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.
If most fans find Season Eight a comedown in quality from Seven, then Nine is often viewed as a further descent. Now, one might argue that if we’re already braced for a decline, then nothing is more disappointing than Eight, for it’s the largest fall; Nine, therefore, may be less enjoyable, but it’s also less unsatisfying, too… Personally, though, I think Nine’s further reduction in baseline standards — the quality that defines the year in its most average installments — is significant enough to warrant a commensurate response. In fact, I find Nine to be the most generally mediocre of the entire run, for while (spoiler alert), Ten offers lower lows than Nine, it also offers higher highs. (Stay tuned…) And as for Nine’s position in relation to Eight, although I think Nine actually has a greater volume of installments that comport themselves as gems, it’s only because of this weakened baseline that a clearer episodic hierarchy is formed. To this point, one thing that can be more easily claimed about Nine is that it offers a truer look at the state of Frasier during this particular era, for unlike Eight, Nine can’t blame any of its problems on a forced maternity leave. Also, it doesn’t have to contend with the prior year’s stylistic struggle (where stories were either earnestly designed for growth or unapologetically designed for guffaws — often, and in either case, at the expense of established characterizations). As a result, a lot of what we discussed last week is officially made evident here; in addition to the loss of a character-rooted tonal identity (linked, it seems, to several key and aforementioned staff members) and a resulting increase in “typical sitcom” stories (the kind we’d find on any series — not specific to Frasier or its characters), I think the new status quo is best represented by the very thing that most breeds this relative mediocrity and inspires disappointment: Niles and Daphne.
In Nine, we finally get a chance to see how their characters are going to exist within this new narrative construct. And the results… well, I’m afraid they’re not up to past standards. You see, as mentioned last time, one of the overarching issues in this era is the loosening of the characterizations — it’s not so much broadening, for they’re not merely becoming more extreme. (This does happen in certain stories to certain players, but not uniquely or exponentially. That is, the degree of heightening between the Frasier Crane of Season One and Five is probably the same as between the Frasier Crane of Season Five and Nine. The difference now is simply that heightening, by definition, only goes in one direction and so things are bigger than ever. Also, now that the show’s tone is no longer as rooted in his characterization, his depiction doesn’t have that to fall back upon as support. So, you see, broadening by itself isn’t the main problem here, nor the biggest concern.) No, the characters aren’t becoming more outrageous versions of who they are; instead, they’re loosening to adopt more, and less specific traits — so that they can become adaptable to more stories. We see it most in the couple. Take a look, first, at Niles. Although the show has and continues to prioritize his usage and development over Daphne’s, many fans decry discrepancies with his characterization in this era: he’s blander. Yet, note the change isn’t that he’s becoming more of what we know him to be — fussy, neurotic, particular, etc. — but rather, less of what we know him to be, and without an explanation or traceable motivation beyond the sheer fact that the weekly stories are now forced to reckon with him being one half of a couple. In this way, he’s restricted by the relationship because the show doesn’t know how to maintain his definition when it has to use him in this manner.
However, I find his problems more situational; as a Crane, he’s better supported (than Daphne) within the show’s design to maintain his gravitas and prominence. So, despite the fact that Niles’ best moments are behind him — one reason that these final years can’t compete with their predecessors — there are occasions, often opposite Frasier, where his characterization remains clear. Daphne, on the other hand, will never have a clear characterization again. But I suppose this is because she wasn’t as well-built as Niles in the first place… Previously defined by her perspective and upbringing, she was primarily used only in relation to others, and therefore had to find her comedy in rare moments of tangential individuality. In this current construct, she becomes Niles’ permanent second unit and finally loses most of her distinction. It’s hard to say why she’s so diluted, but my guess is that is goes back to the principle of loosening. By opening up Daphne’s personality, she becomes more malleable for story, and with Niles himself now significantly less specific, the show is then better able to throw at them, on the micro scale, whatever weekly plot can serve as a sufficient B-story, and on the macro scale, whatever arc is necessary to keep them seemingly engaged as “evolving” characters. However, without strong, sustained definition, concocting new stories actually becomes harder, for it’s more difficult to motivate legitimate conflict between the two. Accordingly, the show has to turn to external sources to spark drama — like the midseason arrival of the now-recurring Millicent Martin as Mrs. Moon, a one-dimensional presence designed to secure laughs and create tension for the lovebirds. Frankly, the broadness of her depiction doesn’t bother me as much as it does others — her limited definition looks okay against Daphne’s lack of one — yet she’s a story concern, and although Mrs. Moon is supposed to help the show write for Niles/Daphne, she doesn’t actually solve their problems: Niles remains restricted, Daphne remains diluted, and now the series doesn’t even have to use their individual definitions for story. So, Gertie’s a miss.
