Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Agony of Victory

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Maris and I used to play chess every Thursday night. Oh, how she loved the game.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): No wonder. The king is stationary while the queen has all the power.

The relationship between fathers and sons can be a complicated thing. I suppose the paternal relationship can be complicated for daughters, too, but I have no experience with that. I had one brother, and that was it. We have each had our challenging times with Dad — but at different times and for decidedly different reasons.

There seems to be more of a tendency to have a generational barrier between fathers and their children than mothers and their children — although, again, I have to plead ignorance when it comes to relationships between mothers and daughters.

Maybe it has something to do with the bond that forms between mother and child during the mother's pregnancy, but, in my experience, my peers' relationships with their mothers have usually been more relaxed than the relationships they have had with their fathers.

As a general rule. There are exceptions, of course.

The viewers never saw Frasier interact with his mother — except for one episode in which she was part of Frasier's fantasy (and an episode during the run of Cheers! when Frasier's mother made an appearance) — but it is not hard to conclude that both he and Niles had very loving relationships with their mother. They idolized her so much they followed her into psychiatry instead of following their father into detective work. In fact, in every conceivable way, they seemed to take after their mother.

They were both trying, almost all the time, to bond with their father, and they were always trying to outdo each other. What seemed to have come easily with their mother was like pulling teeth with their father. (How well I know that feeling.) In the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996, "Chess Pains," Frasier had to deal with the mixed emotions sons often feel when they are in some kind of competition with their fathers — and they win.

Winning, though, wasn't Frasier's problem. Let me explain.

Initially Frasier wanted someone to play chess with him on an antique chess set he had acquired. But then after he got Martin (John Mahoney) to play with him, Frasier's focus changed when Martin started winning every time. Frasier couldn't understand it. He was clearly smarter than his father, and he was convinced that he was a superior player. How could he lose every time?

If you ever watched Frasier, you know how obsessive he could be, and he began to obsess about why his father won all the time. At first, he thought it was blind luck. But the more he thought about it — and the more input he got from his brother — the more convinced he became that he had been deliberately — albeit subconsciously — losing.

As Niles observed, it is a widely accepted belief that the moment of a boy's greatest joy — and his greatest sorrow — is when he beats his father for the first time.

But even armed with that knowledge and determined to finally win, Frasier still lost, making him more frustrated and more determined to defeat his father.

It got so bad that Frasier set off the smoke alarm late one night just to wake up his father so he could get him to play one more game. Martin was reluctant to do so, especially once he realized that Frasier's obsession wasn't just about losing. It was about losing to Martin.

Martin defended his success by pointing out that he had honed many of the skills that are valuable in chess through his work as a detective — such as analyzing clues and trying to stay a step ahead of the other guy.

He wasn't going to give Frasier another game — until Frasier said he would give Martin $5,000 if he won again.

That set up a high–stakes game in which both Frasier and Martin tried to distract the other into making bad moves. Ultimately, Frasier claimed his victory — and almost immediately began obsessing over whether the outcome was on the level.

Martin assured him he had given it his best shot and that Frasier had won fair and square. Frasier left his father's room for a few seconds, then peeked back in the doorway and, in a small, almost inaudible voice, he said, "I'm sorry I beat you, Dad."

In what has to be one of my favorite sub–plots in Frasier's 11–year run, Daphne (Jane Leeves) suggested to the recently separated Niles (David Hyde Pierce) that he might be less lonely if he got a dog. So he did — a rather high–strung greyhound that apparently bore a striking resemblance to Maris.

Frasier and Martin (John Mahoney) saw the resemblance, of course, but Niles didn't. All he knew was that the dog struck a familiar chord within him. Nevertheless, the way Niles doted on the dog and the way she ignored him truly was Niles' marriage in miniature. Even a casual Frasier fan must have seen that.

When Niles and the dog left, the three stood and stared at the doorway where he had been only seconds before.

"Am I the only one?" Daphne wanted to know.

"No," Frasier and Martin replied in unison.

"Does Dr. Crane have any idea?" Daphne asked.

Again, Martin and Frasier replied in unison. "No."

I thought it was a brilliant touch.

Had the episode focused strictly on the Martin–Frasier chess matches, it would have dissolved into a one–joke story. But the introduction of the Maris substitute kept interest from flagging.

In many ways, I thought "Chess Pains" was the best episode of what may have been Frasier's best season.