Saturday, September 26, 2015

Navigating the Many Mysteries of the Sibling Relationship

"In 30 years as a couples' therapist, I've never said what I'm about to say — Give up! It's hopeless! You are pathologically mistrustful of each other, competitive to the point of madness! So trust me, just meet each other at weddings and funerals, and the rest of the time, stay the hell away from each other!"

Dr. Schacter (Milo O'Shea)

When Frasier was originally on the air and I saw episodes like the one that premiered 20 years ago tonight, "Shrink Rap," I tended to think of them as being about sibling rivalry. But the more I have thought about it, the more I have been inclined to think of them as being about the sibling relationship in general. The rivalry is only one part of it.

As I have observed with others — and within my own sibling relationship — the bond that links siblings is a complex one, especially when the siblings are particularly close. Not all siblings are close, of course, but it has been my experience that siblings who are close have more complicated relationships with each other than the siblings who seldom see one another.

(Does that seem obvious? Perhaps it is. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.)

The Crane brothers, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), were very close. They were in the same profession, had similar tastes in nearly everything, saw each other almost daily — and often found themselves in competition over something or someone. By the time the series' third season began 20 years ago, the Crane brothers had already tried to write a book together and run a restaurant together — with predictably disastrous results. Niles was always jealous of his brother's professional success, and Frasier always thought his brother was trying to undermine him in some way.

The conflict in this episode began when Niles, frustrated by a primal–scream therapist whose sessions were interfering with Niles' own, learned that Frasier was interested in returning to private practice, and he decided not to renew the therapist's lease, opting instead to rent the space to his brother.

Upon learning of the plan, their father (John Mahoney) expressed his doubts. "You two can't work together," Martin insisted. Niles and Frasier rejected that, but Martin was right. From the moment Frasier moved in, there was friction between the brothers.

(Well, it existed long before that, But in the context of this story, that is when the problems really began.)

And it spilled over into their first therapy session together — where they nearly came to blows and the therapy group left en masse. The Crane brothers shouted at each other with such intensity that Dr. Schacter (Milo O'Shea), a couples therapist, was drawn to the scene from his office across the hall.

When he heard what was going on, he volunteered to work with them. But that proved to be much easier in theory. (Things got off to a bad start. Dr. Schacter told the brothers "I may be able to help you," but one of the brothers — I think it was Niles, but it could have been Frasier — remembered him say, "I'm sure I can help you."

Dr. Schacter determined that their fundamental problem was lack of trust in each other, and he recommended some in–office exercises. He started with an exercise in which one of the brothers was supposed to stand with his back to the other and fall back into his brother's arms, thus establishing a sense of trust. But the brothers were so suspicious of each other that each, when taking his turn to fall into his brother's arms, kept asking Dr. Schacter questions that clearly showed that they did not trust each other.

Dr. Schacter tried to show them how it was supposed to be done, but, when he fell backward, neither brother caught him. They were too busy arguing with each other.

Dr. Schacter gave up and left the room. The brothers remained and discussed what they had just heard. Frasier observed that, as is so often the case, it took someone from outside the situation to get to the heart of the matter.

"Well, Dad always said it," Niles remarked, "but he has no credentials."

You couldn't question Dr. Schacter's credentials, Frasier replied, walking over to the doctor's diplomas on the wall. "He graduated from the University of ... Grenada!"

Niles said that must have been his undergraduate work. So Frasier looked at his postgraduate degree. It was from Aruba.

"An all–Caribbean schooling," Niles observed. "Well, tally me banana!"

The brothers, convinced that the supposedly unimpeachable Dr. Schacter was full of it, left with Niles promising to get the doctor out of his lease by the end of the week and the two brothers arguing over where to have lunch.

I have been asked many times to pick my favorite Frasier episode, and the truth is I can't. There are episodes I like that really focused on each of the regulars in the series, and there are episodes that focused on the relationships between two or more of the regular characters, and I really like those, too. As a fan of the old Cheers! series, I enjoy the episodes that reunited Frasier with Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth).

Then there are other episodes that I really like simply because they are funny.

I guess, when you get right down to it, I just really like the Frasier series. The stories are always funny or moving — or both — no matter how many times I see them.