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 ask any Frasier fan to tell you when the biggest change in quality occurs throughout the series, there’s a good chance the response will be “after Season Seven.” For just as we’ve suggested in past weeks, the end of this year forms a natural break where one can figuratively draw a symbolic “red line” to notate a significant alteration in enjoyment… based on the high standards to which the show has previously allowed itself to be held. Of course, the post-Seven “line” is the second one we’ve discussed here — a more pronounced demarcation that follows a less important, more prognosticatorial divider that can go anywhere between the end of the Golden Era’s novelty-filled second season (or whichever season you choose to label the series’ best — maybe Three or Four, or even One) and before Season Six, which has to exist after a “line” because of a hard-to-ignore reduction in the first half of that year’s episodic success rate. However, there are several bigger, more obvious reasons to separate Seven from Eight — both because of major staff changes in the writers’ room (including the showrunner switch that we’ll touch upon more next week) and because of the huge narrative development to which this year builds: the romantic joining of Niles and the woman for whom he’s long pined, Daphne. Their pairing will deconstruct the ensemble and alter the storytelling permanently — many believe to the series’ detriment. However, I want to save most talk on what their coupling does to the show for the years where they’re actually a couple, and instead focus now on this closure-giving, yet door-opening season that sets the figurative table for the upcoming change — without a doubt the series’ most ambitious narrative decision (and one made by showrunners who knew in advance that they wouldn’t have to stick around to deal with the ramifications).
I think we should start by complimenting everyone for their brilliance; change is vital in any long-running series, and while several of Frasier’s past attempts at evolutionary-driven story arcs (be they character-rooted or sadly plot-heavy) have fallen short — like some of Season Three’s romantic partners and then last year’s temporary “Frasier is fired” thread — there’s nevertheless been an undercurrent of tension as time has progressed about the show, and specifically the characters, not having grown as much as they maybe should have. On one hand, I think less is always more when it comes to story — regular readers know this to be one of my fundamental sitcom tenets — so I appreciate the series for not being gratuitous with these developments. However, by the time we reach Season Seven, and have already endured a slight dip in quality during Six, it’s reasonable to imagine that one way to keep the show’s mojo lit is to shake things up — albeit, in the traditional MTM-descended fashion: with something believable, well-plotted, and as character-driven as possible… Hindsight grants us the luxury of saying that the seeds of Daphne and Niles’ mutual attraction were long ago planted. (Why hammer his crush on her for so long without some kind of pay-off? Eventually, she had to find out about them one way or another and either embrace or reject him.) So, in advance of this big change, Season Seven — starting officially at the December two-parter — begins vociferously building to the year’s intended cliffhanger and, later, the show’s new homeostasis… Now, I think it’s always easy in sitcoms, if you like a story and its participants, to appreciate a focused semi-serialized narrative; part of the situation comedy’s appeal is a regard for the situation. So, I get why this year is inherently popular. In other words, I think the year’s commitment to its well-liked narrative, also trackable and deliberate, is one of the core reasons that Seven is generally well-regarded (even by those who don’t necessarily like the way the pairing influenced upcoming seasons).
How do I feel about it? Well, I’ve never been one to derive a lot of enjoyment merely from a story I like; I’m much more concerned with the execution and how the telling contributes to my subjective adjudication of a year’s episodic success rate — are the plots making sense and being led believably by the characters, and are there plenty of motivated laughs in support? By this criterion, the offerings here that bring Daphne and Niles together may not be extraordinary within the show’s own established standards (which, we have to admit, are stratospherically high — “My Coffee With Niles,” anyone?), but they hit their marks based on what we expect of the show during this liminal era — between the two “red lines” that we’ve, from our own perceptions of quality, chosen to draw… As for the Daphne/Niles storyline itself, I think it’s a credit to the show and this staff of writers that even I’m rooting for her to end up with him by the end of the season, even though I feel — as I’ve stated before — that their tension had fizzled by Four, when Niles’ more permanent separation from Maris evaporated any real reason for his character to not act upon a deep crush. Ever since, all the Niles/Daphne moments felt slightly manipulative and without purpose… even when the series began laying the groundwork for Seven’s happenings — with both Donny (Saul Rubinek), who ended the sixth year as Daphne’s fiancé, and then Mel (Jane Adams), Niles’ own convenient new recurring love interest, introduced just before Seven’s midseason break. Frankly, it isn’t until Daphne becomes the driving force in this soon-to-be relationship — for the first and only time in the series’ history (let’s face it, this runner has always been about Niles; never her) — that the pair’s old magic is recaptured, and the year proves that there still exists an inherent positive momentum in this long-simmering and highly promotable romantic crescendo.
