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 you, like I, think Season Two is Frasier’s finest collection of episodes, then that means Three, and every season following, inevitably represents a failure in meeting previously established standards. However, I’d like to frame this discussion in a different way, for although below you’ll read a couple of concrete reasons why I find Season Three slightly less successful than Two, we’re still dealing with an exceptionally high baseline quality. And, frankly, perhaps it’s not fair to let any series’ peak be the benchmark by which we measure all its future years; Season Two (or whatever year you think is the best) can only be the peak if it’s better than what we expect. For this reason, I think Season Three would be a more appropriate choice for the year that sets the standards to which we’ll hold Frasier over the next few weeks; it’s not the greatest, but it’s close to it — an entity that still reveals most seasons to indeed be weaker, but now within a context that recognizes a bit more space for imperfection. In this way, Season Three can be viewed here as a success story, instead of a disappointment… Of course, these two points of view aren’t mutually exclusive either. If Two alone is my personal pick for the series’ strongest year, then Three is a comedown. And while I’d find it hard to argue the opposite stance — that Three is in any way better than Two — the degree of descent leaves more room for debate. Personally, I’d say that, compared to what we’ll see later, this is a smaller dip, and one with which we can easily deal. To this point, I’d like to introduce a tortured metaphor that we’ll reference throughout the next several posts… Every Frasier fan knows the show, in general, declines, but we all draw a different demarcation — a “red line” — where the first significant break in quality occurs, when the show is subjectively, but clearly, “not what it used to be.” Some will draw this “red line” after Three, or Four, or Five, or even Six — before the more commonly acknowledged second and bolder “line” following the end of Seven. (Stay tuned for where I draw my first “line”…)
I introduce this concept here because, if we call Season Two the series’ peak (as I’ve done — you may feel differently, which means the principle still holds; it just adjusts based on your chosen positioning), then the start of Three naturally forms the first opportunity to make note of how the series is “not what it used to be.” However, because I consider this dip so slight — especially when we view it in hindsight, knowing everything that’s to come — there’s no doubt in my mind that a “red line” shouldn’t be drawn between Two and Three, for even though the year isn’t as perfect as its predecessor, it’s darn near close… In fact, I’d argue that the differences between Two and Three are more situational (narrative) than they are aesthetic (style). To wit, of the talented folks giving Frasier its character-based voice — the writers — the only credited staff loss from the prior year is the duo of Elias Davis & David Pollock. Season Three, rather, is an additive period, featuring the efforts of new scribes Rob Greenberg (Love & War, We Are Men, Impastor), Suzanne Martin (Ellen, Hot In Cleveland, The Soul Man), and one-season wonder Jack Burditt (Just Shoot Me!, 30 Rock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and while some of these new folks might not have their names listed (yet) on the year’s best scripts, all the rest of last season’s terrific team is on hand contributing to every single entry. Any perceived changes then, may be more attributed to the unavoidable decline in narrative novelty… As we’ve explored with past shows, novelty mixed with quality is an intoxicating combo — and this becomes clear when the former wears thin. (Another example: Murphy Brown, whose third season also was a comedown from the peak second year, but, again, not a major one.) So, when novelty — the inherent freshness of these characters and the stories that both their personas and status quos readily inspire — is no longer a reliable boost, then the show’s storytelling has to change. All the best and most obvious ideas for these players have already been fulfilled based on who we know them to be; now, their ability to motivate comedic plots is contingent on their evolutions.
