Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ridding Yourself of Your Ghosts

Lana (Jean Smart): You are a really good f–––

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Don't. Don't use the F word.

Lana: I wasn't about to! I was gonna say we're friends!

Considering that Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was a psychiatrist, I thought that the greatest — perhaps only — shortcoming of the Frasier TV series was the rarity of episodes that really dove into psychiatric studies and principles.

Sure, Frasier hosted a radio program on his series in which he dispensed psychiatric advice, but the conversations with Frasier's listeners tended to be what his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) derisively called "McSessions" — brief and, to be honest, mostly written and played for laughs. Fair enough. Frasier was, after all, a sitcom.

Occasionally, Frasier would devote his radio show to a particular theme, inevitably drawing some pretty bizarre listeners from the woodwork, but I honestly felt that he seldom made his psychiatric work the centerpiece of an episode. Psychiatry was always there, and there were usually hints at something, but seldom did the writing really plunge into the subject.

That could not be said of the episode that aired on this night in 2001, kicking off Frasier's ninth season. It was called "Don Juan in Hell," and it was a full hour — which, in syndication, has been divided into two 30–minute parts.

From the beginning, the story of Frasier's character was love — more specifically, his unsuccessful quest for it. On Cheers!, his character was left at the altar, then he thought he had found love again only to lose it again. When Cheers!' run ended and Frasier began his own series, his romantic missteps became more epic.

When Frasier finally came to its conclusion, it did so with Frasier pursuing yet another love interest. The audience was to be deprived of the knowledge of how that one turned out — unless somewhere down the line there is a Frasier reunion that brings the audience up to date.

The psychiatric angles of Frasier's quest for love were rarely addressed directly. They were mostly implied. But the episode that opened the ninth season was different.

In the episode that aired 15 years ago tonight, Frasier was dating the woman he had once thought was his soulmate — Claire (played by Patricia Clarkson) — and they had gone on a trip to Belize together, but while they were there Frasier had been having second thoughts, especially after he dreamed of being in bed with the woman who brought Frasier and Claire together, his high school heartthrob Lana (Jean Smart). You know how psychiatrists are about dreams.

That was where the eighth season ended.

When the ninth season began, Frasier was torn between those two love interests, a rare circumstance for him. He was faced with a similar quandary a few seasons earlier when he told his radio show producer Roz (Peri Gilpin), "I'm a one–woman man — if that."

He seemed quite earnest about it — in his own way. If you ever watched Frasier, you know how obsessive he could be, and he was obsessive on this topic, seeking feedback from everyone from his father and brother to the guy who cleaned airplanes between flights.

Eventually, Frasier decided to go off by himself for awhile to think things through — and found himself driving with the ghosts of Diane (Shelley Long), the one who left him at the alter, and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), his ex–wife — and he began discussing his relationships with them. (Frasier's writers always punctuated episodes with title cards that frequently had meanings that were not immediately obvious. The title card that preceded this portion of the episode was appropriately labeled "Head Trip.")

As they drove along they encountered Nanette (Dina Waters), the famous Nanny Gee who was mentioned frequently but seldom seen, Frasier's first wife from his college days. Nanette, appearing as she must have when she was with Frasier, was hitchhiking, and they offered her a ride. Once inside the car, she began performing a song she had written in college to a poem Frasier wrote about Bangladesh. (I've always loved the title the show's writers gave that song — "Bangladesh: Dhaka Before the Dawn." It simply reeks of youthful idealism.)

Anyway the trio followed Frasier to a cabin in the woods, where they proceeded to evaluate his relationships with women. At that point, his mother (played by Rita Wilson) showed up, and the four began to analyze Frasier.

During their discussion, there were some delightful references to past episodes, but to know the history and get most of the inside jokes, one really needed to have seen episodes of Cheers as well as episodes of Frasier that preceded this one. There was a lot of inside baseball going on. As I understand it, most of the women were reprising, if only for a few seconds, roles they played previously on one of the shows. (Wilson had played a Frasier love interest who strongly resembled Frasier's mother in an earlier episode, and Long and Neuwirth were regulars on Cheers!.) If a face looked familiar, there was a good reason for that.

Finally, Frasier could stand no more, and he bolted for the door of the cabin — only to find waiting for him on the porch all the women he had ever dated.

That led him to conclude that those three primary love interests and his mother (who referred to the other three as "the slacker, the barmaid and the icicle") were at the root of his problem. They had created a fear of rejection that was with him on every date and in every relationship. They were a constant reminder, he told them, of how emotionally risky pursuing a relationship can be.

"How will I ever move forward if I don't put you behind me?" he asked.

And all four disappeared.

I thought it was the writers' best, most thought–provoking exploration of the psychiatry in a character since an episode that aired nearly 20 years ago, "The Impossible Dream." I plan to write about that one on its anniversary next month.

The episode was dedicated to the memories of Frasier creator and executive producer David Angell and his wife Lynn, who died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "Don Juan in Hell" aired two weeks to the day after the terrorist attacks.

Ironically, more than four years before the attacks, a Frasier episode mentioned American Airlines Flight 11. It was, of course, purely coincidental — but eerie in hindsight.

(That episode, "Odd Man Out," was first shown nearly 20 years ago. I plan to write about it when it observes that anniversary next May.)