Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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.
Conventional Frasier wisdom recognizes a descent in quality following Season Seven — when Daphne and Niles became a couple and the series lost two of its finest writers, longtime showrunner Christopher Lloyd and his second-in-command, the expert farceur Joe Keenan. Fans also commonly accept that the baseline quality continued to sink throughout each of the next three years — Eight, Nine, and Ten — before seeing an uptick during the eleventh, when Lloyd and Keenan returned. I’m in agreement here — for reasons we’ll discuss — and I think most of you are, too. What’s more up for debate, though, is just how much of an improvement Season Eleven is over, for the sake of this discussion, its three predecessors. (I don’t think there’s any point in wondering whether Eleven is stronger than the first seven. The show is ancient now and the Niles/Daphne development has done a number on the ensemble and a few of the characterizations within it. Frasier could never fully go home again — even if it did bring back its two best scribes.) Well, I’m of the opinion that the change in quality is considerable — even in spite of the fact that some developments can’t be undone (like the dilution of Daphne) and some questionable notions persist (like the belief that growth can only occur through story-driven romantic arcs)… We’ll start with Eleven’s foundational strength: after three years of wading around in a comedic and narrative style that became less and less predicated on its central character’s identity, the season’s tone once again adopts the cadence, rhythms, and humorous idiosyncrasies of Frasier Crane himself. This means, basically, that the way the characters, specifically Frasier, walk through stories — even those not entirely motivated by their POV-driven actions — occurs within a textual world that reinforces who they are known to be.
As a result, every regular — except for the aforementioned Daphne — finds his/her definition becoming more specific and rigid. This may sound like a negative occurrence — a limiting, one-dimensional story-propelling disaster. But it’s quite the opposite; you see, most long-running sitcoms end up distorting their characters in the continued quest for new, better, funnier stories. This usually means broadening, a term we use here to describe when a character’s personality becomes more extreme and heightened (such that it’s harder and harder to have faith in their intended humanity) as a run progresses. Yet Frasier, while doing this a bit with its lead in Season Eight, actually did another variation in the years following: a loosening of the characterizations, so that they would simply be able to exist in a greater variety of stories. In the case of Niles and Daphne (and Frasier, Martin, and Roz, too), this watered them down — not destroying definition, but making definition less distinct. (This is sometimes optimistically called “growth.” Don’t be fooled, though. If it’s not an evolutionary behavioral shift motivated by how a character responds to what happens to him/her based on his/her own actions, it’s not actual growth — just story-driven waffling.) Thus, with Season Eleven reinforcing a stricter depiction of most of its regulars, the show is committing itself to an even greater effort to only use stories that can be motivated by well-established characterizations; it’s not limiting — it’s focusing… (And everyone benefits — especially Kelsey Grammer, who once again took home an Emmy award.) Also, on another, more surface level, you can see the show’s sensibilities become more specific to character with the return of the 3% jokes — lines and references (to operas and other cultural trivia) that only a small part of the viewing audience would recognize. We saw this during Frasier’s peak (and peak adjacent) era, and now we see it again…
What else does this year have in common with the show’s peak? We said it before: Lloyd’s back calling the shots with help from Keenan. They’re Frasier’s voice. They write the show — the characters are the show — better than anyone else, and the influence that they alone have on this final season is unmistakable. At the risk of insulting others, the simple fact is that Frasier seems to improve because they’re back… Yet, then again, the entire staff for this final season is strong. In case you’re wondering, here’s everyone else who’s credited with contributing a script this year — Jon Sherman, Lori Kirkland Baker, Chris Marcil, Sam Johnson, Bob Daily, Heide Perlman, Patricia Breen, Ken Levine & David Isaacs, and returning veteran, Jeffrey Richman. (Credited consultants include Tom Reeder, MTM vet David Lloyd, ex-showrunner Dan O’Shannon, and former Frasier staffer Rob Greenberg.) You notice the difference right away, as the town’s new (old) sheriffs quickly extricate the series from the cliffhanger-driven trauma of Season Ten in two incredibly efficient installments that are miraculously direct in showing how determined the year will be in avoiding developments that don’t work… Of course, although the year takes us away from one narrative trapping, it has several of its own, and as intimated above, while all of them may work, they may not all be stellar. For instance, Daphne’s pregnancy and Niles’ impending fatherhood is another big development that doesn’t inherently offer either exploration; that has to come episodically (and for Niles, it does, because he gets to be really funny again — thus helping Hyde Pierce net another Emmy). As for Daphne, I’m afraid her personality has become so muted by the relationship construct that she’s unsalvageable. But it also didn’t help matters that Leeves was pregnant again, limiting her usage and thereby stopping the year from getting to write her with the same restored focus it does the others…