Let me emphasize this point: the reason the Niles/Daphne stuff works in Season Seven, successfully supplying worthwhile character-driven comedy, isn’t merely that the scripts are allowed to be more focused in their pursuit of finally paying off this inconsistently regarded subplot — that’s a reason that many fans may lean in and be willing to supply an investment that makes the year feel richer — it’s rather that Frasier turns the storyline on its head, making Niles’ old-hat feelings for Daphne more about her emotional needs than his. This then freshens the arc, gives the scripts something new to play in story, and perhaps most importantly, shows a commitment to dimensionalizing her character that has often been overshadowed by the natural gravitation towards the series’ weightier bonds — those among the three Cranes. In this way, the victory that Season Seven finds in its half-year romantic arc isn’t about the romance itself. No, it’s about Daphne — for the first, last, and (spoiler alert) only time. This novel arrangement mitigates some of the typical concerns I would have about the year’s storytelling being plot-driven, arc-pushing, and cliffhanger-led, because now I actually feel like Frasier is delivering genuine character moments in return… But I’m not the only one who appreciates Seven for the arc; this year was popular with audiences, too — as its placement in NBC’s Must See TV Thursday (which, by the way, took a hit because of ABC’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire) kept the series in the Top Ten and granted the year’s grand finale, with its now-inevitable Niles/Daphne combustion, the largest Nielsen rating since Season Three’s classic Leap Day themed “Look Before You Leap.” It was Must See TV. This accompanying sense of high visibility — not peak, but close to it — exists in the show’s episodic quality, as well. Heck, many fans I’ve heard from find Season Seven more immediately gratifying than Six. (Again, just like Four in relation to Three, this is a fancy way of saying “funnier.”)
I’d agree… and this is despite the fact that outside of everything Niles and/or Daphne, the year’s weekly story-generation shows signs of running on fumes. That is, Seven sees its fair share of narrative recycling; installments like “Radio Wars” and “RDWRER” (both Honorable Mentions) are variations on the pranky “Leapin’ Lizards” and the road-based “Travels With Martin,” respectively. These new outings push harder for laughs — a function of institutionalized broadening, where bigger is deemed better — but if any of them actually are funnier than their similar forebears, they still don’t offer much that’s palpably new on behalf of character, and that’s a troubling sign that perhaps suggests a reduced baseline and the necessity of a staff turnover… However, what’s great about Seven is its relative lack of bombs (especially compared to Six). For even if we’ve lowered our standards after Five, almost every entry here, like before the first “red line,” has something going for it that makes it recommendable — be it the aggrandized laughs, the surprising character beats, or, heck, the hilarious Victories in Premise (there are many here; they may not stem smartly from character, but they often feature character smartly). In fact, this was the toughest list to make. After all, this is the last year with the original ensemble design (Niles and Daphne will be a unit from here on out) and the last (for a while) run by Christopher Lloyd with support from the terrific, distinguished Joe Keenan… Oh, speaking of writers, among this year’s script-providers were the above, along with Kogen, Sherman, Kirkland, Hanning, contributor David Lloyd, and future showrunners Reisman and O’Shannon. New additions to the room included Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil (NewsRadio, Hot In Cleveland), Bob Daily (Out Of Practice, Desperate Housewives, Superior Donuts), and one-season-wonder Charlie Hauck (Maude, The Associates, Valerie, Home Improvement)… So, it’s a good year, and as usual, I have selected ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 146: “Father Of The Bride” (Aired: 09/30/99)
Frasier accidentally volunteers to pay for Daphne’s wedding.
Written by Mark Reisman | Directed by David Lee
I get the feeling that in an earlier era where the baseline quality would have been elevated, this installment — which, incidentally, treats all five members of the main cast well — could have been a classic. But because this year requires a little more pomp and circumstance — usually in the form of an ostentatious story that inevitably delivers big laughs due in large part to its Victorious Premise — this entry doesn’t seem as comedically polished as others. Nevertheless, there are a handful of terrific one-liners, and the plotting, fast and tight, makes room for several character-propelled comedic ideas — including the A-story with Frasier and Daphne (sparked, somewhat goofily, by his hiccuping), which works because it pivots and becomes a conflict predicated on their personality flaws, along with Niles’ hooker subplot (easy laughs, but not unearned), and Roz’s amusing bridesmaid runner, which helps with her ensemble integration.
02) Episode 151: “A Tsar Is Born” (Aired: 11/11/99)
Frasier and Niles believe they could be Russian royalty.
Written by Charlie Hauck | Directed by Pamela Fryman
As with last season, I think the first half of this year — up until the two-part December cliffhanger, really — isn’t a particularly fertile period for Frasier classics (because the much-discussed narrative focus provided by Niles and Daphne isn’t yet around to channel some of the storytelling). That’s how a good episode like “A Tsar Is Born” manages to stand out and look great (funnier, and more character-wise). However, there really are good excuses to appreciate the excursion, like the simple fact that it’s centered around all three of the Crane men, who find a common interest (for different reasons, naturally) in Antiques Roadshow. This scenario provides plenty of funny, character-rooted interactions for the trio — and the brothers especially. Also, while the idea of Frasier and Niles giddily believing they’re Russian royalty (which we’re sure is untrue) sort of stops the action in its tracks, there’s no doubt it’s an amusing Frasier premise.
