also become a delectable shake-up to a series that had long been looking for one — offering new stories, new dynamics, and basically, new reasons to watch. But, that didn’t happen… Now, to answer the first question, I think Season Eight drops the ball by depicting their relationship in such a way that alters both Niles’ and Daphne’s characterizations without using character-driven narratives to fully motivate the tweaks. Each half of the couple finds their depictions changing as a result of their situation. Believable? Perhaps. Trackable? No. For we find that these surprise changes come not from motivated growth evidenced in the text, but rather from the sheer fact that these characters, now paired, have different story functionalities… That’s a bit of a tease though, for we can’t talk more about this (or the corresponding shifts in ensemble focus and configuration) until next week, when it’s clearer exactly what’s happening to them and the series.
In the meantime, I want to again absolve Eight from total responsibility. That is, there’s an extenuating circumstance that I think hinders the Daphne/Niles evolution… You see, with Jane Leeves pregnant and on maternity leave for part of the year, Daphne only appears in 19 of these 24 half-hours. And there’s no doubt that her four-week consecutive midseason absence, plus her limited usage in the months prior, effectively handicap the year’s ability to get a handle on how it intends to regularly use and depict her new relationship with Niles. Because after the early part of the season finally finishes extricating itself from the narrative trappings of Mel and Donny, the scripts are already contriving a way to get Daphne out the door… Eventually, it was decided that Leeves’ aforementioned delicate condition was way too obvious to ignore, and with the show needing an excuse to keep Daphne off-screen for a month, the best way to handle the situation, it seemed, was to connect the two: Daphne would disappear for four weeks because she’s gained a lot of weight and must attend a spa to recapture her lithe figure… Now, I’m of two minds here. I think the idea is broad, obvious, and kind of tacky. It’s a wink meant to telegraph to the audience Frasier‘s own self-awareness about this predicament — even though the series was usually above such posturing. On the other hand, I don’t envy the year for having to come up with a solution, and because it finds a roundabout way to explain the development via character (she’s overeating because of Niles) while progressing their relationship in the process — maybe unartfully, but nevertheless acceptably — I ultimately give the storyline a pass… As for the episodes without Daphne, the show doesn’t need her, but it tells us that it does. So, when she’s not around, Frasier feels like it’s incomplete… which is another, out-of-the-year’s-hands reason as to why, on a macro level, Season Eight disappoints.
But now it’s time for Eight to face some more serious charges. For once the maternity leave is all settled and Daphne returns, the year doesn’t improve — in fact, you’ll notice that not one of my ten highlighted entries below was broadcast after the well-regarded “Daphne Returns.” Why? Well… I think it goes back to another big reason that many fans draw a figurative “red line” between Seven and Eight: the staff turnover and the change in showrunners. Christopher Lloyd, who’d been around since the beginning, and his best writer, Joe Keenan, who’d had his name on many of the show’s finest scripts, both departed after Seven. So, Season Eight found itself with new Executive Producers — running the series together: Cheers showrunner Dan O’Shannon and former Wings showrunner Mark Reisman, two hilarious, talented scribes who both came on staff in Six and started being credited with teleplays in Seven. Newbies in their room included Eric Zicklin (Dharma & Greg, Stark Raving Mad, Younger), Gayle Abrams (Spin City, Stark Raving Mad, Gilmore Girls), Saladin K. Patterson (The Bernie Mac Show, Psych, The Big Bang Theory) and creative consultant Tom Reeder (Barney Miller, Cheers, Night Court). They joined returning scribes Rob Hanning, Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil, Jon Sherman, Lori Kirkland, and Bob Daily, along with part time consultants David Isaacs and David Lloyd (the latter of whom is credited this year with his last Frasier script). Now, as I’m sure you know, much is often made in the online Frasier fandom of the decline in quality during the three years for which O’Shannon called the shots. (Incidentally, Reisman left after Season Eight and only maintained a consulting credit for Nine.) But, again, I shy away from assigning culpability to anyone or anything, because I think the descent was natural and inevitable… At the same time, I also think there are tonal commonalities that link these three years — and separate them from Lloyd’s — thus guaranteeing that this season, even with the deck stacked against it, still lets Frasier down.