Similar to the pregnancy arc, the choice to give Martin another recurring love interest — his first since Sherry — in the form of Ronnie, played by Wendie Malick (just coming off of Frasier writer Steven Levitan’s Just Shoot Me!), isn’t, by itself, laudable. The episodes that examine their relationship have to prove that it’s going to be good for his character, and I’d say the show is somewhat successful here. For starters, Malick’s a hoot and her role is well-defined. Also, it’s buyable that Martin would be so attracted to this younger woman whom he remembers from decades ago. I’m on board will all that and the ensuing comedy justifies my investment. What threatens believability, though, is the speed with which their relationship progresses, as a surprise March engagement sets the table for a series finale wedding — another big development (where story distracts from character — not a great way to end a series, as you know). So, even as I like Malick/Ronnie and think there’s actually good stuff for Martin’s character there, I also don’t like how story-minded her inclusion is, and that leaves me with mixed feelings… I also have mixed feelings about Frasier Crane’s ending… Okay. This is a toughie. How do you provide fitting closure for a beloved character whom audiences have known for 20 years? It’s nearly impossible and I don’t want to cavil, because I don’t envy these writers. However, I think it’s at least fair to say that, if we’re going with the anticipated belief that Frasier must grow by fulfilling his need of finding happiness in a long-term committed relationship — the same belief shared by the scribes who helmed Seasons Eight, Nine, and Ten, during some rough story-led endeavors that claimed sincere character intentions without providing them — then we’re going to need more than seven episodes to believe that he’s found the one.
Yes, Frasier’s final arc casts Emmy-winning Laura Linney and gives her a part that surprisingly isn’t one-dimensional; but their romance is still way too fast a development — filled with an abundance of story beats, and not enough quier(er), breathable character moments — for any well-regarded protagonist, especially one of Frasier Crane’s history. That is, even with stronger writing courtesy of a few character-knowing authors, the scenario itself isn’t commendable… and ultimately, that’s a great summation of the year itself, as the restored character-rooted tone elevates the year’s baseline quality, while some of the storytelling decisions — most of them due to the noble, but overbearing desire to provide a fitting end to the series and every player — begets missteps. Ah, it’s another round in the classic battle of character vs. story. A great example of this conflict and the difference between what works and what doesn’t is how the year says goodbye to Maris vs. how it says goodbye to Lilith. The former gets a three-episode arc in which she kills her boyfriend and goes to prison: all larger-than-life story, but without the motivated farce and slapstick that used to make her character’s off-screen antics work for Niles. Here, the comedy/drama is driven by its story goals, not its Niles goals… Lilith, in contrast, gets one single low-concept entry in which she and Frasier share a lot of one-on-one time and talk about their relationship, giving us the chance to see how they’ve changed (and how they’ve not). It’s driven by its Frasier-goals. Now, obviously, Lilith is a more human character than Maris, someone we’ve never seen and who’s always been extreme, yet the disparity in quality between the episodes that contend with the two is directly related to what is taking dominance: the players or the plot… As for the rest of the year, this aesthetic distinction means there are duds, but for the first time in a while, they’re also paired alongside legitimate classics. So, for one more time with Frasier, I’ve chosen ten episodes that I think exemplify the season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Eleven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 241: “No Sex, Please, We’re Skittish” (Aired: 09/23/03)
Niles tries to improve his sperm’s motility as Frasier moves forward with Julia.
Written by Bob Daily | Directed by David Lee
With the return of the old regime, Season Eleven’s creative pivot is clear right from its premiere — although, to everyone’s credit, it’s not a jarring change in direction that negates everything to which the prior year had been building. No, instead this just feels like a figurative switch has been turned on and everything that happens hereafter is going to be a bit more logical and rooted in character. Sure, some might say that the Frasier/Roz stuff is swept under the rug rather quickly — and with a pat explanation involving her father and the projection of her feelings for him onto Frasier — but we buy it because it gets us to where we need to be: Roz is back at the station, and the idea of a romance between her and Frasier is now null and void. Plus, the storyline affords Frasier the chance to exercise his Jack Benny-esque vanity, which is a character-driven roadblock for him and Julia… Meanwhile, Niles’ subplot, which involves a terrifically funny (and dramatic) scene at a sperm bank (or “s-bank”) with Debra Monk, and then a great recurring gag with a mechanical device meant to help his sperm’s motility, is also sublime — and leads finally, in a wonderful twist, to Daphne revealing that she already is pregnant, thus launching the season’s journey (first set-up in Ten by O’Shannon and his crew).
