Monday, February 10, 2014

Niles Crane's Honor

I've always enjoyed the episode of Frasier that made its debut 20 years ago tonight.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Maris' marriage was beginning to show signs of the cracks that would lead to a full–scale breakup a few years later. Acting on his brother's advice (which was actually inspired by a conversation with Roz), Niles tried to spice up his love life with a little sexual role playing.

Niles chose to dress as a swashbuckling pirate — wearing pantaloons that looked like they might have been worn by the mascot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had been chased from the house after an unpleasant confrontation with the maid that was witnessed by Maris, then, after spending the night at Frasier's, he called Maris to try to reconcile. But it turned out she had been "so shattered by the experience she had to fly to her favorite spa to contemplate the future of our marriage," Niles reported.

Acting on his father's advice, Niles decided to make a romantic dinner to make up with Maris — and Daphne (Jane Leeves) volunteered to help — but the fates conspired to mess things up. When Daphne arrived, she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and Maris was being detained by a storm.

Niles and Daphne were alone together in Niles' sprawling mansion.

It was still fairly early in the series, but folks who had been watching it already knew that Niles had feelings for Daphne, feelings of which Daphne would remain unaware for several years. They were feelings that had largely been confined to relatively harmless flirtation in previous episodes; it seems to me this was the first time that Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) actually believed those feelings might really bubble over from worship from afar into something else.

"It's a recipe for disaster!" Frasier told his father. "You've got a vulnerable woman and an unstable man in a Gothic mansion on a rainy night. The only thing missing is someone shouting 'Heathcliff!' across the moor."

So Frasier and his father went out into the storm to rescue Daphne.

Meanwhile, Niles and Daphne were having a heart–to–heart talk that was really quite deep and profound — even if their conversation was being conducted on two different levels.

"Love is a funny thing, isn't it?" Niles said to Daphne. "Sometimes it's exciting and passionate, and sometimes it's something else, something comfortable and familiar — that newly exfoliated little face staring up at you from across the breakfast table, sharing a laugh together when you see someone wearing white after Labor Day."

Frasier didn't know that Niles had managed to keep his behavior under control, and he burst in on them, intent on preventing the disaster he anticipated. Daphne was offended.

"You have some nerve to imply that your brother would do anything so deplorable!" Daphne scolded Frasier, explaining that Niles had just made "a beautiful speech about how much he loves his wife, how he cherishes her excruciating little face and how they laugh at white people."

Well, it was something like that.

As Frasier fans know, Niles and Daphne ended up together later in the series. If you allow your mind to wander to those later years when you watch this episode today, you will miss the point — that Niles was committed to his relationships. He was dedicated to it even though he longed for Daphne.

By the time TV audiences met him, Niles' marriage probably was already doomed to fail. The unseen Maris was a spoiled wealthy woman, selfish and demanding. She was the subject of many jokes, and she was a source of endless anxiety for him, but Niles was true to her until it was clear that she was no longer committed to him.

Niles had his own share of problems, but infidelity was not one of them. He deserves credit for being a positive role model. We have so few today.