In other words, they have to grow in order to remain viable. Frasier’s sagacious scribes seem aware of this necessity, for Season Three, it appears, is propelled by the goal of putting its main characters in new, growth-giving situations. Much of this, though, is reflected in the romance department, as three of the five regulars find themselves in potentially recurring relationships over the course of the season, while another (obviously Niles) finds his permanent one — his marriage — in jeopardy. Now, as we know, the Niles/Maris saga is an ongoing dynamic that will be explored over the next several years, usually with an episode or two per season that recapitulates the developments in the arc (and because they’re Niles-heavy, they’re usually funny). So, this is a narrative that certainly proves fruitful. I think, however, that even though the impulse to throw new scenarios at Frasier, Daphne, and Martin is logical, their individual relationships don’t actively help them (or the season). One of the primary reasons I’m more enthused with Two than Three is that the former is not beholden to any arcs of this ilk, which purport to be good for character, but as is often the case, can’t help but prioritize the story beats over how the regulars are actually being depicted. (And frankly, this heavier emphasis on story permeates the other self-contained entries, too. Character remains king thanks to the stylistic conventions implanted by gems like Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan, but the episodic plots are more conspicuous; we’ll see this trend, as in most sitcoms, continue…) Interestingly, all three of the romantic threads fail to be as influential as they’re initially suggested to be, and I think that’s telling. Heck, Martin’s new girlfriend, Maureen the cop (Malcolm In The Middle’s Jane Kaczmarek), is only fodder for one average episode — an entry produced early in the year, pre-empted, and then not shown until the end. (Fortunately, Sherry will be a different story…)
Meanwhile, Daphne’s new beau, Joe the contractor (Tony Carreiro), doesn’t really catch on either. He only appears twice here, despite the fact that both of his installments come across pretty well. I can’t say that he himself is a well-defined character (which would be necessary if I were to consider him a true success), but both outings do well on behalf of their principal, Daphne. And the pair’s relationship, though hardly growth-giving, doesn’t seem as wobbly motivated as the others’… like, the year’s most visible relationship — Frasier’s, with new station manager Kate Costas (Mercedes Ruehl), his dark-haired and predictably antagonistic eventual bed-mate who appears in five of the year’s first ten scripts as part of a legitimate arc that represents one of Frasier’s first memorable post-Lilith relationships. I have decidedly mixed — leaning negative — feelings about this storyline… Okay. While I think all five of the Kate installments, because of the quality inherent to this “close to the peak” season, are decent — and one, in particular, is very enjoyable (the outing highlighted below, obviously) — I’m again distracted by the fact that their storytelling interests seem to be superseding their character goals. That is, with the clichéd and requisite Sam/Diane hate-to-love-you sexual rapport between the two, we know where the narrative is going from the start, and each excursion thereafter merely exists to hit those anticipated beats. There’s no comedic surprise, no genuine investment, and ultimately, no tangible benefits for the Frasier character. He gets something to do for five weeks. But does he get motivated growth? I don’t see it… This construct only consumes five episodes — decent episodes, mind you — but all three of these relationships’ “want to be good for character, but…” entries offer individual examples of how I think the season operates: with beats wisely applied and well-intentioned, but less consistently triumphant.
Season Three, therefore, has made for one of the toughest lists to craft — not because there are so many terrific episodes (which, by the way, is nevertheless true in this “peak adjacent” era) — but because there are so many “great, but…” offerings that threaten to cloud my ability to recognize which ones really are the “must-includes.” Ultimately, I found that, for the first time, there’s a tension here — and we’ll see more of it in upcoming weeks — between installments that offer the best, most revealing explorations of character (and Niles, in particular, has a terrific season in this regard), and installments that appeal to those of us seeking uproarious comedy. With this list, I’ve tried to find the outings that provide the most ideal balance — and while I toiled longer than usual in making my selections (it’ll go down in my personal history with, coincidentally, the third seasons of Maude, Rhoda, and The Golden Girls, for having gone through the most drafts), I discovered that paring down my Honorable Mentions helped focus my attention onto the ones that are — stem to stern — the most personally satisfying. So, I feel good about this list, and its great Honorable Mentions, too… Of course, this strength is as expected, because, after all, we’re dealing with Frasier — a brilliant series with great scripts and well-designed characters. And, as indicated before, I don’t want this post to be about Season Three not stacking up in comparison to Two, for this collection is another superb representation of the American situation comedy. In fact, Frasier’s third season won its company a third consecutive Emmy as the year’s Outstanding Comedy Series (another statue that seems well-deserved), and yielded an additional win for Outstanding Writing with “Moon Dance,” a memorable Niles/Daphne show featured below. It’s, needless to say, a good year… So, without further ado, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 51: “Martin Does It His Way” (Aired: 10/10/95)
The Cranes write a song and Frasier prepares to give a eulogy.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Following a prescient opener that revealed the slightly diminished seasonal quality via a story-heavy, obvious-laugh affair designed to introduce Frasier’s initial romantic arc with Kate, and then another below-the-year’s-established-baseline offering meant to capitalize upon the brothers’ dynamic, the season’s third excursion brings us back into more familiar territory. Credited to regular consultant and contributor (MTM legend) David Lloyd, the entry focuses on the Crane men as a unit, as two different narrative threads — the boys helping Martin fulfill his life-long dream of writing a song, and Frasier having to deliver a eulogy for his aunt — are married together in a manner perhaps predictable, but nevertheless satisfying. And while the humor seems a little more obvious and less pointed than in highlights past, this production’s elevated energy is a boon. Great for the three men, and Martin (the songwriter), in particular.
02) Episode 53: “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (Aired: 11/07/95)
Niles tries to prevent Daphne’s romance with a contractor.
