Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Season Of A Lot Of Highs And Unmemorable Episodes: Frasier: The Complete Sixth Season!

The Good: Very funny, Wonderful character development, Great acting
The Bad: A few duds, No DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Very funny, with some truly charming character moments, the sixth season of Frasier is a real winner, even with the sense of repetition in the plots.

Sometimes, when evaluating critically-acclaimed, wonderful television series, it can be tough to consider them outside the hype surrounding them. I think this is more difficult as a series goes on, but that an objective analysis of a series often makes some of the peak seasons look much more average by comparison. I think this is an especially common trend in the long-running television shows because there is often a sense of repetition in them than in shows that never have a chance to peak or slowly die. To wit, Frasier is an amazing television show that is remarkably funny, but in its sixth season, it begins to rely more on tricks that worked in the past than truly innovating with the show. So, for example, the series discovered a few seasons prior that the Frasier audience can handle simple farce well and in Frasier The Complete Sixth Season, there are 5 episodes (most notably "Decoys") that are essentially classic comedic farces with characters colliding, having near misses and situations that revolve around misconceptions that are very simple, but humorously drawn out.

This is not to say the sixth season of Frasier is not funny: it is and it is still smarter than virtually any other series on television, but on DVD, for fans who have been following the series, at this point it feels a little familiar in many places. What keeps "Frasier" smart and compelling is the way the show is serialized, so the characters grow from episode to episode, regardless of the plot absurdities. And in the sixth season, there are some of the greatest moments of the series and some of the most heartwrenching, as well. Fans will love this season because of the milestones and it marks a key turning point in the character of Niles, yet is also remarkably accessible to those who have not been fans of Frasier before this point.

The sixth season begins with the staff of KACL still reeling in the wake of Frasier inadvertently getting everyone fired in the fifth season finale. Frasier goes through a complex grieving process for his lost job, mourning it as if it were a death. While KACL stays with its all-salsa music format, Frasier struggles to find a new job and soon he and Roz are the only ones from the station not employed elsewhere. As Frasier struggles to find work, Niles struggles to retain his lifestyle as Maris and her lawyers drag out the divorce proceedings. After an attempt to win Niles back with gifts and trinkets, Maris turns nasty and Niles is pushed to the edge of destitution.

Everything changes, though, when Frasier returns to work and starts actively dating. Niles, forced to move into the ratty Shangri-La apartment, is bled dry until he swaps his legal team for Roz's ex-boyfriend Donny Douglas, who unearths the secret to Maris's wealth and manages to get Niles his life back. That life, though, comes with a horrible consequence for Niles, as Donny and Daphne fall quickly in love and Niles's attempts to break them up fail. As the season winds to a close, things look good for the Crane men and Daphne until a string of freak accidents change the romantic fates of all!

Despite the prevalence of plot-heavy farces, the sixth season of Frasier has some moments that are quite well done and the show earns its high accolades. Especially smart is the way the unemployment plot is drawn out for the first half of the season. Frasier suffers quite a bit for work and his financial situation leads him to cut back. This is nice for viewers as we are much less like Frasier most of the time and his predicaments become much more relatable. Similarly, when Niles has to get rid of his BMW for a hatchback, we feel his character's pain because he has been Maris's whipping boy for so very long and her dragging the divorce out is painful to watch.

Even so, even some of the farce episodes have their merit. "Dial M For Martin," for example starts at a very natural character place. Daphne, realizing that Martin no longer needs her, begins to look for other work and Martin, frustrated with the unemployed Frasier, moves in with Niles. At that point, Daphne finds another job and Martin is brutalized unintentionally by Niles, who subconsciously appears to be trying to keep Daphne around! The chases and reversals in the episode are outlandish and cute, but they start from a very sensible sense of character and a strong plot sensibility. Daphne's correct in the episode in her assertion that it is her time to move on and it works as a great setup for the plot! "Decoys" uses a much more cliché "Niles uses Roz to break up Daphne and Donny" plot, but it is still a very funny episode.

It should also be noted that Frasier The Complete Sixth Season also boasts one of the television clips that was widely recognized as the funniest clip of 1999. In the episode "Three Valentines," the first act features Niles preparing for a date and actor David Hyde Pierce plays opposite Eddie (the dog) for a hilarious six minute physical comedy bit that has the fussy Niles starting with trying to get his pleat ironed and ends with him setting Frasier's apartment on fire! This is a genius bit of physical comedy that is timed perfectly and is unlike most of the rest of Frasier. David Hyde Pierce carries the scene perfectly and the bit holds up even after a decade as utterly hilarious.