Meanwhile, the coupling has larger, rippling effects on the ensemble, for with those two now either functioning in story as one (maybe they’re separated if Niles is to be with Frasier, but that doesn’t happen as often as it should — to Nine’s detriment) or paired together in their own narratives that simply can’t make good use of the rest of the ensemble, the storytelling changes. Thus, Nine becomes more reliant on a multi-narrative episodic structure — that is, it has more offerings that feature two (or even three) plots, so that every member of the regular cast is serviced. This is a change from early seasons, where any character — usually Roz or Daphne — could be sidelined if a premise had no legitimate use for them. Now, with Niles and Daphne only really existing for their coupledom (even as it’s still imperative for him to be featured well in every episode), the show is forced to compensate by doing more with the other characters — particularly Martin and Roz. Regarding the former, this year puts him back to work as a part-time building security guard, which exposes him to new story. Regarding the latter, she gets a regular boyfriend (who, oddly, only physically appears once) and becomes more involved in the weekly plots — going between either Frasier’s A-stories or Niles’ subplots with Daphne (which often need reinforcements). Generally, though, both Martin and Roz are allowed to become funnier here, for the scripts now need them both more than ever, and while Frasier obviously gives them each better stuff when the show itself is better, I appreciate the unique focus that this era grants them. As for Frasier, last year became centered around his arc-driven quest for true love, but that goal is largely abandoned following the opening two-parter, which wonderfully caps everything explored last season — and more satisfyingly than anything from last season!
Once this is cleared, though, Nine becomes more episodic in its concerns for Frasier… well, until his half-motivated anti-climactic hook-up with the now-elevated Roz, which occurs in the year’s penultimate excursion and isn’t, in these few episodes, a terrible shock. It’s an extraneous narrative development not driven by character, yes, but it doesn’t feel out-of-place given either one’s seasonal usage (particularly Roz’s), the year’s gimmicky not-so-character-rooted results, and what these scripts seemed to tell us they cared most about over the course of Seasons Eight and Nine: character “growth” that’s not so much born from character as it is from story that looks like it’s good for character. (Also, with hindsight, the intentions during this era are made clearer by what we know of Season Ten; again, stay tuned…) Speaking of scripts, before I get to the list, here’s our weekly rundown of scribes: showrunner and executive producer O’Shannon, Hanning (now an executive producer too), Johnson & Marcil, Sherman, Kirkland, Abrams, Zicklin, Daily, Patterson, new hire Heide Perlman (Cheers, Sibs, Kirstie), and creative consultants Levine & Isaacs (who are credited with one script below), Lloyd, Reisman, and Reeder… So, as mentioned above, Season Nine may be below average given Frasier’s own established standards, but I must resort to an old cliché from around these parts: it’s still a cut above most sitcoms. Truly, I’m able to enjoy Frasier‘s ninth season with more relish than the best years of some other good-but-not-great series covered here, simply because its foundation will never not be more solid than most. And even though I don’t think there’s much in Nine to be called an absolute series classic, there are definite gems based on what this later era offers. Thus, 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 Nine. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 194: “Don Juan In Hell (II)” (Aired: 09/25/01)
The women of Frasier’s past help him work through his relationship issues.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
As the second half of the two-part season premiere (which originally aired in a single hour-long block), I consider this entry to be the surprisingly strong conclusion to last year’s well-intentioned effort to dive deeper into Frasier’s mid-life romantic crisis. Although the idea of Frasier being tormented by his psyche, represented by the women of his past — most notably Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth, always a treat), Diane (Shelley Long), Nanette (played here by Dina Waters), and his mother (Rita Wilson) — is itself a derivative gimmick that doesn’t make use of the rest of the show’s ensemble, it’s inherently good for character (being that he’s a psychiatrist), and since the episode actually comes to some conclusions about