03) Episode 154: “Back Talk” (Aired: 12/09/99)
Daphne thinks Frasier has a crush on her when he’s high on pain pills.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Although the cliffhanger at the end of this season will forever be the biggest climax in the show’s emotional trajectory, I think the events of this installment lead up to their own nearly-as-powerful crescendo — the moment in which Daphne finally comes to realize that Niles has harbored secret feelings for her lo these many years. It’s the plot development that the show has spent over six seasons delaying — so much so that (for me, anyway) a lot of the tension and momentum was lost along the way. So, this is actually an important offering, as the series now points its compass to the year’s intended finish. Of course, this only concerns the entry’s final moments; the rest of the episode is riotous — the funniest stuff we’ve seen from the season thus far, with a loosey goosey quality that stems from loopy Frasier, which gives Grammer the chance to do fun physical comedy and temper the intended emotional arc with big hahas.
04) Episode 155: “The Fight Before Christmas” (Aired: 12/16/99)
When Niles and Mel fight, Daphne fears he’s going to make a play for her.
Written by Jon Sherman | Directed by Pamela Fryman
An extension of the above outing, Frasier left the ’90s on a huge reveal to the audience: now that Daphne knows how Niles supposedly feels about her (thanks to an incapacitated Frasier), she realizes that she has her own feelings for him (even though they’re both currently in committed relationships). Setting up this scenario is the whole, obvious purpose of this installment, and while I think this final point is telegraphed from the episode’s start, the narrative arc is rejuvenated by its switch in focus — now Daphne’s driving what happens, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. After all, Niles’ secret feelings for her were always about him; now they’re about her, and it’s about time that this storyline gave her something meaty to play. In fact, it’s the key (as noted above) to resupplying this long-curdling arc with the emotional gravitas that it used to have back during the Golden Age (and its surrounding years). Successful objective fulfillment.
05) Episode 157: “They’re Playing Our Song” (Aired: 01/13/00)
Frasier writes a theme song for his radio show.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by David Lee
Scroll down and you’ll see there are many Honorable Mentions that I considered for Seven’s list — for despite the lower baseline quality (in comparison to the years that came before my first “red line”), the show is back to weeding out episodic stinkers. That strength is even reflected on this list in the competition for MVE. I could have easily picked this one, credited to MTM legend David Lloyd. It doesn’t rely upon arc-driven sentiment to fuel a part of its appeal, and it gives us a premise more unique than even the below farces’. It’s a new original story to the Frasier world (a welcome deliverable in this era, where ideas are starting to be recycled), and one that’s so perfectly conceived for the character — as Frasier is merrily tasked with finding a theme song for his radio program. Naturally, he goes all out, giving the entry a great comedic centerpiece to display his well-defined ego. This could only occur on Frasier; that’s why I love it.
06) Episode 159: “Out With Dad” (Aired: 02/10/00)
Martin lies to avoid dating Frasier’s new crush’s mother.
Written by Joe Keenan | Directed by David Lee
An expert farce credited to Joe Keenan, the scribe whose prior efforts have suggested him to be the master of the genre, this installment is, without a doubt, my pick for the year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode). Oh, sure, true to an observation from above about the year’s penchant for falling back on comedic themes that the series has already explored earlier in more character-rich seasons, “Out With Dad” is obvious kin to “The Matchmaker,” my MVE from Season Two. (It’s, no surprise, also credited to Keenan and forms the second part of a trilogy that will be concluded in Season Eleven.) But despite similar comedic beats to the aforementioned — characters mistaking other characters’ sexual orientations in a grand game of misunderstandings — this one actually falls more along the lines of the author’s also impressive Season Four farce, “The Two Mrs. Cranes,” in which the regular characters willfully deceive a guest by pretending to be things and people they aren’t. This time, Martin gets to be the perpetrator of the original lie, which is a festive semi-rarity and provides a terrific showcase for Mahoney, who seems to delight in this opportunity to drive the outrageous narrative. Guests include Brian Bedford, Marg Helgenberger, and Mary Louise Wilson. One of the year’s funniest and a perennial classic.
07) Episode 163: “Morning Becomes Entertainment” (Aired: 04/06/00)
Bebe signs Frasier to host a morning TV talk show.