In fact, the year’s storytelling feels different right from the start. Not only are the characterizations inflated — particularly Frasier’s, whose pomposity is heightened within a seemingly mandated laugh-driven broadening — but there also continues to be even more episodic reliance on plot: either grand narrative maneuverings (like with Daphne and Niles), flashy stories conducive to a gimmicky structure (like “Sliding Frasiers”), or inherently comedic ideas — the Victory in Premise (see many below). In short, we’re moving away from MTM’s core of relatable, character-driven writing and into something less specific, more generically “sitcom.” And what’s being written eventually makes clear that how things are being written has changed, too. This, then, is our thesis: as evidenced by these aforementioned developments, Season Eight reveals that Frasier’s tone is no longer as rooted in character as it once was. If you’ll remember, I’ve praised Frasier, and cited it as an MTM descendant, because it wasn’t just the stories that were driven by (his) character, it was everything — the humor, the pace, the timbre. And even as the show moved away from its best year, Frasier remained drenched in Frasier… until now. Here, and especially in Nine and Ten, the show can still deliver stories ostensibly driven by character, but the writing itself is far more disconnected. It can be (and often is) funny, interesting, and enjoyable… but that metaphysical tone, which defined Frasier and was defined by Frasier, has been muted by this new staff’s weekly stories, their arc-minded pursuits, and the cast’s changing dynamics. This notion is ethereal and hard to explain, but it’s noticeable, and Eleven will make the case that Lloyd and Keenan have something to do with the difference…
Eight is unique among these post-line seasons, however, for the year has a higher baseline than, at least, Nine and Ten. Also, many of the qualities we’ll be discussing over the next two weeks are not yet fully ingrained in Eight’s own aesthetic, for the year seems to waffle on settling its updated identity. For instance, while I mentioned the broadening of characterizations above, I actually think character broadening is not a primary concern in these final years. Frankly, when it comes to the players, we’ll find more to discuss in the loosening of their depictions, as their established traits aren’t so much extreme’d for comedy as they are diluted inside a general characterization expansion, which aims to allow for more motivatable stories. These narrative tactics are also designed to help enable more emotional growth, via “arcs” for the regulars. But, again, that becomes clear later… Here in Eight, there’s a tension that exists between this very growth-directive, actualized by earnest, depth-seeking arc-driven stories that purport to develop the characters (but are so ensconced in their narrative circumstances that they neither get their laughs nor do anything organic for their slowly diluting players), and the logistically dubious, laugh-driven broadening that merely uses character as a jumping off point for increasingly strained narratives (while heightening them and the show in the process) — a modus operandi that seems to buckle under the former school of thought’s objectives following Daphne’s May return. At this time, the year appears to abandon its comedically broad notions in deference to both heavier, dramatic plots that are supposed to tell us things about the characters (like the justifiably maligned “A Day In May”) and a mini-arc about Frasier’s mid-life quest for meaning, which is first planted in an early installment but is hardly touched upon again…
…Well, not until the season begins its culmination to a love triangle with Frasier, his old crush Lana (played by the Emmy-winning Jean Smart, who guested once in Seven) and Patricia Clarkson as Lana’s friend Claire. Yes, another blasted triangle! These triangle episodes don’t completely gel, because they’re too geared around their story beats to actually earn our emotional investment, and they therefore don’t seem appropriate or relevant for the Frasier character and his journey… But it’s always a welcome proposition to delve into Frasier’s inner workings and it will lead to one of the richest, most rewarding installments of the O’Shannon era. (Spoiler alert: I’m thinking of “Don Juan In Hell”; stay tuned…) And, as will always be the case, the goals that these talented writers have set out to achieve — no matter who’s running the figurative ship — are noble and appreciated. In fact, Season Eight — back now in its Tuesday at 9:00 slot (where it was NBC’s only hit that evening) — was still nominated for an Emmy as the year’s Outstanding Comedy. (It’s the last time it would be acknowledged in this category.) And, to once again cushion the weight of my critique, let’s all keep in mind: Frasier’s characters were so well-defined within its first season that the show can easily withstand a lot of metaphorical turbulence. There definitely won’t be as many classics as we saw in past years and the classics we will find won’t be as shiny or as valuable as those past gems… But I’m confident that if you love this series like I do, you’re absolutely able to come away satisfied. You just have to know where to look… To this point, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 170: “And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon (II)” (Aired: 10/24/00)
Daphne bristles as Niles agrees to temporarily fulfill his obligations to Mel.
Written by David Angell & Peter Casey | Directed by Pamela Fryman
As the second half of a two-part season premiere originally broadcast in a single hour, this installment is the last written by any of Frasier‘s three creators, who remained credited for all 264 outings despite far less involvement in the crafting of each individual show. But, seeing as the series was making such an important pivot — a new coupling, a new pair of showrunners — it’s fitting that Angell & Casey returned to help launch the year. How does it stack up? Well, although both half-hours contend with a lot of expected narrative drivel (especially in Part I, which has the innately difficult job of concluding the RV sequence, and a not-so-well motivated plot-driven scene between Frasier and Donny), Part II benefits from more revealing character moments, even in the hyperbolic sequence where Niles and Daphne blame Frasier, who exhibits a broader (and, specifically here, more pompous) portrayal, for the drama surrounding their recent romantic choices. Ultimately, it’s a better start for the year than you’d expect.