Frasier’s loneliness, providing answers for the questions it poses, Part II is as revealing as it intends to be. (Note: Part II is the one I’m talking about now; Part I has to deal with Claire and Lana and all that Season Eight triangle mumbo jumbo.) In fact, this might be the last time there’s an installment that tells us something new about Frasier Crane. And because the laughs are more than plenty — thanks to dynamos like Neuwirth and Long, both of whom were blessed on Cheers with exceptionally well-defined roles — this is a terrific success, if not for Frasier, than for Frasier, whom the series longs to explore in such depth (even though it’s getting harder to write him with as much depth). So, this is my pick for the year’s MVE. (Also, I’d like to mention that this premiere is dedicated to one of the series’ three co-creators, David Angell, who perished with his wife on 9/11.)
02) Episode 195: “The First Temptation Of Daphne” (Aired: 10/02/01)
Daphne invades one of Niles’ patients’ privacy.
Written by Gayle Abrams | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Even in this season that can simply be defined as one of the series’ most mediocre, the show’s ever noble intentions, including on behalf of character, remain endearing, even in good-but-not-great outings like such. Frankly, what I like about this installment — it’s not the goofy Frasier/Martin subplot that some enjoy — is that Niles and Daphne get thrown an episodic story that’s not like so many of their other seasonal plots, for actually, it utilizes a conflict that’s born from Daphne’s own character flaws, which are something we don’t see a lot of in the remaining seasons (where she’s drained of definition). This is the most rewarding kind of drama (character-based), and I wish this type of narrative was used more frequently, because it’s unique to who they are as individuals — using his profession, and her neuroses to craft a specific, motivated story. Additionally, Roz gets some funny moments alongside Daphne — a sign of her increased usage in Season Nine — making this an excursion that, while not itself spectacular, embodies what the year does best and what the script does better than the rest of the year’s.
03) Episode 198: “Room Full Of Heroes” (Aired: 10/30/01)
On Halloween, Frasier insists everyone come dressed as a personal hero.
Written by Eric Zicklin | Directed by Wil Shriner
A Victory in Premise, this low-concept outing (i.e. an entry with a simple plot — typically my preference in a sitcom, for then the characters, as opposed to the story turns, are more likely to drive the action and define the comedic beats) benefits from getting all the regulars in the same room at the same time… something that was harder to do last season when one member of the ensemble’s screen time (understandably) had to be limited. As a result of its design and its intentions, this episode both reveals how Nine is better poised for success than its predecessor and how the offering is automatically easier to enjoy than many of its contemporaries, for it isn’t able to rely on anything but the characters and their relationships. Oh, sure, the gaudy Halloween theme and the flashy costumes do provide some jokey humor, but they also tell us something about the characters (or, aim to, anyway). And that’s sublime. An MVE contender.
04) Episode 199: “Bla-Z Boy” (Aired: 11/06/01)
Frasier accidentally destroys Martin’s beloved chair.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Robert H. Egan
Among the most well-liked episodes of the season (and one of the few, along with the above and my chosen MVE, that comes the closest to being regarded as a series classic), I think this is another one of those installments that’s much better in theory than in practice. Yes, it’s another Victory in Premise — an offering whose narrative is so appealing that the teleplay doesn’t have to work as hard as it should to seem worthwhile. In this case, I think the idea is better than the execution, for I don’t think the script ever gets to spark off any laughs that aren’t already baked into the outlined plot (or the lightweight, but amenable, subplot that once again shoehorns Roz into a Niles/Daphne B-story). However, the idea, by definition, is a great character-based notion — rooted in the weighty relationship between Frasier and Martin (which the series initially designed to be its most important, before Niles expanded it) and predicated on one of the iconic symbols of their differences: Martin’s chair, which falls off the balcony in a memorable sight gag that, for sheer boldness, remains a high point of Season Nine. Another MVE contender — not as delectable as some may have you believe, but tasty for Nine’s kitchen.
05) Episode 204: “Mother Load (I)” (Aired: 01/08/02)
Niles and Daphne’s plans to cohabitate are paused by a visit from her mom and Simon.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Here, Nine complicates the predictable next step in Daphne and Niles’ (so far, boring) relationship with the return of Millicent Martin as the now-recurring Mrs. Moon, Daphne’s harridan of a mother, whom we haven’t seen since her daughter’s aborted wedding to Donny at the end of Seven. (She pops back up with Anthony LaPaglia — he won an Emmy for his work here — as Daphne’s obnoxious brother Simon, last seen in early Eight.) Fundamentally, I don’t like that this big development entry turns outward to help make Niles and Daphne interesting, but because the guest characters are well-defined and easily comedic (and the B-story with Frasier and Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Cam Winston is a hoot), there’s no reason now to complain about the outing alone — it’s a bite-size sample of Nine as a whole, yet funnier than the baseline. Yes, the extremeness of both Simon and Mrs. Moon is grating, especially in comparison to the others, who are becoming less big. And it is bothersome that, unlike last time, their inclusions are motivated by nothing other than the misguided attempt to shake-up the series by adding her to the recurring cast (so that Niles and Daphne no longer carry the burden of having to motivate conflict). But she does provide a temporary solution to a problem (note: not a viable permanent one, though), and this first half-hour doesn’t give us time to cavil.
06) Episode 207: “The Proposal” (Aired: 02/05/02)
Niles prepares to propose marriage to Daphne.
Written by Rob Hanning | Directed by Wil Shriner
As with the above, this is a development-led excursion that’s constructed to conclude with Niles proposing marriage to Daphne. However, to its credit, it’s a terrifically enjoyable half-hour and trucks along with a consistent level of humor. (As with “Room Full Of Heroes” and “Bla-Z Boy,” this is also one of the most competitive contenders for the year’s MVE — taking some of the particulars of Season Nine and using them as advantageously as possible.) While I don’t think anything tops the first scene in which Niles and Frasier are mistaken for a couple when the Crane men go shopping for an engagement ring, the well-plotted story continues to provide fine laughs, as Niles’ plan to inebriate Martin before asking him to distract Mrs. Moon reveals a surprise — Frasier was conceived out of wedlock — that allows the performers to have some unexpected fun. This is an example of the year’s storytelling being shown in a more favorable light. (Also, Dan Bucatinsky guests in the first scene and Wolfgang Puck appears as himself.)
07) Episode 208: “Wheels Of Fortune” (Aired: 02/26/02)
Frasier doubts the sincerity of his grifting former brother-in-law’s religious conversion.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Jerry Zaks
If I weren’t determined to stay faithful to my premise of selecting ten episodes per season (thereby giving readers a “buffet” of different kinds of entries they might enjoy), you probably wouldn’t have seen this installment here, for although it’s credited to the talented and esteemed duo of Levine & Isaacs, the Cheers veterans whose last joint effort was Season Five’s classic “Room Service,” this particular outing isn’t as stellar a showing as their prior contributions. But it’s a memorable one, anyway, for Michael Keaton guest stars as Frasier’s former brother-in-law (Lilith’s half-brother), a con-man who shows up in a wheelchair and professes to now be a changed born-again Christian. The climactic sequence, big even by Frasier‘s ninth season standards, has Frasier pulling the man out of his chair in front of a congregation. It’s a flashy moment that seems more story-sparked than anything else… but I suppose it’s a funny idea, and I can take the leap regarding Frasier’s mania, if only because Grammer pulls it off so well.
