Discover more from Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs
1.1 The Good Son
If you had to sum up the tone of Frasier — its essence even — in a single gesture, you could find it in the pilot episode The Good Son. Frasier sits at his piano, playing to himself in an empty apartment, when the doorbell rings. He has been waiting for it. He stops for a moment, closing the lid in silence, and walks to the door. Then, for a brief moment, he pauses, and throws his head back to take a look at what he’s about to lose: his new-found independence, his freedom. A second later, he opens the door with false bonhomie to welcome in his father Martin, a crotchety cop retired before his time thanks to a robber’s bullet in the hip.
“There is a scenography in waiting,” wrote Roland Barthes, “I organize it, manipulate it, cut out a portion of time in which I shall mime the loss of the loved object and provoke all the effects of a minor mourning. This is then acted out as a play.” Throwing his head back, Frasier mimes his loss in waiting. Having left Boston to start a new career as a radio psychiatrist following a painful divorce, he had expected that this fresh start would mean a new life for him, a life when he could be the person he had always felt himself to be.
But then, the situation intervened, the situation around which the series’ comedy revolves. Unwilling to place their father, with whom they have nothing in common, in a residential home, Frasier and his brother Niles have agreed that Martin should live with Frasier. When he arrives, he brings with him his recliner chair. The chair becomes a monstrous karbunkle, a permanent reminder for Frasier of what he has lost. The chair is grief itself, an unspeakable and unmentionable gargoyle that parks itself in the centre of your life. Its hideous presence interrupts everything, a growth on the libidinal energy of forward motion. Until its presence is acknowledged, welcomed even, it curses Frasier.
Often, pilots are near-misses, approximations of what a show might be, before they’re tweaked and streamlined into the finished product. The Good Son is striking not only because of how it gets everything right first time, but because the episode is a microcosm of the whole show, all eleven series that follow. At the end of the show, Frasier offers a caller advice that also applies to himself — a neat conceit that will recur throughout the series. The caller is failing to cope with a breakup. “You are in mourning.” he tells her, “but you’re not mourning the loss of your boyfriend, you’re mourning the loss of what you thought your life was going to be. Let it go. Things don’t always work out the way you plan. That’s not necessarily bad. Things have a way of working out anyway.”
All of Frasier is about grief; the grieving for the lives the men (in particular) expected to lead. The grieving for a woman, Martin’s wife and Frasier and Niles’ mother, who hangs over the show by her absence, her role as the missing link that allowed father and sons to know each other. For Martin, there is the grieving for the America and for the form of masculinity that he grew up with, made flesh in his own flesh and blood. All these themes are expanded and resolved across the seasons, as they take two steps forward and one step back. It’s a motif that should be recognisable to anyone who has processed grief, either for a lost loved one or for a relationship that has ended: a strange coming-to-terms with a new world absent of something you expected to be present. After a while there might be a period where things feel ok, good, like it’s over, at last, but a small reminder can send things spinning back to the gulf of loss. Like Frasier and Martin, you never really get over it, you just learn to rethink who you might be in the world — things have a way of working out anyway. This will be the structure for the entire show, for the next 11 years: a battle against loss where class, anxiety, aging all meld into a comedy of errors and of manners, a strange groping through the years. It’s only as those years pass that they begin to make small but meaningful steps towards realising that, in the process of grieving, they have reconfigured how they lead their lives. The pilot is a model for that — but by the time it’s ended, and Frasier has learned he too is a Lupe Vélez, we’re ready to start the whole thing over again...
(thanks to Jaakko for the header image!)