Monday, May 19, 2014

Frasier's Pursuit of Happiness

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): I suppose the situation you're in is you'd like to stay with Maris, but you'd like to have an affair with Daphne.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Yes. Can I do that?

Frasier: No, you can't!

I enjoyed the episode that closed Frasier's first season 20 years ago tonight.

It was a little talky, I suppose, but that didn't bother me. It isn't unusual for a sitcom episode to be dialogue driven. If it is action you're looking for, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.

The episode was done in real time and took what was already a familiar setting — the coffeehouse where Niles and Frasier met frequently during the series' 11–year run — and made it the only setting for the entire episode. All the primary characters — even Eddie the dog — came to Cafe Nervosa, where Niles and Frasier had been trying to have coffee together.

Initially, there were no tables available. "Well, Niles, it doesn't look like anybody is leaving," Frasier said. "Why don't we take a table outside?

"Why not?" Niles replied. "I'm feeling al Fresco."

In his geeky Crane–boys way, Frasier provided the punchline. "Oh, how does Mrs. Fresco feel about that?" They both giggled.

When seen in the context of the series' decade–plus on the air, that exchange really said a lot about their relationship. It was complex, as most sibling relationships seem to be. A certain amount of sibling rivalry always existed between them, but they were supportive and respectful of each other, too. They laughed at each other's jokes. They understood each other's references, all those things that went completely over other people's heads — like the time they reminisced about when they saw a picture in a family photo collection of themselves as children dressed for Halloween. They wore snouts and took a wading pool with them — they were dressed as the Bay of Pigs, but no one got it so they started saying they were Swine Lake. No one got that, either.

Frasier, as the older brother, took the lead, and Niles, as the dutiful younger brother, followed.

Viewers saw glimpses of the young Niles and Frasier over the years — and, as a consequence, gained some insight into how they developed into the men they became.

It was all out there on the table 20 years ago tonight.

The subject of each other's happiness came up while they were having their season–ending coffee. Niles was the first to ask the question, but Frasier turned it back on his brother, and Niles confessed that he was not happy, then tried to shift gears. Frasier had none of it.

"Let's not gloss over that," Frasier demanded. "You, my only brother, have just told me you're not happy, and it pains me to hear that. Why?"

Niles proceeded to tell Frasier a story about a segment from a documentary on the Depression that he had seen, about the joy on the face of a desperately poor boy upon being given a pair of new shoes. "I have never experienced that kind of happiness," Niles said. "Not in my whole life. Not even when I bought these $400 Bruno Maglis" and raised one foot for Frasier to see.

Niles observed that the shoes had tassels and asked Frasier if he liked them.

"I'm not really a tassels guy," Frasier replied (although Frasier had a different answer when asked about tassels on Cheers!).

"Neither am I," Niles said. "Nevertheless, there they are."

The subject of happiness was pushed to the back burner — but only temporarily — by the arrival of Roz (Peri Gilpin) and the interruption of an increasingly annoyed waitress who couldn't quite manage to serve Frasier the cup of coffee he desired. Then rain began to fall, and Frasier and Niles were forced back inside.

Thanks to a little brotherly conspiracy, they grabbed a table. Not long after, they found themselves sharing it with Martin (John Mahoney) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) — with Eddie in tow. Martin was cranky for no clear reason.

The presence of their father made Frasier reflect on the problems he had forging a relationship with Martin. "Why is it always so difficult between me and Dad?" he asked. Niles pointed out that Martin's life had changed. "Railing against the world is his way of controlling his ever–shrinking sphere of influence."

They changed the subject again. Niles recommended "something light and frothy," so Frasier asked if he was in love with Daphne, and Niles spewed a mouthful of coffee.

"That's a little frothier than I had in mind," Frasier said.

Niles confessed that he didn't know, then asked, "Why did you have to hire Venus herself? Couldn't you find some beefy east European scrub woman who reeked of ammonia?"

"Well, I asked," Frasier replied, "but it was an Olympic year. The agency was fresh out."

Niles admitted that Daphne stirred "a passion in me I've never known before." Then, displaying footwork a boxer would envy, he tried once again to work the subject around to Frasier's happiness, but that went back to the back burner as Roz interrupted and then Martin returned to apologize for being cranky; he had observed a birthday recently, but no one mentioned it.

Eventually, the gathering broke up. Frasier and Niles said they would take Martin and Daphne to dinner, and everyone left — except Frasier, who finally got the cup of coffee he wanted.

"Are you happy?" asked his waitress.

"You know, in the greater scheme of things," Frasier replied, "yes, I'd say I am."

It was an introspective episode.