90. "Daphne's Room," Frasier (1995)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here. NOTE: Thanks to the A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff for tweeting about the project!
At least half of all sitcoms are primarily concerned with how people share households without "driving each other crazy." In the 1950s, this was kind of boring, since most sitcoms were about married couples, usually with young kids, and writers couldn't have the characters go at each other's throats because Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hadn't been written yet and couldn't be parodied. And even Edward Albee didn't put child actors in his play.
Plot possibilities grew enormously as more and more sitcoms featured grown children still living at home (like Steptoe/Sanford and Son and All in the Family) and, then, completely unrelated adults (like The Odd Couple). There was more comic tension because the characters could threaten to move out, and the very survival of the household was at stake in many episodes. And as sitcoms got more risque (from Three's Company to Friends), writers could add all kinds of plots involving sexual tension and jealousy. Funnily enough, America has evolved to become more like the modern sitcom, with more and more households that include adults of different generations.
Frasier: She goes into my bedroom all the time and it doesn't bother me.
Martin: Women are different.
Frasier: Dad, that is sexism talking.
Martin: No, that's 35 years of marriage talking. Women protect their privacy. You know how they are about their handbags. You never go in there! It's always, "Bring me my purse." A husband could say, "Honey, I'm being robbed! The guy's holding a gun to my head, and I don't have any money!" The wife'd say, "bring me my purse."
Niles: (holding a glass of what we can assume is an absurdly overpriced wine) Dad, as usual, your simple homespun wisdom has pricked the balloon of Frasier's pomposity.
Martin doesn't have it completely right. The difference isn't just that Daphne is a woman; it's that she's an employee living in the apartment with Frasier's permission, and invading her privacy reinforces her lower status. "A servant like me doesn't deserve privacy," Daphne says sarcastically, as she empties her handbag on the coffee table. (To see a man get even more upset with his landlord snooping in his bedroom, check out the All in the Family episode "Archie Goes Too Far," also embedded below.)
There's a meta aspect to "Daphne's Room" in that the bedroom is almost always off-limits to us viewers as well, safely hidden upstage from the main Frasier set. (I think this is it's first appearance.) So we're as titillated as Frasier too see her odd mementos and, ultimately, her strip tease. (Niles, on the morning after Frasier's accidental voyeurism, takes out a pad and pencil and proposes, "I'll show you how I've always imagined her, and you show me how I'm wrong.")
I can't think of any equivalent in a single-camera sitcom (are they hampered by realism?), but other multi-camera sitcoms have their forbidden zones: the Kramdens' bedroom on The Honeymooners (where Alice must keep the pots and pans conspicuously absent from the kitchen); the ground floor of the police station on Barney Miller; and Jerry's bedroom and Kramer's apartment on Seinfeld, which we get only occasional, partial views of. In the first episode of Cheers in which Sam and Diane sleep together, we never see Diane's bedroom, though the characters keep walking in and out of it (and yelling from it). But in today's sitcoms, we rarely have to wonder what, say, Barney Stinson's bedroom looks like on How I Met Your Mother. Just as we seem to be losing privacy in real life, sitcom characters seem to have run of hiding places.
• The main theme of the episode is neatly set up in the first minute, when we see what Frasier does when he's alone in the apartment: He plays Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire" on the piano before the sound of a key in the door causes him to switch to a classical piece.
• The ending of "Daphne's Room" is underwhelming, but there few other options, given that the show's premise won't allow Daphne to actually move out. Frasier solves everything by spending a lot of money, a common occurrence in American sitcoms (even The Andy Griffith Show, in "Bargain Day"). But I don't think any sitcom character has come close to shelling out as much money to stay out of trouble as Larry David in just about every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
• Martin would later have his privacy violated in "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," in which the rest of the household is upset by the prospect of his proposing to his girlfriend:
Daphne: I've got some shocking news. I found a ring in your father's underwear drawer.
Frasier: (shocked) What on earth would leave a ring around his underwear drawer?
"Archie Goes Too Far":