In the Better Know a TV Formula series, we look at seminal episodes of television shows that rely on (or subvert) classic narrative structures. Woof. That sounds pretentious. Really, we just like to know what makes our favourite television work, and structure can be a huge part of that success. Dive in with us!
The classic TV comedy Frasier is known for a number of firsts and bests. The critically-acclaimed series netted over 35 primetime Emmy wins over its 11-year run, and countless other awards and nominations. Critical acclaim and awards don’t always translate into watchable or lovable programs, but in the case of Frasier (and in my not-so-humble opinion), the show is both watchable and lovable, even 10+ years after its series finale aired. Of course, this isn’t an automatic feat, and if you are looking for a contemporary program from the time that hasn’t aged well (why would anyone look for that?), check out an episode of Will and Grace. Acting strength of Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes aside, that show is pretty terrible on re-watch. So what sets Frasier apart? It’s a strong narrative structure that supports well-developed comedic instincts that don’t show their age the way some other shows do.
Let’s look at an example episode. One of my favourites is “Look Before You Leap” which aired in 1996 during the show’s third season.
The Premise: Frasier encourages his friends and family to take a leap of some kind in the spirit of embracing the Leap Year.
Much of the heavy lifting of the series is done by Kelsey Grammar’s spirited portrayal of the lovable fussbudget Frasier Crane. For a character who can be very self-involved and oblivious, he is also drawn as a fundamentally kind and good-natured person in a world that seems to lack them. His enthusiasm for getting the people he loves to step outside of their comfort zones and take their leaps is just one example of this. He encourages Daphne to try a new hairstyle, pushes Roz to pursue a romantic chance encounter that is teeming with potential, and helps Martin take a trip to see a friend in Montana.
The Conflict: Each of the leaps Frasier encouraged ends in some form of disaster.
This is far from the only time in the series when Frasier’s ideas don’t pan out. See also: every time he and Niles attempt to host a party (the curse of being a Crane, as Daphne would later find out), when he tries to hire an ethical agent instead of the deliciously amoral Bebe Glazer, or when he makes an impassioned speech to the condo board of the Elliot Bay Towers about Martin’s hot tub indiscretions. Part of the fun of the series is watching an overly-educated man who thinks he’s got this life thing figured out bumble his way through it, the way we all do. In the case of this episode, Daphne’s makeover goes completely awry, ending with children pointing and screaming at her. Martin’s plane gets caught in a storm and he experiences a harrowing escape.
And, in my favourite shot of the episode, while seated at his radio mic, Frasier waxes romantic about the possibilities taking a personal leap holds for all of us while in the background Roz learns that the man she tracked down from their chance encounter on a bus is married and wants to have an affair with her (the perfect visual touch on the scene is Roz beating the guy over the head with the flowers that he purchased for her).
The Resolution: Frasier abandons his own advice and falls flat on his face.
Like many episodes of the series, “Look Before You Leap” ends with a descent in an exaggerated comedic space that is just believable enough to be utterly hilarious. In this example, Frasier has promised his fans and listeners that he will challenge himself by singing a difficult aria from the opera Rigolleto instead of a simple song that he always sings at the local PBS pledge drive. Seeing how badly the leaps of his friends and family have gone, Frasier makes a last-minute change at the drive and opts for the old classic, “Buttons and Bows,” instead. His attempts to save face while he baldly forgets most of the words showcase a master class in flop sweat, and while Martin and Daphne revel in Frasier’s downfall, so do we.
The structure of Frasier sets us up for this great payoff. We observe the blustery, know-it-all psychiatrist working to be the architect of his own life and the lives of those around him. He fancies himself the great conductor of his symphony, and his socio-economic status as not only a professional but a medical doctor and small-time celebrity continually inflate his self-grandeur. It’s one of the great myths of the modern middle class—education and/or celebrity leads to happiness, stability, and control in life. Of course this isn’t necessarily the case, and as we watch poor Frasier struggle on live TV with sad ad libs like “let’s all go to a…taco show!” we are reminded that even people who sit in very privileged positions can get in their own way. The reward for the viewer is built into the foundation of the episode, and as the show progresses, we wonder if Frasier will follow his own (possibly terrible) advice. The fact that he doesn’t, and then still pays for it is the mark of a solidly written episode of television.
Treat yo’ self to the full performance of “Buttons and Bows” here: