Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our coverage on the best of Frasier (1994-2004, NBC), a Peacock Network staple during their ’90s Renaissance and one of my favorite multi-cam classics! The entire series is available on DVD and streaming services.
Psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane lives with his father, an injured retired cop, while dispensing mental health advice on a Seattle radio show. Frasier stars KELSEY GRAMMER as Dr. Frasier Crane, DAVID HYDE PIERCE as Dr. Niles Crane, JOHN MAHONEY as Martin Crane, JANE LEEVES as Daphne Moon, and PERI GILPIN as Roz Doyle.
I call Season Two Frasier’s best. If I had to pick Frasier’s worst, I’d probably cite Ten. As discussed, Nine is the most mediocre, but Ten has higher highs and lower lows (despite the continually declining baseline standard, of course). These two years are often linked together as the show’s weakest — sometimes alongside Eight (yet because I think that year was torn in two separate aesthetic directions, I like to make a distinction). So, let’s get a quick refresher. As Season Nine’s characterizations loosened to make room for different, less original, and less character-driven stories, the show continued to define the restricted Niles and the diluted Daphne by both the narrative developments punctuating their relationship (like the proposal) and the one-joke external conflict that came from the broadly depicted Gertrude Moon. But with those two regulars no longer as poised as they once were for comedic superiority, the year took the opportunity to rely more upon Martin, and in an interesting turn, Roz, who ended the season having an anti-climactic, but only moderately ill-handled, single sexual encounter with Frasier. (Given Roz’s enhanced usage and how those writers seemed to regard Frasier’s relationships — as one of the only ways to explore his emotionality — this wasn’t a poorly motivated surprise. Even if it was story-based, narratively gaudy, and a development that neither seemed necessary or conducive to character riches, it was born of the show’s new story-led, as opposed to character-led, tonal conceits, and therefore made sense within the context of that year.) Meanwhile, after an eighth season that strived for an introspective look at Frasier Crane — which finally came in Nine’s two-part premiere — the remainder of the ninth year took a more episodic, less focused approach to its storytelling and projection of character, even though the fact remained: in this era, Frasier is defining its players on how it can use them in story.
I’m not really referring here to the trivially episodic (and occasionally unmotivated) plots that the past few years employed to give the entire cast something to do on a weekly basis (another side effect of the Niles/Daphne pairing), but rather to the larger arcs that the show foisted upon its regulars, regardless of how these pre-determined beats either featured or arose from character. We saw this at the end of Eight with the plot-heavy love triangle, and again in Nine, with both the bland Niles/Daphne material and the gaudy, quick Frasier/Roz tryst… And, now we see it even more in Ten, for although the show sort of concedes a certain defeat on behalf of the ensemble’s primary coupling — no longer giving them big story beyond the developments in the premiere (marriage) and finale (ousting Gertrude and planning to conceive) — and they therefore don’t disappoint as they did in Nine, there are other places where the year pushes lumbering narrative under the pretenses of character growth or exploration, when really the characterizations have either been mitigated for the plot demands or nullified due to the ongoing duress under which this type of storytelling — the combination of episodic triviality and arc-minded heaviness — has crushed the players and their definitions. Now, to avoid being hyperbolic, I must remind that this is Frasier and its scripts have more integrity than most shows’; and with the possible exception of Daphne, every regular’s voice remains generally intact (situational missteps, like with the increasingly less extreme Niles, notwithstanding)… even if the way they exist in their selected stories obfuscates their otherwise solid definitions, and in some cases, threatens to damage how they’ll exist going forward.