Written by Anne Flett-Giordano | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Although not exactly a real-time offering (for which regular readers of this blog know me to be a sucker — I think the situation comedy is designed to be theatrical, and when it can embrace those elements and be true to its character and its comedy, it should), this episode is close to it, with a tightly focused narrative that keeps its protagonist preoccupied with some funny in-character amusement, while also accomplishing its real raison d’être: introducing a new possible recurring love interest for Daphne — the above mentioned Joe the contractor (Tony Carreiro). As already discussed, I actually think the introduction of this potential romance works a bit better than the others, because it’s more focused on the principals about whom we already care: Daphne and, in this case, Niles, who really drives the entry’s action — comedically. It’s appealingly simple, so all the main characters can take precedence over the plot.
03) Episode 55: “The Adventures Of Bad Boy And Dirty Girl” (Aired: 11/21/95)
Frasier and Kate’s love affair goes embarrassingly public.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
When I alluded above to there being one single excursion within the five-episode Kate Costas arc that was more enjoyable than the others, I was referring to this outing, which is the fourth of her appearances, and the second half of a two-parter designed to spark the inevitable lust-based relationship between Kate and Frasier. Now, my feelings for her story-driven character and this otherwise unrewarding plot are temporarily shelved in deference to this laugh-a-minute teleplay, which might as well be called the best thing to come out of this whole mediocre construct. (And, while every script is a collaboration from the entire staff, I think in this era, many of the entries credited to Keenan are loaded with high-calibre comedy, especially where Frasier is concerned.) It’s true the nature of this storyline guarantees that a good part of this episode’s appeal is plot-based (a Victory in Premise), but the rapidity of the humor is sublime.
04) Episode 56: “The Last Time I Saw Maris” (Aired: 11/28/95)
Frasier pushes Niles to confront Maris about her rudeness.
Written by Ian Gurvitz | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Following Niles’ discovery last season that his wife, the legendarily unseen Maris, was having an affair, this installment takes us to the next logical progression in his intermittently addressed (I note this gratefully; I’m glad the arc doesn’t consume every Niles outing) storyline: the first step to their eventual divorce. Credited, incidentally, to one of the few Wings scribes who’d never be staffed on Frasier (Ian Gurvitz, one of that earlier Grub Street series’ eventual EPs, and also later of Becker), I wouldn’t consider this to be among this list’s funniest examples — nor would I consider it to be the funniest of the Niles/Maris contributions. (I mean, last week’s “An Affair To Forget” would be hard for anything to beat!) But it’s a truthful, well-realized exploration of the Niles character within a story that makes sense based on what’s been established about him and his relationship with his wife. Also, the text strongly highlights the Crane men’s bond!
05) Episode 61: “Moon Dance” (Aired: 02/06/96)
Niles is overjoyed when Daphne accompanies him to a dance.
Written by Joe Keenan & Christopher Lloyd & Rob Greenberg & Jack Burditt and Chuck Ranberg & Anne-Flett Giordano & Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo | Directed by Kelsey Grammer
As mentioned above, this outing won Frasier an Emmy award for claiming the year’s best comedic writing — but this might have been a surprise to the staff, who collectively drafted it at the last minute. Here’s the truth: it’s not a hilarious excursion, even by the standards set by this particular season. And I, personally, don’t think it’s the year’s best. Why? Well, for starters, there’s not enough Frasier — okay, there’s a good reason for that; Grammer was busy directing the production — but this means that it’s, from the jump, not an ideal representation of the series… That noted, it’s another strong character study for Niles, in his now-annual semi-serious Niles/Daphne story arc (which, as is almost always the case, is still more about him than her, but I digress and forgive here)… And even though the laughs aren’t fast and furious, his character beats are rewarding and honest. Well-liked; it’s not the best, but it’s deservedly praised.
06) Episode 62: “The Show Where Diane Comes Back” (Aired: 02/13/96)
Diane comes to Seattle to seek Frasier’s help in producing a play.
Written by Christopher Lloyd | Directed by James Burrows
Shelley Long returns as Diane Chambers in this fascinating, atypical outing that’s probably best enjoyed by fans of Frasier’s first weekly series, Cheers. Now, this show has a complicated ongoing relationship with its crossover entries — Lilith makes sense in this world and most of her episodes are winners, but Sam’s (as we saw last time) took us too far away from the series’ own strengths without explaining why that story needed to exist. Long’s appearance actually works though, because it ends up having something genuine to give to Frasier: emotional closure from his past relationship with Diane, the very reason that his character first appeared on our television screens. So, while this is — like Danson’s episode — an offering that doesn’t do much for the rest of the ensemble and this new(er) universe, because Frasier is treated well, and within a funny teleplay (from Frasier‘s backbone — Christopher Lloyd), it holds great value.
07) Episode 64: “Look Before You Leap” (Aired: 02/27/96)
Frasier encourages everyone to take leaps on Leap Day.
