Saturday, June 05, 2004

Neuroses ya later

Whereas the buildup to the series finale of Friends was characterized by a misty water-colored nostalgia about the end of an era, the slog to the finish line for Frasier was characterized mostly by Kelsey Grammer’s grumbling about all the attention being lavished upon Friends. It wasn’t just that Friends was hipper or more popular… it was more loved. Frasier was admired, but even by its most ardent fans, at its peak, I’m not sure it was ever loved. Certainly that’s how I felt.

Maybe its because the two characters at its “heart” were distant, superior and a little off-putting while the other three characters were too often looked down upon by their scribes. Maybe it’s that the relationships had ceased to develop since Niles and Daphne hooked up (the quickly aborted flirtation with a Frasier-Roz romance doesn’t count). Or most likely, it’s that the show was always more cerebral than from the heart.

Then again, all these criticisms could be leveled at Seinfeld, and I think that people legitimately love that series, if not the characters, so who knows.

Anyway, I doubt many people not on the Paramount or NBC payroll were particularly sad to see Frasier bid adieu. In fact, dare I say that the "evil spotlight-hogging" Friends finale actually made people care more than they might have otherwise? Losing Frasier would’ve been one thing, but losing it on top of Friends and Sex and the City made its demise seem more urgent and noteworthy – a part of the epidemic death of the quality sitcom. Anyone who’s been to summer camp can attest that saying goodbye to one friend you haven’t been that close to for the last few years isn’t nearly as emotionally devastating as saying goodbye to a cabin full of friends all at once.

Polling the critical ether, its unanimously agreed upon that this final season was the series’ best in years, and who am I to question ether? Indeed, the wordplay was funnier and the stories better conceived and more tightly crafted, if not quite up to the standards set by the first few Emmy-winning seasons. The characters, who had drifted into caricatures, became more real again, even if Roz and Daphne still struggled to be more than obligatory stand-ins most episodes. Overall though, it was a surprisingly satisfying victory lap for the old stalwart.

There was a lot that was right about the final episode, starting with the title, “Goodnight, Seattle” (I’m a sucker for a good episode title). The writing was clever and funny and classy. The tone was well-set – a good balance of bitter and sweet, closure and new beginnings (despite what NBC’s near parodies of series finale promos might’ve led you to believe – A Wedding! A Birth! A Soul Mate! – all that was missing from the pantheon of climactic clichés was a death and a flight to Paris). Yet while the wedding and the birth were developed throughout the season and handled with remarkable restraint for a sitcom, it was the “soul mate” part of the promotional equation that left me with a mixed reaction to the finale.

Actually, both of Frasier’s stories were problematic. First, Frasier’s new job offer wound up being a pointless fake-out… and to what purpose? I liked the idea of him closing the Seattle chapter of his life and the wistful notion that he was no longer needed there (this could’ve been emphasized further by a cold open at the radio station (which is how most of the early seasons’ episodes began) where the people of the city are all of such sound mental health that nobody calls in). But the idea that he could be lured away purely by a higher salary was neither satisfying, nor true to his character. The fact that he didn’t take it in the end doesn’t matter – he did, at one point, accept the offer.

Second, the love of his life was introduced too late in the season for us to feel satisfied by her. It didn’t help that she wasn’t written in any special way that immediately signaled she was any different from the hundreds of other women Frasier had dated. Nor were they helped by casting Laura Linney, not a particularly warm or endearing actor (think about her movie roles – is she ever loveable? Likeable, even? More times than not, the answer is “no.”).

One last note to future series finale writers – the end of the show is the event, there’s no need for guest stars? Who’d have thought that Friends, a series frequently criticized for its use of stunt casting, would be outdone in this respect by Frasier? Every interesting bit character that had ever appeared on Seinfeld? That works (sort of). Jason Biggs as a bumbling doctor and Jennifer Beals on the plane? Gratuitous. Oh, but casting the same guy who brought Martin's chair into the apartment in the pilot to take it out in the finale? Well-played.


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