There’s a distinction, then, between a three-episode arc in which Niles has heart surgery — a heavy-handed chance for the series to be indulgent in mining pathos from the circumstantial drama, but with neither humor-based nor character-rooted riches in justification — and the entire back half of the year’s ham-fisted, unoriginal and completely unsurprising attempt to give Frasier another recurring love interest in the form of Julia (Felicity Huffman), a cold financial reporter who joins KACL and with whom Frasier – gasp – has an antagonistic rapport. The Niles scenario isn’t character-driven or character-revealing, yet it doesn’t threaten anyone’s definition. The Julia arc… well, that looks like it could inflict some harm… First, though, I’ll mention the good. It means we see more of the station and the folks there — Gil, Noel (who participates in one of the series’ funniest episodes, “Star Mitzvah”), Bulldog, and Kenny — and after several years of minimal time spent at KACL, I’m glad it’s back in prominence (especially given the current state of Daphne and Niles). Also, the Julia arc launches in an enjoyable entry, “The Harassed,” which isn’t able to throw us off the scent from the inevitable course the story will take, but is able to surprise us and offer comedic delights within its own 22-minutes. Julia’s last episode will do the same. (But that’s next season; stay tuned.) So, now, the not-so-good… The story is plotted in a paint-by-numbers manner, with Frasier behaving as any character might in this construct and with little color afforded to the execution. What’s more, the arc is revealed to be a means to an unearned dramatic cliffhanger, in which Roz, who may or may not harbor feelings for Frasier, offers him an ultimatum: “her or me.” (Her objective is intentionally nebulous, yet unappealingly so, because unless the show is hereafter going to commit to Roz having a full-fledged romantic love for Frasier — which seems convenient, contrived, and ill-advised — this is gratuitous, emotionally manipulative, and not character-driven.)
Yikes. This is unmotivated story drama that screams to us about how it’s exploring these players’ dark depths, is progressing their relationships, and is stemming from their definitions, when really this all seems, again, to have a narrative impetus: giving Frasier a (clichéd) antagonistic romance that crescendoes at year’s end and forms another — another (after Season Six’s and Season Eight’s) — triangle. What’s more, the arc makes little use of the regulars’ definitions, doesn’t seem justified even by their preceding actions, and threatens to permanently keep them in this generic, undefined, story-led mode forever — whether he stays with Julia or, as is more likely, sides with Roz, either romantically or platonically. (And if it’s the latter, could the show, and she especially, ever come back from such overwrought tripe in a way that acknowledges what happened without having to stay in that false emotional space? Seems unlikely.) Ultimately, it’s disappointing, and reveals just how dangerous these story concerns have become for Frasier, which also can no longer say it’s tonally dripping in its character’s voice. Fortunately, Season Eleven was poised for change, but we’ll talk about that next week… In the meantime, Season Ten — which is led by showrunner Dan O’Shannon and has the same staff as last season, with only Patricia Breen (Big Love, Suburgatory, Divorce) and Danita Jones (Sabrina: The Teenage Witch) stepping in for the departed Rob Hanning and Gayle Abrams — houses, obviously, the show’s lowest moments. But it’s also got more gems — see below — than Nine. And, again, because Frasier itself implies a certain level of excellence, even the series’ worst year is going to be superior to the worst (and best) of other sitcoms. Adjust your expectations, as always, and you’ll be A-okay… So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Ten. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 217: “The Ring Cycle” (Aired: 09/24/02)
Niles and Daphne must marry several more times after their secret elopement.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Couching a big development in the season’s opener is an appreciated first step at mitigating the potentially cumbersome story-led nature of the plot, which fulfills the functional objective of finally marrying Niles and Daphne, for it’s an inverse of the usual structure, where a gaudy narrative occurrence is reserved for a year’s end — not for its start. In this arrangement, the story goal can’t impose upon character aims; it’s dealt with quickly, and the show can thereafter move on with its ambitions. And, fortunately, this particular script totally deflates and mocks the grandness of the development by both knocking it out within the first five minutes, and then by taking its episodic plot from the comedic notion of the couple having to repeat their vows several times over — each turn a little less special than the one before. So, with laughs, and a sharp design that seems to recognize what’s most important, this premiere begins Ten smartly.
02) Episode 218: “Enemy At The Gate” (Aired: 10/01/02)
Frasier challenges a $2 parking garage fee.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
As is the case with many of the offerings featured on this week’s list, this episode’s appeal is led by its premise — if you don’t have any qualms with the story, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the whole installment. Frankly, this is one with which I’ve struggled though, for the A-story is a Victory in Premise that’s inherently amusing and easy to like because it’s simple, low-concept and would work on any series (for instance, its petty triviality makes it seem like a perfect fit for Seinfeld‘s George Costanza), which therefore means that it’s not born of Frasier and its particulars. Also, it’s clearly shot on location and without an audience, which definitely disrupts the performative energy and stifles the comedy. However, the teleplay is a laugh riot, and while I question how motivated the narrative is by character, I can get on board with the idea based on Frasier’s previously displayed self-righteousness. And that’s character-driven by Ten’s standards.
03) Episode 221: “Tales From The Crypt” (Aired: 10/29/02)
Frasier goes all-out in his prank war against Bulldog.
Written by Saladin K. Patterson | Directed by David Lee
The season’s Halloween-themed contribution, this excursion utilizes an A-story that we’ve actually seen the series use not once before, but twice before: the prank war. Although neither previous iteration managed to make its respective season’s list, because the baseline standards were higher then, this year resides at such a place where this kind of story-driven template isn’t so automatically disqualifying. I can’t pretend that I think the installment is objectively better than its two predecessors, but in the context of its individual era, it does come across as more enjoyable, because, on Ten’s terms, its natural plot-sparked big-laugh crusade is tempered by an appreciated effort to motivate Frasier’s choices through his established behavior — and I think, successfully, with moments for Martin, Roz, and the other KACL members, too. Also, the comedically broad subplot with Mrs. Moon is thematically connected and laugh-delivering.
04) Episode 222: “Star Mitzvah” (Aired: 11/05/02)
Frasier intends to speak in Hebrew at Freddy’s Bar Mitzvah.
Written by Sam Johnson | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Without a doubt, this is one of the funniest offerings from the three years helmed by Dan O’Shannon, and once again, while it’s easy to be turned off by the fact that much of what we like about the episode is contingent on story decisions and what happens within the plot, it’s also fresh and unique, thereby cushioning and suppressing all of these concerns. And, to be fair, though the premise — specifically the climactic gag in which the Hebrew prayer Frasier’s been practicing (taught to him by a vengeful Noel) is really in Klingon — is so ostentatious that the plot threatens to overwhelm everything else, it’s nevertheless rooted in several important and established character traits, including Noel’s obsession with Star Trek and Frasier’s desire to be a good father to his son Frederick (who, based on what we know of Lilith, is indeed being raised Jewish). So, this ends up being one of the most rewarding episodes from the back half of the run, in general, with many reasons to recommend it. MVE contender — a classic.
05) Episode 227: “Door Jam” (Aired: 01/07/03)
Frasier and Niles seek to gain access to an exclusive club.
Written by Heide Perlman | Directed by Scott Ellis
This is sort of a one-joke show, built entirely around the (nonetheless character-rooted) idea that Niles and Frasier are elitists determined to gain access to an exclusive club… and once they’ve managed to work their ways inside, they’ll continue climbing until they can reach the highest, most special level that exists. In some ways, the concept is comedically broad, even if the narrative is surprisingly small… and though it doesn’t do anything positive for the pair’s individual nuances (I’d say they’re each drawn pretty single-dimensionally here), it also doesn’t require leaps in logic or alterations to their defined personas. Therefore, it’s not difficult to enjoy this entry’s laughs at face value… (As a side note, this offering was produced earlier in the year and held when the B-story, featuring Ana Gasteyer, was deemed unsatisfactory, rewritten, and placed elsewhere, thus necessitating a new self-contained Daphne/Martin subplot.)
06) Episode 228: “The Harassed” (Aired: 01/14/03)
Frasier forces the station to attend a sexual harassment seminar after a gaffe with a new hire.
Written by Chris Marcil | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Felicity Huffman makes her first of six Season Ten appearances in this installment, which launches the misbegotten Julia arc. However, as previously mentioned, both her debut and swan song make for worthwhile outings, and this one gains distinction here because it successfully plays against expectations in a way that’s neither counterintuitive to the consistent presentation of character nor to the larger bounds of Frasier‘s logic-based realism. The topic of sexual harassment is a much more pressing subject at the time of this current publication, so it’s fascinating to see an entry in the early 21st century deal (somewhat indelicately and shallowly) with the issue — by subverting the now tired Sam/Diane fight/make-out trope (repeated during Season Three’s half-baked Frasier/Kate arc) with a response more believable, right for these characters, and, dare I say it, funnier. If only the rest of the storyline was as imaginative. (Also, Mike Judge, creator of Beavis And Butt-Head, King Of The Hill, and Silicon Valley, guests.)
07) Episode 230: “Daphne Does Dinner” (Aired: 02/11/03)
Daphne plans a dinner party that goes completely awry.
Written by Heide Perlman | Directed by Katy Garretson
Here is Season Ten’s balls-to-the-wall commitment to farce, a genre of comedy that Frasier became especially known for doing well during the seasons on which Joe Keenan was a participant (Two through Seven). Although the series kept up its relationship to this aesthetic type in the years after, it’s never really been done completely successfully without him… until now. Yes, this is another one of those episodes that gives credence to the observation that, while Ten has lower lows than Nine, it also has higher highs — this being one of them… Oh, sure, one could quibble that there’s a certain rote and formulaic template to which the action sticks, and that the script winks a bit too hard (like in its opening, when the show spoofs itself way too conveniently), but I think because it’s handled so well, we’re just grateful that both an offering of its ilk exists in this period of time, and also that the wink fulfills a vital function: providing some self-awareness that grounds the lunacy in relatable realism. A gem and MVE contender. (Incidentally, guests include Harve Presnell, Ann Cusack, Paul Schulze, and Nana Visitor.)
08) Episode 232: “Fraternal Schwinns” (Aired: 02/25/03)
Frasier and Niles try to learn how to ride a bike before a charity event.
Written by Sam Johnson | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Per usual these days, I think too much of this excursion’s charm resides in the comedic notion on which its premise sits: that Frasier and Niles have never learned to ride a bike and must do so now in a short period of time. The stakes could be much higher and the idea of neither ever having ridden a bike before is a bit broad (disconnected from our non-sitcom reality), but I can’t say that I don’t buy it — based on who we know these two characters to be. Also, since the storyline consequently finds a lot of time to pair the two brothers together (an integral combination that I feel wasn’t as regularly or effectively reinforced in Season Nine), it’s a plot that works. I suppose I could kvetch about the obviousness of the humor in the non-audience location scenes, but this is an era where the comedic idea reigns supreme, so this represents the year fairly (to wit: the ill-advised Julia arc is continued)… but mostly positively.
09) Episode 234: “Roe To Perdition” (Aired: 03/18/03)
Frasier and Niles find and become hooked on black market caviar.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Jerry Zaks
Although I wouldn’t call this episode a farce, it operates with such a similarly heightened sense of humor and narrative urgency that it’s often lumped together with those installments in discussion. Considered by many to be one of the year’s few top-drawer gems, my feelings on its superiority have dwindled over time, for while I once exclusively focused upon the high energy premise — the Crane brothers’ quest for a kind of extra delicious black market caviar — I’m now not-so-thrilled that so much of the humor is hinged around the one-note joke that people respond to this caviar like they would drugs. (I got it after the first beat, and I think it’s hit a little too hard thereafter.) Also, for the purposes of this study, the dreadful Martin subplot is hard to ignore… However, I think the Frasier/Niles A-story is so rooted in these main characters’ interests that it’s the kind of plot that only Frasier could pull off, and as such, I come away thinking it deserves a lot of its praise for boasting such series-specific originality in this era.
10) Episode 238: “Fathers And Sons” (Aired: 05/06/03)
Martin doubts his sons’ paternity when his wife’s old lab partner visits.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
It wasn’t an easy choice, but I’ve selected this episode to be my MVE. The simple reason that I like it so much is that it feels the most low-concept and character-motivated of the entire season, as the idea of Martin questioning his sons’ paternity when visited by Hester’s old lab partner (played by MAS*H‘s late David Ogden Stiers) hits to the heart of the series’ originally designed emotionality: the bond between Frasier and Martin (which was later expanded to include Niles, making the relationship between all three Crane men — the brothers, and the sons with their father — the heart and soul). Because this core part of the show’s original thesis is met, with both a generous helping of humor and a welcome amount of humanity, it’s really the only episode in Season Ten that can boast a legitimately earned dramatic relevance — one that’s, again, able to coexist alongside the important comedic drive that the series had only truly lost sight off in a few heavy one-offs from this arc-minded era. This may not stack up to MVEs from the Golden Age and its neighboring seasons, but it’s a classy, narratively satisfying, character-specific outing that goes off without a hitch. And I’m so glad to highlight it now.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: the closest to the above list, “Lilith Needs A Favor,” which benefits from the undeniable chemistry between Frasier and Lilith and a laugh-filled teleplay, both of which nearly overcome the choppy plotting and the contrived premise. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Proxy Prexy,” which features an overly broad but laugh-delivering A-plot for Frasier and Martin alongside a truly terrible subplot for the others; “Rooms With A View,” the middle part of the heart attack arc, where drama and comedy are given equal play — but not in a well-calibrated or particularly character-validating blend; and “The Devil And Dr. Phil,” which is humorous because it features the always hilarious Harriet Sansom Harris as Bebe, but is otherwise way too broad and idea-based.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Ten of Frasier goes to…..
“Fathers And Sons”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Eleven! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!