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano | Directed by James Burrows
I’ve selected this excursion to be singled out as my pick for the year’s MVE. It wasn’t an easy decision, especially because this is an installment that I haven’t always loved. Well, let me clarify: I’ve never loved this episode to the same grand degree that other fans with whom I’ve corresponded seemingly do. In fact, I found a lot of the humor situational and based on the particulars of the story… But, after this current chronological survey, I’ve had a change of heart. I now liken this one to last season’s “Dark Victory,” with its ably built “variations on a theme” narrative that provides simple showings for every member of Frasier‘s ensemble. And now I see the slightly more ostentatious storytelling as a reflection of the series’ ever-evolving narrative M.O., felt this year (and in those following); this doesn’t completely justify a reduction in the standards to which I should hold the show, but it does help contextualize the entry’s individual worth. (I don’t like this one as much as other MVEs from the weeks surrounding, but there really is no other choice here that represents the season as well.) Additionally, the script is very tight, built with extraordinary focus and precision — so well-crafted — that even though there are snappier offerings, with funnier and more rapid-fire jokes, and installments whose goals are more earnestly character-rooted (like some of those above Niles showcases), I don’t know if there are any (this week) that are as well-written: smartly plotted, equitably meritorious, and designed to have a memorable comedic climax (“Buttons And Bows”) for its star. Fun!
08) Episode 65: “High Crane Drifter” (Aired: 03/12/96)
Frasier resorts to physical force in a disagreement.
Written by Jack Burditt | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
To be completely honest, this was the installment over whose inclusion I most agonized — almost opting to replace it with one of the Honorable Mentions below. Frankly, all three of those briefly singled-out entries are solid in a way that this episode, with its greater risk/greater reward structure, can’t claim. That is, this outing goes for bigger laughs, comes close to missing several key ones, but gets almost all of them anyway. Also, this narrative’s story-based appeal (as opposed to the other more explicitly character-rich contenders) is nevertheless built around Frasier himself, and thus, the conflict, consequences, and comedy all come from a decision he makes. So, while it’s a bit like some of those less-than-remarkable Victory in Premises, where the story overshadows any value that can be gleaned from the progression and exploration of character, this teleplay uses the regulars appropriately — and secures those big laughs, too.
09) Episode 66: “Chess Pains” (Aired: 03/26/96)
Frasier wants to beat his father in chess.
Written by Rob Greenberg | Directed by Gordon Hunt
There’s a part of me that wishes this episode was slightly funnier. If it was, it would have been a competitive MVE possibility. You see, this offering is built around the series’ original thesis — way before Niles and his talented portrayer were revealed to be as necessary and brilliant as they quickly proved to be. Yes, I’m writing of Frasier’s relationship with his father, Martin, which forms the crux of this simply plotted outing in which Frasier struggles to finally beat his father at a game of chess (and then, briefly at the end, grapples with what it means when he actually succeeds — and whether it was earned). I love the uncomplicated story (and the bucking of expectations; chess seems more like a Frasier sport than a Martin sport), I love the comedy that comes from competitive Frasier, and I love the meaty father-son dynamic, which makes room for some Niles moments (who’s got an amusing subplot with a new pooch) but in a rare change, doesn’t deviate from its focus on the core, original, and individual father-son relationship.
10) Episode 69: “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fired” (Aired: 04/30/96)
Frasier is tasked with keeping Bebe from smoking.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Harriet Sansom Harris returns to make her now-annual appearance as Frasier’s agent, the delectably unscrupulous Bebe Glazer (following last year’s brilliant “Agents In America, Part III” — probably her best showing from the entire 11-year run) in another entry credited to the talented Joe Keenan, who will continue to prove himself adept at writing for her frothy, larger-than-life persona. In this half-hour, which, sure, can be qualified as a Victory in Premise (albeit, one whose laughs excuse any concerns we may have about story trumping character), Frasier is tasked with keeping the new station owner’s fiancé from smoking… only to learn that this task is going to be exceptionally difficult because said fiancé is Bebe! Her character is conducive to big laughs, and neither this script nor its story disappoints. Hilarious — filled with screamers!
Other episodes that merit mention here include — and once again, I’ve reduced this section to only those that I actually considered for the list; I like at least 90% of this year’s output, but couldn’t feature them all, so here’s the most honorable — “Frasier Grinch,” a Christmas themed excursion credited to the elder Lloyd that has several memorable moments for Friaser in particular, “Come Lie With Me,” a Daphne-driven entry (with her new beau) that’s sweet and premise-connected (if not uproarious), and the season’s finale, “You Can Go Home Again,” a gimmicky and unnecessary flashback show that nevertheless has some juicy character-based scenes, making it emotionally unique and completely worthwhile.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Frasier goes to…..
“Look Before You Leap”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!