Similarly, "To Tell The Truth" is one of the best episodes of the entire series, as it changes the Niles storyline irrevocably. In the course of a single episode, Niles changes lawyers, Daphne (almost) learns of his feelings for her, Niles gets his divorce and Daphne hooks up with Donny! So much is packed into the episode, it carries more emotional weight for Frasier viewers than the more lackluster season finale, which leaves the audience at a more familiar place (and with less of a hook to return for the next season than the fifth season had).

As with all great and notable television boxed sets, it helps to know who the characters are. In the sixth season of Frasier the principle characters are:

Dr. Frasier Crane - After mourning the loss of his job, Frasier starts looking for other opportunities on radio and television. After a disheartening stretch, when he is also unlucky romantically, he and the KACL staff return to the air when KACL returns to a talk format. At that time, he tries to help Niles with his divorce and he finds himself dating two women and when he chooses the one he wants, he cannot remember her name! This is also the season where Frasier is visited by Woody (from Cheers) and during Frederick's visit for Christmas, Frasier is arrested for giving a ride to a prostitute . . . a male prostitute,

Dr. Niles Crane - After two years of separation, Maris turns up the heat and tries to bankrupt him, forcing him to move out of his swanky place at the Montana and into a real dive of an apartment. Unable to spend on lavish things, he becomes distraught until he hires Donny Douglas and wins a divorce settlement that surprises everyone. Now free to pursue Daphne, he is distraught by her love of Donny. Even so, he discovers that his I.Q. is quite a bit higher than Frasier's . . . right before an illness knocks him unconscious in front of three Nobel laureates! He begins dating a free and easy young woman when he realizes Daphne is no longer attainable,

Roz Doyle - Frasier's producer and now a single mother, she finds herself in a long dry spell for dates. When the sinister Dr. Nora takes over the timeslot after their show, Roz conspires with Frasier to get her off the air. And in her attempts to avoid Noel's advances, she ends up with the least likely companion imaginable,

Daphne Moon - Reluctant to leave Martin, she realizes his health is up to a standard that he no longer needs her. Inadvertently wounding him, she and Martin move back in with Frasier and she continues on as his physical therapist. Somewhat loony until she meets Donny, she analogizes Martin to a pet and offends her charge. After she and Donny get serious, she has a psychic vision of her one true love,

And Martin Crane - Feeling happier and more robust, Martin prepares for life without Daphne and moves in with Niles, but has second thoughts when Niles accidentally knocks his cane out from under him while they are on the stairs. After being injured again, he moves back in with Frasier and is psyched when Frasier begins dating Duke's daughter (who suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder). After being bored by being set up with Roz's mother, he starts dating a waitress from McGinty's, but begins to wonder about the future of the relationship when her dog and Eddie have an awkward first meeting.

(It should be noted that Bulldog starts the season as a credited full-cast member, but is dropped midseason, largely because there were no episodes with the character! This season, Bulldog gets his job back quickly and hooks up with Roz . . . right before losing his job!).

Like a lot of NBC comedies of the late 1990s, Frasier relies on a number of celebrity guest stars in its sixth season. While the show has traditionally relied on famous personalities to appear mostly as vocal talents as callers to Frasier's radio show, this season more appear on-screen. While call-in celebrities this season include the likes of Gillian Anderson, William H. Macy and Ron Howard, recognizable on-screen talents include Christine Baranski, Virginia Madsen, Fritz Weaver, Teri Hatcher and Amy Brenneman,. Recurring roles by Brenneman and Saul Rubinek as Donny Douglas become quite memorable. What separates the appearances of these celebrities from many other NBC shows (which I tend not to like as much) is that the roles tend to be more meaty and have a weight to them that goes beyond the celebrity appearance appeal. So, for example, when Teri Hatcher appears in "First Do No Harm," there is no applause from a studio audience to indicate she is someone of note. And Hatcher gives a surprisingly good (and very funny) performance, portraying an OCD-ridden personality masterfully!

On DVD, Frasier: The Complete Sixth Season comes with no DVD bonus features. That's a big fat zero on the bonus front and Paramount ought to be ashamed about that. There are rich episodes here that deserve a commentary track of their own! Instead, disc one features advertisements for other DVDs and that's all. This is a huge letdown for the fans.

Fortunately, the source material is delivered with a consistent humor and it is bound to delight anyone who loves situational comedy and who likes vivid characters. David Hyde Pierce gives great performances and Kelsey Grammer and Jane Leeves also have some moments of performance that are truly wonderful, making their characters more empathetic than they have been at other times in the show. Thoroughly entertaining and well worth any DVD collector's time!

For reviews of other comedy series', please check out:
Family Guy - Volume 1
Sports Night
30 Rock - Season 3


For other television program reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here.

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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