Saturday, May 02, 2015

An International Affair

One of the things I enjoyed most about Frasier was the conversations Kelsey Grammer's character had with his radio listeners. Typically, the callers were celebrities who were never seen, but they were heard. If the celebrity had a distinctive voice, you could probably guess who it was, as I did many times, but if the celebrity's voice wasn't too distinctive, it could really throw you — as it did many times.

In the episode that aired 20 years ago tonight, things opened with Frasier in his booth taking a call from Gretchen. I was certain that Gretchen was played by Teri Garr — but it turned out that it was Glenne Headly. Maybe it was the German accent that threw me off.

Gretchen was from Bavaria, and her husband was a fencing instructor. Gretchen told Frasier she believed her husband was having an affair with one of his students. How could she be sure? Roz (Peri Gilpin) piped up with some advice: offer two choices for dinner, one a calorie–packed meal, the other one low in calories. If he opted for the calorie–packed one, Roz said, it meant he was happily married; if he picked the other option, it meant he was trying to keep trim for his new love interest.

After the conversation with Gretchen, Frasier really didn't give it another thought — until that evening, when Niles (David Hyde Pierce) mentioned that Maris had taken up fencing. "She stays up late into the evening," he said, "working with her instructor."

That got Frasier's attention. He already suspected that Maris was having the affair with the fencing instructor — and then the fencing instructor's wife called the show again the next day to report that she had taken Roz's advice, and her husband had selected the diet plate.

Then she said she had found a love letter that he had written. It was addressed to a pet name in German that translated to "my not quite human woman."

That was enough for Frasier, and he resolved to confront Maris with what he knew.

New viewers of Frasier might have expected to finally catch a glimpse of the elusive Maris, but I knew better — I had been conditioned by Cheers! and Norm's often mentioned but never seen wife — and I was right. Frasier tried to confront Maris when he believed she was in her sensory deprivation tank, but, when he opened the door, he found Niles there instead.

The audience eventually figured out, by way of snippets of conversation, that Niles had left his brother and gone to confront his wife. Frasier, meanwhile, returned home. Later, Niles showed up and got some advice from his brother and his father.

It was his father's advice — to confront the other man — that he followed.

But there was something of a language barrier. Gunnar (Brian Cousins), the fencing instructor, only spoke German. Marta, Niles' maid, spoke spotty English, but Spanish was her native tongue, and, as Frasier (who could speak Spanish) learned, Marta had picked up German from a German family for whom she worked in her Central American village "just after the war."

Thus, the table was set for a comedic bit that, at least in the annals of television, is as old as I Love Lucy. Niles would pose his questions in English. Frasier would translate into Spanish for Marta. Marta would translate into German for Gunnar. When Gunnar gave his reply, Marta would translate into Spanish for Frasier, and Frasier would translate into English for Niles.

Through this bucket brigade approach, Niles accused Gunnar of stealing his wife, but Frasier mistranslated, and Gunnar was told that he was accused of stealing Niles' shoes. That provoked the start of a duel between Niles and Gunnar.

It was a fascinating display of swashbuckling. I never knew that Pierce could handle a foil that well. Perhaps he studied fencing when he was younger.

Now, at this point, I feel I ought to point out a couple of flaws in the story. Let's be clear here. I am not saying that the revelation that Pierce knew how to use a foil was one of them. It was not. That was a pleasant surprise.

One flaw is that, although Frasier was presented as being unfamiliar with how to speak German in this episode, during his run on Cheers!, he did speak German on at least one occasion. And later in the Frasier series, he conversed with his latest love interest (Patricia Clarkson) in German.

But that is the sort of thing that most folks probably wouldn't know or be able to guess when watching this episode.

The other is more glaring, I think. It involves the sensory deprivation tank. Niles was inside when Frasier, from outside the tank, thought he was speaking to Maris — and he spilled the beans about her affair. But that's the thing about sensory deprivation tanks. It means being deprived of all one's senses, not just a few. Consequently, Niles shouldn't have been able to hear what Frasier was saying.

Anyway, when it was established that Maris, not Niles' shoes, had been stolen, Niles was reassured of Maris' love, and Gunnar was dismissed.