Monday, July 16, 2012

Frasier : "The Innkeepers"

Season Two, Episode 23
Original Airdate: May 16, 1995
Writer: David Lloyd
Director: James Burrows
Executive Producers: David Angell, Peter Casey, Kelsey Grammer, David Lee, Christopher Lloyd
Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jane Leeves, David Hyde Pierce, Peri Gilpin, John Mahoney

“The Innkeepers” is a classic example of a slow-burn sitcom episode, but transcends most others because its mechanics are so well-hidden. In many respects, the viewer doesn’t even know he is being set up for the explosive finale until the payoffs actually happen. This is because the clues are so well-hidden and because they are all draped in humor that actually works. In “The Wizard of Oz,” one of the classic lines is “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Here, we don’t see the man or the curtain because we are having too much fun watching the show.

The premise couldn’t be simpler: Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) decide to buy a restaurant. Their father (John Mahoney) tells them it’s going to wrong, and they don’t listen. Chaos ensues. If the idea of the brothers doing this sounds a little farfetched, the show’s writer David Lloyd must have known this, and spends an entire act making the purchase a realistic venture. After learning Orsini’s Restaurant is closing, the Niles waxes lyrical about how he had happy childhood memories there, and they decide to make one more family trip, complete with Daphne (Jane Leeves), to reminisce. They use logic to convince themselves to buy – after all, the eatery is in a prime location, and a head chef at a rival restaurant is unhappy there, etc. One could almost be convinced that this is a good venture (Frasier: “I’ve always wanted to own a four-star restaurant.” Niles: “What growing boy hasn’t?”), though Martin gets a few great zingers in before the deal is done.

We shift to opening night, and that’s where the show hits its stride. “Frasier” never talked down to its audience, though its characters often found themselves talking down to those they encountered, and here Lloyd ensured that every calamity felt natural and understandable, given the circumstances. After all, can you really blame Frasier and Niles for not knowing which swinging door is “in” and which one is “out”? And instead of allowing the situation to dovetail into some sort of rivalry between the brothers, which would have been so easy and done by most lesser sitcoms, there’s only one small beat where Frasier insists on a large soufflĂ© dish and Niles wants small, individual ones.

Now for the build-up to the explosive payoffs. In every scripted film or television show worth its salt, writers plant small hints as to what’s coming early in the episode so that when the payoff happens, it makes sense logically. Look at twist in “The Sixth Sense” as a perfect example of a dozen clues hidden logically in plain sight that take on resonance when the finale happens. Here, the set-ups are disguised well because they are in the form of jokes, and they all land, making you think that’s the end of it. The character of Otto is set up as a probably-senile waiter in the restaurant, and when Frasier and Niles take it over, they turn him into a valet because they don’t want to let him go. Frasier carries around a walkie to call down to Otto and have him drive the valet cars to the entrance, and every time he calls back “Who is this!?” We think that’s the punchline, and the fact that it recurs makes it even funnier because Frasier gets more and more desperate every time he speaks to Otto. It is never, ever, ever, ever implied that Otto should not be behind the wheel of a car. If that were even hinted at in a line, the twist of climaxing the episode by having Otto drive a car through the wall would have been spoiled. It’s funniest sitcom car crash in history, rivaled only by this one from “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And yet, as the car goes through that wall, it makes complete logical sense and is all the funnier because it is genuinely surprising.

The pacing of the episode is brisk and the director, James Burrows, pulls off some intricate, complicated choreography with the characters and storylines. It all looks so easy, but at one point he is juggling Martin at the bar, Frasier seating people, Roz and her date and Niles and Daphne self-destructing in the kitchen all at once. Burrows has won 10 Emmys over the course of his career, and is it any wonder? With the possible exception of William Asher, this man has given us more indelible comic television images than any other, hands down. Looking down a list of his credits is like looking through a slice of television history: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “NewsRadio,” Friends,” “Will & Grace” … and those shows are just scratching the surface.

The episode is also notable because it is a true ensemble act. No character is the main focus, but each one gets one of the major climactic pay-offs. The restaurant goes into a brown-out when Niles drops a toaster into the eel aquarium. Daphne grabs an eel by the tail and smashes it on the counter. Roz explodes the cherries jubilee. And Frasier facilitates (and watches in horror during) the aforementioned car crash. Any one of these moments is good enough to make the episode memorable, but together they make it great television.

“The Innkeepers” is available on the second season DVD of “Frasier,” Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus (ugh), iTunes and Youtube.

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