Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Crane's Critique

One of the most entertaining angles of the Frasier series was always the sibling rivalry between Frasier and his brother Niles.

It was constantly a source of fresh humor since it often focused on the elitist tastes the brothers shared. In the 11 years the show was on the air, the writers explored the Crane brothers' mutual passions for wine, caviar, opera, fine dining, literature, exclusive clubs and spas and their innate desire to be descended from royalty, among other things, and their wish to rub elbows with the most eccentric and the most prominent.

I always enjoyed those episodes. Frasier and Niles were both so quirky — and so transparent — that it was hard not to be amused by their petty bickering and squabbling.

One of the best of those episodes made its debut 15 years ago tonight.

Sitting at a table outside the coffee bar they frequented, Niles and Frasier spotted a reclusive writer named T.H. Houghton from a distance. Houghton (played by the late Robert Prosky) was inspired by J.D. Salinger, whose "The Catcher in the Rye" was published 60 years ago this year.

Thus began a merry chase in which Frasier and Niles kept trying to meet the writer — and kept missing by inches and seconds — while their father struck up a close friendship with him, going to ball games with him and talking about classic TV shows like Bonanza.

The final indignity for Frasier was the fact that Houghton had forged a bond with Eddie the dog — "fed him his afternoon biscuit," according to Daphne.

It was all too much for Frasier, who wondered, "Will the madness never end?"

Niles suggested that their father might bring Houghton back to the apartment after dinner.

In one of my favorite lines in the entire series, Frasier replied, "I doubt it. They'll probably run into J.D. Salinger and Salman Rushdie — go out for margaritas."

That was a doubly funny line because, as I say, the Houghton character was inspired by Salinger.

But Houghton went Salinger one better. He had a manuscript for a second novel that he was in Seattle to show a publisher — and he accidentally left it in Frasier's apartment when he and Martin went to a Mariners doubleheader.

Frasier and Niles seized on the opportunity to read the manuscript, prompting a scolding from Daphne.

But they got rid of her by giving her the day off and proceeded to read the manuscript in privacy ...

Until Houghton showed up with Martin.

Frasier and Niles tried to cover for their transgression, assuring Houghton that the book was wonderful — "It was great," Niles said. "Wow!" said Frasier.

Martin was furious. "If you were Hoss and Little Joe," he fumed after Houghton excused himself to use the restroom, "Ben Cartwright would kick your sorry butts right off the Ponderosa."

Niles and Frasier tried to apologize, then, after Martin had left the room, Frasier observed, "He's back on the Cartwrights again. You know, someday we really should ask him just who the hell they are."

What concerned the always image–conscious Frasier more was the impression their "pithy comments" left with their idol.

"Houghton's going to leave here today thinking we're a couple of inarticulate simpletons," he told Niles, and they agreed to share more learned comments with him when he emerged from the bathroom.

Unfortunately, they inadvertently persuaded Houghton that the entire book had been stolen from Dante. "I was a fool to think I had another book in me," he cried, calling himself a "talentless hack," and he disposed of the manuscript by tossing part of it in the fireplace and the rest off Frasier's balcony. Then he walked resolutely from the apartment, saying that at least he could leave with his dignity ... not noticing that a page from his manuscript was stuck to the bottom of one of his shoes.

Frasier and Niles were chastened and despondent. "We've destroyed a man's life," Frasier said. "Not to mention depriving future generations of a work of art," Niles added.

The two rationalized, however, that they had spared Houghton a thorough trashing from the critics (who would certainly have noticed the parallel between his work and Dante's) that his fragile ego couldn't withstand — and thus became heroes in their own eyes.

"You know, Niles," Frasier said in his self–congratulatory way, "we saved that man's life."

As well as his image — with himself.