08) Episode 209: “Three Blind Dates” (Aired: 03/05/02)
Martin, Roz, and Niles & Daphne each scheme to set Frasier up on a blind date.
Written by Gayle Abrams | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Structured in a writer-friendly way that allows the script to treat each sequence as its own individual sketch, this offering risks what every offering with multiple plots risks: unevenness, as some stories (or scenes) may be better than others. Here, everything’s united under the thematic and narrative umbrella of the regulars trying to set up Frasier on blind dates. Niles’ attempt to have Frasier meet his and Daphne’s chosen match (Bellamy Young) leads to a physical bit in a bookstore that’s an amusing, if forgettable, trifle, and Martin’s arranged blind date at the end (with Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) is another low-concept amiable scenario… before Frasier has his expected own meet-cute, with the woman from the bookstore. Both work fine. The real treat, however, is the second of the three acts, as the outstandingly funny Allison Janney (The West Wing, Mom) plays Roz’s choice: an artist who claims that a painter whom Frasier reveres ripped off her work. There are surprise laughs in this sneakily riotous sequence — fresh, lively.
09) Episode 211: “Deathtrap” (Aired: 04/02/02)
Frasier and Niles make a stunning discovery at their old childhood home.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Mixed feelings here. I think this has value for character, but is burdened by the plot and how it’s utilized. You see, the very idea of Frasier and Niles thinking they’ve stumbled upon a human skull and an unsolved murder indicates the type of outrageous storytelling that gives credence to all those charges of broadening, especially when the actors adopt a stylized performative quality that aims to camp up the drama, yet instead highlights how ill-suited for Frasier the plot is. This requires many leaps that, by definition, aren’t well rooted in character. However, the explanation is character-rooted — the skull comes from the boys’ childhood production of Hamlet (a beat telegraphed at the start — I’m not sure how I feel about this; on one hand, it grants us license to laugh along with the absurdity, but on the other, it cuts the joke) — and because the story lets Frasier and Niles interact one-on-one for an extended period of time (a rarity in Nine), it becomes more of a character piece than its premise would indicate. (Also, the subplots are thematically connected, which is appreciated.) Bold — more like Ten than Nine.
10) Episode 216: “Moons Over Seattle” (Aired: 05/21/02)
Niles brings Daphne’s father over to the states for a reunion with her mom.
Written by Bob Daily | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Building to a mini-cliffhanger — but one far less ostentatious than either Eight’s or Ten’s — of Daphne and Niles deciding to elope, Nine’s finale nevertheless inflates all the “big event” expectations that this otherwise story-led season has suggested by giving us a rather small affair that denies other suggested big developments (like Mrs. Moon’s reunion with her husband, played by Brian Cox). It’s actually a satisfying anti-climax, for the installment delivers on behalf of its laughs and doesn’t ask us to take any story leaps that seem antithetical to what we’ve come to believe with the characters, especially because the heavy focus on Daphne’s family, ordinarily an exaggerated and off-putting decision, actually puts her at the fore while bestowing more concentrated definition. Also, the entry handles the prior week’s (mostly unnecessary) Frasier/Roz tryst with a brilliant, hysterical little subplot in which she rates his performance on a coffee shop comment card. Not only is this amusing and unique, but it brings down the temperature on their relationship and lets us know that we shouldn’t be concerned (for now)…
Other episodes that merit mention here include: the well-intentioned, but hardly comedic, “The Return Of Martin Crane,” and “Cheerful Goodbyes,” a gimmicky installment that features Cliff, Norm, Carla, Paul, Phil, and Walt Twitchell from Cheers — originally broadcast just in time for NBC’s 75th anniversary and Cheers‘ upcoming 20th — but doesn’t do much for any of Frasier‘s characters, even (and particularly) Frasier himself.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Frasier goes to…..
“Don Juan In Hell (II)”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Ten! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!