Written by Rob Hanning & Jay Kogen | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Ah, Harriet Sansom Harris is back for another of her near-annual appearances (like Neuwirth, she missed last season) in this comedically broad offering that makes fine use of her character within a contrived storyline that could only work because of her very involvement. The premise has Frasier opting to raise his Q-score during contract negotiations by co-hosting a local AM chat show — initially alongside Roz, who gets sick and is replaced at the last minute by Bebe (to the episode’s comedic benefit, no doubt). It’s always fun to see Frasier get his ego inflated beyond its usual extreme, because we know that it’s always going to be popped before the tossed salad and scrambled eggs roll. So, with a dozen supreme laugh-out-loud moments (some, it’s true, easier than others), this excursion gives us exactly what we want, sans any disappointment and despite the obvious reaching. (Hey, that’s the nature of Season Seven in a nutshell.)
08) Episode 164: “To Thine Old Self Be True” (Aired: 04/27/00)
Frasier accidentally gets handcuffed to a stripper.
Written by Dan O’Shannon | Directed by Robert H. Egan
This farce isn’t as well-received by the fanbase (in general) as “Out With Dad,” and that’s understandable — the aforementioned entry is a classic. But I also think this one doesn’t get enough credit. I actually believe that, for once, this may have been a better story — and indeed a better script — on paper, than it was in performance, for the energy (in a rare occurrence for Frasier; truly — this cast is top-notch and usually makes everything a dozen times better) isn’t quite high enough to support the iconically farcical, and therefore typically Frasier, notion of the protagonist sneaking around his apartment while handcuffed to a stripper. I can’t quite put my finger on the issue, but I think pacing is part of it. Otherwise, the narrative does everything right — almost bit by bit, ratcheting up the conflict at all the right places, finding moments of comedic business whenever possible, and utilizing the particulars of the season’s ongoing arcs. Heck, it’s one of my favorites. Rachel York and The John Larroquette Show‘s Gigi Rice guest.
09) Episode 166: “Dark Side Of The Moon” (Aired: 05/11/00)
Daphne recounts to a therapist why she’s so angry on the figurative eve of her wedding.
Written by Lori Kirkland | Directed by David Lee
If the series was too subtle back in December when revealing to us how Daphne felt about Niles (it wasn’t), this episode is the one that finally forces her to recognize how she feels about him. It comes in an ostentatiously packaged narrative design — a therapy session, with a shrink (S. Epatha Merkerson) to whom she recounts the story — which at first seems extraneous and distracting, but later packs an emotional punch when Daphne realizes that the cause of her recent bad mood stems from her repressed feelings for the younger Dr. Crane. For fans of this potential coupling — and the offerings this year that have tried to make us all root for them have been, admittedly, pretty strong — this is a rapturous moment. And, of course, it’s aided by a very funny teleplay that’s loaded with great, memorable comedic moments, many of which involve Daphne’s (intentionally) obnoxious brother Simon (Anthony LaPaglia), whose extreme depiction is easier to take here because it’s motivated. Also, Barbara Sharma guests.
10) Episode 168: “Something Borrowed, Someone Blue (II)” (Aired: 05/18/00)
Daphne and Niles try to find a moment alone to work out their feelings for each other.
Written by Christopher Lloyd & Joe Keenan | Directed by Pamela Fryman
Regular readers know I have an ingrained aversion to outings designed for big developments, and this, the wedding of Daphne and Donny, to which the entire season has been building, can’t get any bigger — especially when it’s pumped up by Niles’ surprise elopement with Mel and the inevitable confrontation between Daphne and Niles, which we’re pretty sure is going to lead to something huge. However, I think it’s very funny (the quieter, tighter Part I should be considered a de facto Honorable Mention here — this is a season where there are too many entries worth praising), and in addition to the winning casting of Millicent Martin as Daphne’s mother, these uber-smart scribes — Lloyd and Keenan going out in a figurative blaze of glory, perhaps — know how to keep the Daphne/Niles scenes important, while also not saccharine or heavy. So, although there’s a lot of story that’s dictating what happens, I think it’s a success; judging from this single hour, we want Niles and Daphne together. Next season, well…
Other episodes that merit mention here include (maybe) all of them. I can find a way, even with the season’s reduced baseline, to appreciate every installment this time. As for entries that I actually considered for the above list (aside from the above de facto pick), those would be: “Radio Wars,” in which Kelsey Grammer clowns while putting over a funnier take on a nevertheless familiar story, “The Apparent Trap,” which has Lilith — need I say more?, “RDWRER,” which is nobly dependent on the Crane men but doesn’t give us anything new or particularly hilarious, and “Hot Pursuit,” which is small and basically consists of two character scenes — Niles with Martin, and Frasier with Roz. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Big Crane On Campus,” with Emmy-winning Jean Smart (more next week…), and “Something About Dr. Mary,” with the funny Kim Coles.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Frasier goes to…..
“Out With Dad”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Eight! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!