My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.
TV land is littered with the carcasses of failed spin-offs. What can seem like a good idea at the time – hey, let’s give this break out character her own show! – often ends up being embarrassing (three words: Joanie Loves Chachi). But sometimes spin-offs work – for every Joey, there’s an Angel. What makes a spin-off work is being able to draw a supporting character out, and make her interesting enough to be a central figure, and it means giving her more to do. Often break-out characters are popular because they spout some crazy catch phrase, or because they’re wacky – in small doses that can be tolerable, even enjoyable, but trying to create a whole vehicle around a catch phrase is difficult.
That’s what makes Frasier so special. It took an important supporting character from an iconic show (Cheers), and successfully created a new ensemble around him. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was the pompous, amorous barfly psychologist on Cheers, who acted as a romantic foil for Shelly Long’s Diane Chambers, and initially the character seemed more barbed. What the creators of Frasier did was fit Frasier into a French farce style sitcom. The character became more sympathetic and three-dimensional, and much kinder in the spin-off. The show also heightened his hauteur by matching it with the sophisticated, sparking tone of the writing. Cheers celebrated the dignity of working class people, while Frasier reveled in the absurdity of the upper class. Like Cheers, Frasier was a dynamic ensemble show, featuring a cast of incredible comedians – first among equals is David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s younger brother, Niles, also a psychologist; John Mahoney played crotchety pop Martin, who is permanently disabled by a bullet to the him; Jane Leeves is Martin’s physical therapist, Daphne, who caught Niles’ eye, and the two characters engaged in a will they/won’t they tango for about 9 of the show’s seasons, mirroring Cheers‘ Sam and Diane story lines; and Fraiser has a work buddy, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), a sexually liberated cut up who’s on hand to puncture any of Frasier’s inflated ego.
“Fathers and Sons” is a late episode – it’s near the end of the 10’s season (the show’s penultimate season). In the 10th season, Daphne and Niles are adjusting to married life, while Frasier is still trying to find Ms. Right. The episode is important because it provides some backstory into Martin’s marriage to Frasier’s mom, forensic psychologist, Hester (sometimes played in flashbacks by Rita Wilson). In the first season, Martin reveals that Hester cheated on him – the infidelity wasn’t mentioned again until “Fathers and Sons,”when her old friend, Leland Barton (M*A*S*H‘s David Ogden Stiers) comes to visit. Leland was Hester’s research assistant, and the two were extremely close.
During Leland’s visit, Roz can’t help but note just how similar his mannerisms are to Frasier’s and Niles’. This plot device is a perfect way to goose up the prissiness of the main characters – David Hyde Pierce is especially wonderful and the physical comedy. The Crane boys and Leland share a love of opera, art, sherry – all the finer things in life that Martin looks at with disdain (he’s never happier than basking in his recliner). Up until this episode, we’re meant to understand that Frasier and Niles got their high-minded thoughts and behaviors from the intellectual Hester, but Roz is startled at the similarities and stupidly shares her suspicions with Martin.
At this point, the show becomes classic farce – a comedy of errors that Frasier is so well-known for. Martin is nursing his deep fears that he may not be the biological father to his boys, and must watch as every tiny glimpse of commonality between Leland and the Crane boys is amplified. At one point, Martin comes in at night to see an ailing Frasier tucked in bed, being red to by Leland, and later on he sees Niles toddling over to Leland’s outstretched arms like a baby learning his first steps. The twist is that Leland was reading excerpts of his memoirs to Frasier, and Niles was struggling to straighten out his cramping legs. The show reveled in this kind of mistaken comedy – though some may compare it to the kind of goings on that took place on Three’s Company, there’s something appealing about the frantic, misplaced comedy of Frasier.
But more importantly, the episode showed that Martin Crane really loved his sons. Too many times during the show, Martin’s macho demeanor meant he couldn’t open up to his sons in a meaningful way. By the 10th season, though, the characters’ differences mellowed out, and a cohesive, oft-harmonious concert too place every week. Things were never perfect, and Martin’s more humble interests always unnerved Frasier, but the closeness was apparent. In “Fathers and Sons,” Martin is faced with the possibility that maybe his sons aren’t his – but then Roz asks the perfect question: would he love them any less if they weren’t his biological sons. “Of course, I wouldn’t,” he immediately answers (though a few seconds later, he consents that maybe he would – but I always take this as Martin’s curmudgeon sense of humor, always on, even in times of family crisis).
I liked that Frasier took a potentially devastating story and told it through a distinctly Frasierian-like manner. Lots of effete comedy with sentiment folded in. In this episode, Grammer and Pierce are stellar, but it’s Mahoney who’s the MVP, being able to play Martin’s edgy, panicked nervousness brilliantly. His wide-mouthed takes are great, and I loved when Martin tried to join Frasier, Niles, and Leland in a rousing rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major -General’s Song,” by desperately bellowing “With many cheerful facts about the scary hippopotamus,” while the others warbled, “with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”
As raucous and fun as the episode is, it deals with some heavy subjects: namely infidelity. Martin adores his wife and idealizes her despite their history (he even blames himself for the affair), and is wounded that her memory is, yet again tainted. It’s hard enough for him to reconcile her affair with his memories of her, if what Roz guesses is true, then Hester not only cheated on Martin, once but twice – and took her secret to her grave. As Leland leaves for the airport, Martin confronts the man he suspects was Hester’s paramour – Leland admits that he loved Hester very much, to which Martin hesitantly asks, “how much.” Leland replies, “Enough to trust her with the fact that I’m gay.” Mahoney, yet again, does wonders – in just a few seconds, he manages to convey surprise, relief, happiness, and regret. Because Martin realized how unfair he was to Leland and his friendship to Hester, he generously reminded him that she loved him too. The two part on good terms, and Martin is reassured that the Crane boys are his.
“Fathers and Sons” came at a point in Fraiser‘s history when the show started to wind down. There was a sense of closing doors at this point, and it’s only fitting that the shows – despite all being very funny – also included moments of gravity and tenderness. Martin loves his sons – though he’s rarely demonstrative, until he’s unsure of his paternity, and then he’s all over them, slapping their backs, and enthusing about “his boys, his boys.” Roz’s question earlier in the episode about Martin’s fear – “Would you love them any less?” is interesting because so much of Cheers was about building a family unit of friends and/or coworkers. But with Frasier, the family unit is comprised of blood relatives (Fraiser, Niles, Martin), spouses (Daphne), and close friends (Roz). So for Roz to bring up “what makes a real family” is interesting because those two characters in particular have created a familial bond with each other that initially was dependent only on their connection with Frasier, but later grew to a love for each other that was independent from him. What makes the episode feel safe is that even if a strange Maury-style twist occurred at the end, in which Martin was deemed “not the father,” I know that he’d still love “his boys” regardless.