02) Episode 171: “The Bad Son” (Aired: 10/31/00)
Frasier uses his father to get a date with a woman who works at a retirement home.
Written by Rob Hanning | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Many times when I craft these lists, there’s only eight or nine installments that make their inclusions a must, leaving a few average entries to compete for the grand “promotion.” This week, “The Bad Son” is one lucky middler. It’s here because it’s generally amiable. For instance, the A-story with Frasier and Martin works because it touches upon the show’s original thesis — their relationship — a theme reflected in the title (a play on the pilot, “The Good Son”). Additionally, while the Niles/Daphne subplot isn’t terribly substantial, it offers us the rare chance, in Season Eight that is, to see them in a less narratively cumbersome story, which is fascinating in and of itself, that also has time for congenial comedy, too. It’s weaker than past years, but not yet troubling. (By the way, this was the first entry produced for this new era.)
03) Episode 173: “Taking Liberties” (Aired: 11/21/00)
Frasier hires a butler and Daphne nears the end of her rope with Mel.
Written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
The first third of Season Eight is relatively rough going (even with the decent premiere), for the show isn’t living up to past standards and we’re trying to adjust to what the new baseline of quality is so that we can find places to maximize our enjoyment. In Eight’s first “trimester,” this offering stands out as being the most memorable for several reasons. One, the primary story of Frasier hiring a butler, played by Victor Garber, is a terrific manifestation of a known character trait: Frasier’s obsession with status. Two, the butler is also made to intersect with the subplot, the more emotionally driven continuation of the year’s Daphne/Niles arc, which, Three, takes a genuinely surprising turn when Mel shows up at one of Frasier’s parties and her storyline is brought to a merciful end. Thus, this is a cohesive, efficient entry — with character laughs in support of its multi-pronged narrative appeal. And because it’s the best episode that’s also the most undeniably born of this eighth season and its own particulars, it’s my MVE. (Not an easy choice though; nothing this week shines like gold — only silver. This one’s just untarnished.)
04) Episode 175: “The New Friend” (Aired: 12/05/00)
Frasier maintains his friendship with Roz’s new boyfriend — even after they split.
Written by Bob Daily | Directed by Scott Ellis
Victory in Premise. For those who may not be regular readers, “Victory in Premise” is a term I’ve coined on this blog to describe sitcom episodes that employ a worthwhile idea, and typically derive all their merit merely from our basic collective fascination with the utilization of said concept. (Sometimes it’s a great story for a character, while other times it’s simply a funny, unique notion that’s impossible not to like.) Also, the execution is usually not as strong as the premise (which is why the term often seems derogatory), and that’s the case in this otherwise well-liked installment, which foreshadows the era’s elevation of Roz (we’ll see more of this next week) but otherwise coasts by on the amusing idea of Frasier secretly refusing to end his friendship with Roz’s ex (Gary Cole). Fortunately though, Frasier does behave in-character.
05) Episode 178: “Cranes Unplugged” (Aired: 01/16/01)
Frasier tries to connect with Freddy by taking him camping with Martin.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Sheldon Epps
If you’ve read through some of our coverage on past shows, you’ll know that I’m typically no fan of kids in the situation comedy. But I must admit that when it comes to Frasier, I have a general affinity for the Freddy offerings, because I think they’re vital in the well-rounded exploration of our title character, who only gets about one chance a season to convince us, the audience, that he’s not a terrible father. There are some sweet moments that come packaged to these outings, but this is always a comically inclined series, so an episode like this one, which uses the relationship between father and son (and another father and son — Frasier and Martin) as its emotional core, has to make sure that it satisfies in several ways — with laughs, especially. It does. Also, surprisingly, the Daphne/Niles/Roz subplot is fairly amusing, as well. Solid.
06) Episode 179: “Motor Skills” (Aired: 01/30/01)
Frasier and Niles enroll and then struggle in an auto repair night class.
Story by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil | Teleplay by Eric Zicklin | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Okay, this is an entry with a complicated appeal and its inclusion may be controversial. I celebrate it for its strengths as much as I chide it for undermining the series‘ strengths. It employs a simply hilarious Victorious Premise: the two intellectual Crane brothers trying to learn the practical ins and outs of auto repair. And while I’d argue that the execution actually does mine a significant amount of humor from the characters (based on how this situation inverts their personas), there’s a cartoony bigness to what the story demands of the players that’s, frankly, alienating. In this regard, it hews to the year’s aforementioned vein of broadened episodes, which crusade for laughs at the expense of truth. (Also, the subplot with Martin and Roz is completely un-worthwhile, and lowers the excursion’s general credit.) But in a season that’s all below par, I’d rather an outing swing hard (and half succeed) than not even make it to the tee.