02) Episode 242: “A Man, A Plan And A Gal: Julia” (Aired: 09/23/03)
Julia makes a less-than-favorable impression on Frasier’s family at a dinner party.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
One of my favorite episodes of the entire series, this is the ambitious installment (originally aired in a one-hour block following the year’s premiere) that finally extricates Frasier from the Julia arc. However, as indicated before, her swan song is the character’s finest showing — and this is simultaneously both because and in spite of the fact that she’s written broader (more extreme) than ever before. Ultimately, while it’s so ostentatious that it threatens notions of believability, it’s actually not a bastardization of her character, because none of her mannerisms are new to the audience; everything she does is based here in what we know of her personality, and heightened within a scenario — meeting Frasier’s family for the first time — that allows more leeway for faux pas rooted in insecurity. Also, the fact that she is actually allowed to be funny helps to excuse some of the overly broad strokes… Meanwhile, as the show is ridding itself of this character, it’s also making sure the conflict is driven by the regulars and their varying objectives — like Frasier’s need to commit (for once) to a commitment, and Niles and Daphne’s desire to hold a special dinner to reveal their big pregnancy news to the family. The cherry on top of this one-act-play sundae (you know I love a theatrically written sitcom) is the Pictionary scene, which boasts a Seinfeld-ian beat in which the family ignores Julia while she’s choking (itself an unexpected, unpredictable development), and a hysterical moment where Kelsey Grammer gets to sink his teeth into Frasier’s total disgust with her: “Get out!”… And while all of the above discusses what the episode does, let’s also praise how it’s written: comedically, unpredictably (but believably), and filled with character moments — those 3% jokes abound.
03) Episode 243: “The Doctor Is Out” (Aired: 09/30/03)
Frasier doesn’t discourage an opera bigwig’s assumption about his sexual identity.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
The first episode credited to Joe Keenan since his departure alongside Christopher Lloyd at the end of the seventh season, it’s fitting that this entry is both another farce — of mistaken identity (or mistaken sexual orientations, rather) — for which this author is well-known, and that it’s a companion piece to his first Frasier script, “The Matchmaker,” which was my MVE for Season Two. As with Season Seven’s “Out With Dad,” which also dealt narratively with a mistaken case of queerness — or rather, Martin pretending to be gay to avoid going out with a woman he didn’t like — and was written (no surprise) by Keenan, we’re dealing again with comedic ideas that were probably better utilized (or more humorously potent) in their first appearance. However, the volume of laughs is larger, because with each successive entry in this farcical trilogy, the means to procure laughs have gotten broader. Heck, by this point, the comedic climax is Frasier dancing a tango (à la Some Like It Hot) with Patrick Stewart, an opera bigwig who thinks Frasier has been his boyfriend for the past few weeks. It’s far bigger than Season Two’s dinner table misunderstanding… but that’s not a complaint, for this not only offers the laughs that it needs to offer, but it fits within Season Eleven’s general aesthetics, which, clearly, are not the same as Two’s (or Seven’s). In this regard, each of these similarly premised outings is a great reflection of their eras, even as the kernels of story — rooted somewhat in character, and how Frasier would logically be perceived to the outside world (especially after being spotted in a gay bar) are familiar. I mean, let’s note that this really is a twist on “The Matchmaker,” because Frasier is again perceived as gay, only this time he’s aware of it — no matter his convenient denial — and is willing not to correct the mistake so he can continue to reap the social benefits. (The funniest moment of the episode is Grammer’s Jack Benny-esque, again, moment of pause as Frasier considers going along with Stewart’s character to Capri…) A beloved classic — maybe not the best of this lot — but excellent nonetheless.
04) Episode 247: “Maris Returns” (Aired: 11/04/03)
Frasier goes back into private practice and Niles counsels Maris.
Written by Chris Marcil | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
One of the mini threads that’s woven through the early part of this season, and offers an interesting (but never fully capitalized upon) option for evolving Frasier beyond the now predictable romantic trappings, is his return to part-time private practice. That’s the A-story for this installment, which is probably better regarded — because of its gaudier subplot — as the entry that launches the final year’s Maris arc, as the B-story has Niles giving advice to Maris regarding her new boyfriend, whom she murders. While that narrative takes over the broader, less character-rooted second half of this two-parter — featured as an Honorable Mention below — I much prefer this outing, with its definitive Frasier bent. Now, it’s definitely not among this list’s A+ excursions, but it’s a memorable one, especially because it’s filled with guests like Valerie Mahaffey as Frasier’s receptionist, and a parade of (mostly) kooky patients, including Sarah Silverman, TR Knight, Penny Johnson, Missi Pyle, and Dan Castellaneta.
