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Slow Tango in South Seattle

By Nikhil R. Mulani

When I first saw "Frasier,” I couldn’t help but think the show had a strange premise. Why would a middle-aged man seeking to make a “fresh start” move to a city where his brother and father already live?

After watching the show more, I realized I was unnerved only because the current trend in media is to portray life as an exercise in separation. These days, television directors enjoy illustrating divisions between “work” and “life,” not only between the professional and the personal, but also within personal life.

Family has become a burden in the world of televised comedy. Popular contemporary comedies, such as “Big Bang Theory,” “New Girl,” and “Girls,” tend to have a myopic focus on friendship, to the exclusion of professional and familial life—this allows them to validate the prevailing belief that taking on meaningful responsibilities threatens to destroy the possibility of “having a life.” “Frasier” counters the popular narrative of a “separated” life, in which the household and workplace are holding us back, and replaces it with a convincing argument that embracing and understanding personal history is key to moving forward.

Instead of giving in to artificial divisions, “Frasier” focuses on the nuances of how different areas of life overlap. By being meticulous in depicting how familial and professional issues pervade every aspect of the characters’ lives, the show gives us characters more well-drawn than those found in almost any other sitcom.

A minute focus on domestic life is the source of much of the show’s wit and charm. Much of the first season revolves around Frasier and his father, Martin, having impassioned arguments about the aesthetic incompatibility of an armchair with the rest of the living room décor. For Martin, the armchair is all he has left of his marriage and police career. For Frasier, it is little more than a kitschy intruder into his carefully curated Afro-Bauhaus furniture collection.

Being a man who spends his days listening to the troubles of people in need, the radio psychiatrist has surprisingly little patience for his father’s simple habits and colloquialisms.  The armchair is the tiny beginning of a long chain of household annoyances. Frasier’s fastidious younger brother, Niles, is both embarrassed by and jealous of Frasier’s “fast food” approach to psychiatry. Niles, in turn, is a regular source of pain to his wife, Maris—an unseen character whose obvious displeasure with their marriage is only visible in Niles’ strewn hair and flushed face whenever he walks through the door.

All these intimate frustrations are mocked by the presence of Daphne Moon, a complete outsider to the Crane family. As a “live-in healthcare worker” for Martin, her loopy accent and sporadic anecdotes about a truly dysfunctional family serve to illuminate the breathtaking insularity of Crane squabbles.

The first episode of “Frasier” aired twenty years ago, and few shows since have been able to capture family life with the same level of insight. NBC’s “Chuck” accomplished something similar using the time-honored espionage narrative as a way to disrupt illusions about work-life separation. But in the process, it substituted Californian campiness for a Seattleite’s subtlety.

In acknowledging that understanding family is a lifelong endeavor, “Frasier” spends much time painstakingly deconstructing complex relationships into the simplest of interactions. The viewer gets to enjoy the intellectually satisfying and highly entertaining task of putting the pieces back together.

In the first season finale, we learn that it has been a year since Frasier moved to Seattle. At Café Nervosa, Niles innocently poses the question “Are you happy?” and Frasier cheekily responds by asking Niles if he really loves his wife, gleefully needling him about marrying Maris for money.

As Niles’ question remains unanswered, Frasier’s anxiety and obsessiveness is paraded before us: he repeatedly sends back his coffee, perturbed by specks of cinnamon, and makes wisecracks about living with his father.

Finally, Martin shows up, distraught over both of his sons forgetting his birthday. In wake of this revelation, Niles and Frasier are mortified at their shallow conversation and decide to take their father out to dinner at a restaurant of his choice. The episode ends with Frasier sitting alone in the café, the waitress walking up to him with his nth cup of coffee, asking “Are you happy now?”

We are relieved to hear Frasier finally admit he is, actually, happy. It brings out into the open a truth we rarely acknowledge. Despite all the annoyances we have with others in our own lives, we are not crazy to believe that the continual process of breaking down and building up relationships in our lives is enough to make us content.

By season five, the eyes of the entire Crane household twinkle with suppressed laughter when a houseguest expresses surprise at seeing Marty’s armchair in the fashionable apartment. Over the course of 11 seasons, coping becomes understanding, and understanding becomes love.

Perhaps some television shows choose to compartmentalize or ignore familial interactions because such experiences are intensely personal and dissimilar. But “Frasier” doesn’t attempt to generalize. Rather, the show gives us a truly outlandish family—so outlandish it is immediately recognizable.

All we have to do (like the hero of the show, when he’s at his best) is sit back, listen, and discover that— family or not—the most realistic depictions are born when a multitude of eccentricities are thrown together.

Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.

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