07) Episode 180: “The Show Must Go Off” (Aired: 02/06/01)
Frasier and Niles mount a one-man show for a terrible Shakespearean actor.
Written by Mark Reisman | Directed by Robert H. Egan
Derek Jacobi won an Emmy award for his work in this offering, in which he plays the Crane brothers’ boyhood idol, a once Shakespearean stage actor who’s now a cult figure from a sci-fi TV series. (Yes, the Shatner allusions are anything but subtle.) After deciding to mount a one-man show to present his talents to their culturally elite friends, the Cranes realize that not only is he a terrible actor — but he’s always been one. It’s an interesting commentary on the illusions of youth that could be great fodder for the two central characters, but it’s instead played broadly and for obvious laughs, making it much more led by its story than I’d like — under the same umbrella as “Motor Skills.” However, the same rationale persists: in this season where the bold, as long as it doesn’t completely bomb, is more valued than the mediocre, this remains a standout. (Also, The Avengers‘ Patrick Macnee appears as Jacobi’s character’s father.) Loud and brash.
08) Episode 182: “Hungry Heart” (Aired: 02/20/01)
Daphne comes to terms with her recent weight gain while Frasier tries to save Kenny’s marriage.
Written by Gayle Abrams | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
This is another episode for which I have complicated, mixed feelings. I’m not so sold on the Kenny storyline, which seems lighthearted at face value, but actually has deeper implications that paint neither Kenny, this recurring presence to whom we’re supposed to have some affinity, nor his wife, played by Illeana Douglas, in either a flattering or believably nuanced light. However, I like that the writers are now committing to a tactic that will remove Daphne from the show for a few weeks while the actor goes on maternity leave. (You can read more of my thoughts on this decision in the above seasonal commentary.) And while it’s a bit tacky and big (no pun intended) here, I think there’s evident humor that the show shrewdly doesn’t miss. Also, I appreciate the attempt to bring in some of the series’ trademark farcical sensibilities. They don’t work now as well as they did in past installments, but they’re gratefully acknowledged.
09) Episode 183: “Hooping Cranes” (Aired: 02/27/01)
Niles becomes a hero when he makes a half-court shot at a basketball game.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Yet another offering best summed up as a Victory in Premise, I nevertheless think that the disparity between the obvious humor in the idea and the actual laughs gleaned from its execution is relatively small — thereby making this one of the year’s best showcases en masse. (Also, it does better on behalf of character than some of the above.) Now, it does fall during Daphne’s stay at the weight loss spa, but we don’t miss her so much here because the big comedic centerpiece (which occurs in Act One, mind you) is set elsewhere — on location at a basketball game — and because the narrative is so focused on the three Crane men, which is more than enough to hold our focus. Naturally, Niles making a half-court shot is an amusing beat, while Frasier’s expected jealousy is as well-deployed as ever. Meanwhile, the teleplay has other great bits, too — like the seat changing gag, which helps fill out its earned appeal.
10) Episode 187: “Daphne Returns” (Aired: 05/01/01)
Niles’ relationship with Daphne is threatened when she returns from her weight loss spa.
Written by Dan O’Shannon & Bob Daily | Directed by Pamela Fryman
As mentioned above, I’m not featuring any episodes on this list beyond the point where Leeves returns, for then the year launches into its arc-minded interests with Frasier (and Lana and Claire). However, the excursion that features Daphne’s awaited comeback — with its very plaintive title — is certainly among the year’s most memorable, for not only does it reunite the show’s entire ensemble, which is necessary for Frasier‘s regular long-term functioning, but it also finally grants us movement in the Niles/Daphne relationship. Lemonade is made from lemons as the entry tries to tie her weight gain (and now loss) to her romance with Niles and his feelings for her. This is smart (and necessary). But really, we’re just glad there’s progression in the preordained story, and now the show can resume using them properly (well, theoretically)…
Other episodes that merit mention here include: the depth-seeking (but laugh lacking) “Frasier’s Edge,” the narratively intriguing (but not depth-revealing) “Sliding Frasiers,” the farcically poised (but characterization contorting) “It Takes Two To Tangle,” the doubly well-premised (but doubly ill-written) “The Wizard And Roz,” and the memorably climactic (but otherwise unmemorable) “A Passing Fancy.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Frasier goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Nine! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!