05) Episode 249: “Guns N’ Neuroses” (Aired: 11/18/03)
Frasier and Lilith almost get set up on a blind date.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Scott Ellis
Lilith makes her final appearance in this entry, which I discussed a bit during my seasonal commentary in relation to the Maris arc. You see, what’s most appealing about this installment, its narrative, and how the show has chosen to say farewell to Lilith (while providing closure to her relationship with Frasier, which goes back way before Frasier), is that it’s small. In fact, the story, which never actually reaches an appropriate comedic climax — although we don’t care; that premise is not this offering’s purpose and we don’t come to this one for it — is a silly trifle involving Frasier and Lilith almost being set up on a blind date. Really, this episode is only about getting the two of them together in a room at the same time for one more conversation. And frankly, that’s all this script needs to do, because with such well-defined characters who share an extraordinary history, it’s magic whenever they’re together. I suppose what this outing truly succeeds at, though, is leaving the two of them — and their dynamic — in a satisfying place.
06) Episode 251: “High Holidays” (Aired: 12/09/03)
Freddy visits for the holidays and Martin accidentally eats Niles’ pot brownie.
Written by Christopher Lloyd | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Although I wouldn’t cite this as being an easy choice, this is the installment that I’ve selected to be my final Frasier MVE, and my rationale is fairly simple: it’s the funniest episode of Season Eleven. However, there’s more to it than that… I also like that it’s individually great for each of the three Crane men, who, as we know, have been the series’ heart and soul since Season One. (Perhaps this should come as no surprise though, because while each script is room-written, the teleplay is credited to Christopher Lloyd, the longtime Frasier showrunner who is probably most responsible for maintaining the series’ extraordinarily character-dipped tone. Incidentally, this is the only offering, besides the two-part finale, for which he’s credited in Eleven. Recognizing this installment as MVE is an added pleasure given his seemingly elevated involvement.) Okay, I think it could be argued that the marijuana beats — both the accidentally eaten brownie that gets Martin uproariously high, along with the placebo brownie that has Niles thinking he’s uproariously high — are a bit of a sitcom cliché at this point. However, in addition to the fact that both of these thematically and narratively connected storylines are actually as funny as their premises suggest (making this more than a Victory in Premise), both of their motivations for eating the brownies stem from their individual objectives — Niles’ desire to rebel (for once) and Martin’s inability to cut down the sweets — thus making the gimmick seem less gratuitous and more like an organically comedic consequence of their individual choices. Plus, we, the audience, get to see sides of them that we’ve never seen before, which is something incredibly difficult to do on an eleven-year-old series… Meanwhile, as that part of the excursion is bringing in the glorious laughs — everything with Eddie in the commercial (computerized to mouth along with Frasier’s voice), which is set-up in advance, is breathtakingly fun — Frasier gets a more dramatically substantial, yet still amusing, storyline with his son, Freddy, who’s gone “goth” in his last appearance… And so, with the three Crane men well-served by the action, which gets laughs that arise largely via their individual choices, this is my Season Eleven favorite.
07) Episode 255: “Caught In The Act” (Aired: 02/24/04)
Frasier has an affair with his ex-wife, a remarried children’s entertainer.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Another entry designed to provide closure, this — like Lilith’s appearance in “Guns N’ Neuroses” — doesn’t just contend with elements specific to the Frasier series, but rather with the 20-year-old Frasier Crane character himself. Harkening back to a tenth season Cheers outing in which Frasier reveals that he was once married to famed children’s entertainer Nanny G (then played by Emma Thompson), a character later seen in Frasier’s psyche during the delectable “Don Juan In Hell,” this installment therefore has an enhanced dramatic gravitas that’s inherently more specific and worthwhile for his character. Because this supportive foundation of emotional weight is already in place, the jokey teleplay (credited to Keenan) is then able to go big and broad and play for stratospheric laughs — most of which are secured with rambunctious verve. Always a saucy character, Nanny G’s libidinous wiles are intensified when portrayed here by the always delicious Laurie Metcalf (one of the best things about Roseanne, incidentally), and while the on-location climactic stage sequence goes on for a trifle too long, the comic bizarreness of the scenario, supported again by the characters’ backstory, keeps the laughs sustaining. Yet another boisterous addition to Season Eleven’s roster of classics.
08) Episode 256: “Boo!” (Aired: 03/02/04)
Frasier gives his father a cardiac episode after a retaliatory scare.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Katy Garretson
For as gem-filled as Season Eleven can genuinely claim to be (especially in comparison to its most recent predecessors), this isn’t like the early years where compiling my ten seasonal favorites was difficult because 14 or 15 entries warranted recognition. No, there’s a finite number of classics here, and as a result, this installment gets booted up from the Honorable Mentions (where it would have been a star) to this formal list (where it’s a supporting player with a walk-on role). While I think the entry’s hampered a bit by its second half, which like Ronnie’s introductory installment (credited to the same author — a returning Frasier vet) seeks a pointed dramatic relevance that halts the comedic rhythms and isn’t entirely earned, the first half is loaded with laughs, as Frasier dresses up like a clown to help his patient (Stephanie Faracy) overcome her fear of them. Fortunately, the comedy is ultimately strong enough to override both the short-term and long-term (getting Martin and Ronnie engaged) story goals.
09) Episode 259: “Miss Right Now” (Aired: 04/06/04)
Frasier goes out to a singles bar after Charlotte goes away with her boyfriend.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Scott Ellis
Credited to the talented duo of Levine & Isaacs, who’d first written for the Frasier Crane character way back in 1985 during the end of his first season on Cheers, this offering is part of Frasier‘s explicitly closure-seeking final arc, which features the title character’s last love interest, Charlotte the matchmaker (played by Emmy-winner Laura Linney). Perhaps it’s because of the credibility with which these scribes imbue the text, or perhaps it’s simply because this installment’s ambitions are more easily achieved than other entries from this final stretch (like Charlotte’s introduction and the story where she officially couples with Frasier — both of which surround this excursion), but I find this outing to be the most enjoyable. Not only is it the funniest — thanks in part to the work of the hysterical Jennifer Tilly (who first appeared alongside Frasier as a different character in the same entry that introduced Lilith; it’s a full-circle moment) — it’s also the most like a “normal” episode of Frasier. After all, just because the show is wrapping up and seeking closure for the series and these characters doesn’t mean it shouldn’t function as it always has. This installment, which also neatly ties in a subplot with Marian Seldes as Ronnie’s visiting mother, proves as much. It’s a sleeper favorite; more character than plot.
10) Episode 263: “Goodnight, Seattle (I)” (Aired: 05/13/04)
Frasier and Niles decide to throw Martin and Ronnie’s wedding.
Written by Christopher Lloyd & Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
As the first half of the two-part series finale, which originally aired on NBC in a two-hour block (with a 50-minute clip show preceding it), this installment is an unavoidably difficult one for someone like myself, who detests the over-inflated big development-esque nature of most series closers, to enjoy in the same way that I appreciate all the other episodes featured above. For, just as I’ve indicated, there’s a lot of huge plot stuff that happens here — too much for my tastes — as Ronnie and Martin get married, Niles and Daphne have a kid, and Frasier takes a new job in a different city before deciding instead to pursue Charlotte. That’s a lot of story ground that this outing must hit, and as a result, some character comedy gets buried in the process. Also, there’s a certain inartfulness to the kitschy, convenient inclusion of many of the show’s most famous (“greatest hits”) guests — like Simon Moon and Bebe Glazer — who help aggrandize this entry’s dramatic and comedic import. However, while I struggle a little too significantly with Part II for all the reasons mentioned above, I genuinely do enjoy Part I, which benefits from a high-energy sense of fun (thanks, partly, to those guest stars) and its flirtation with farce, as Frasier and Niles agree to throw Martin and Ronnie’s wedding… a decision that naturally yields a lot of complications. In fact, I almost wish that the wedding centerpiece filled out the crux of the rest of the hour, because there’s a lot of comedic opportunity there — see: Cheers‘ “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” — that could undercut some of the indulgent sadness of the goodbye and the heavy story objectives for Frasier and Niles/Daphne… Nevertheless, there’s enough to enjoy in Part I to recommend it alongside the others — laughs and character.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: the first teleplay credited to the returning Jeffrey Richman, “The Babysitter,” which introduces Wendie Malick’s Ronnie and establishes a competition for her affections between Frasier and Martin in the amusing first act, only to sink considerably in the slow and maudlin second; “I’m Listening,” a B-level farce that cobbles together a lot of funny ideas and moments, without rising to its intended full height; “Murder Most Maris,” the aforementioned second half of “Maris Returns”; and “Match Game,” which introduces Laura Linney’s Charlotte in a nuanced and fully-realized way, but in a teleplay where the laughs are scattershot. All four offer something worthwhile.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eleven of Frasier goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of The John Larroquette Show! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!