Posts tagged ‘Frasier’

March 4, 2011

Invisible TV Smarts

If Frasier Crane were a real person, Frasier would be his kind of show. Before the twenty-first century that brought with it some really good TV like The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, CSI and Mad Men, Frasier might very well have been the smartest thing on TV. There were other shows that were good in their own right – Seinfeld and Friends would not have lasted as long as they did on mass appeal alone – but none as ‘smart’ as this one. Obviously, the high brown nature of its writing is tied up with the kind of characters that were written into it, namely Frasier himself and Niles. But there is another way in which the show’s writing and its characters were tied up together that made the show work.

I really should put the word characters in scare quotes, because the three characters I have in mind here, are none of the main five. They are Eddie the dog, Maris, and the phone. I think it’s obvious that Eddie is a character, but two things are interesting to me about him. The first is that he is entirely the writers’ character. There is no intermediary of actor. The second is that he is more than just a gag. Meaning that he’s not there just to provide relief and humor on the side, so to speak. He is a major vehicle of the action, sometimes a central piece. The level of his involvement did not occur to me until I thought how much I focused on the human characters and how writing an episode completely around them, and only then having to introduce Eddie into the action, would render his involvement artificial, an appendage to the flow of the show. And it never is. The writers, it seems, had to start every episode thinking about how to weave in six parts, not five plus one.

Then there’s Maris. Ah, Maris. As Frasier puts it in the first episode, she is like the sun…except without the warmth. This would be funny all on its own, if it were just a running joke, but there’s more to her. Especially in early episodes she’s an invisible, active partner in Niles’ social maneuverability. Throughout her character’s presence, she is like a giant magnet, silently tugging at Niles, influencing, if not controlling, his behavior. And of course, he most important role for the first five or six seasons is that she is the barrier between Niles and Daphne. Even when they separate, she appears in several incarnations: as a grey hound Niles has for a few episodes, one woman Niles dates in the episode when Daphne is dating a Niles’ doppelganger (Rodney), and Mel Karnofsky, whom Niles actually marries in season six, could be said to be if not Maris number two, then Maris light. And of course, she comes back at the end and inserts herself in the Crane family life once again (causing yet another rift between Niles and Daphne) when she has her affair with an Argentine polo player whom she kills with Niles’ antique cross bow. (Ah, good times.)

Again, the way in which the writers were able to incorporate her character into the weave of the show, and do so in a natural way, while keeping her completely invisible throughout (we see her shadow twice, and that’s it), is remarkable. And one of the ways they were able to do that is to keep Maris and Niles talking on the phone.

Although Seinfeld had a phone and answering machine prominently throughout the show (probably even more than Friends), the amount of phoning in Frasier outstrips them all. Just the fact that Frasier works in a call-in radio show gives him an edge. However, being upper class, both Frasier and Niles have cell phones, back when that was a tad expensive, and car phones, back when that was a bit of a rarity. But a seemingly obvious inclusion of contemporary technology into the series becomes something more in the hands of the writers of the show. To be sure, sometimes, the call-ins they have at the beginning or during the episode are simply one-liners. But a lot of the time, they move things along in subtle ways: they bring up an issue that will define an episode, they mediate the relationship between Frasier and Roz, they even start off chains of events that make the episode (like when Frasier ends up dating a woman whose ex-boyfriend he counseled on the air). The answering machine in Frasier’s apartment is in a pretty central place in the living room, and many is the episode when that machine drives the action, like when a woman keeps leaving messages about her flight information prompting Frasier to go to the airport to meet her. Not to mention that Frasier keeps in touch with his son, Fredrick and his ex-wife Lilith by phone, given that they live on the east coast, and that Daphne keeps in touch with her family (in fewer episodes, but often enough) mostly by phone. And I’ve already mentioned that most of the visible (to us) relationship between Maris and Niles happens by phone.

These invisible “characters,” I think, mostly mediate between the main five, and tie them together. They flesh out the relationships and subtly keep their interactions fresh and natural, making the writing for the show, as I said, the smartest stuff on TV in its time.