13. "The Two Mrs. Cranes," Frasier (1996)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Make-believe is a child's game, but the fun of pretending to be someone else never really goes away. That's why so many people attempt acting careers, or just fantasize about being in the movies. It's why I once joined an improvisational comedy group despite having no acting ability. (I got to work the lights.) But when there's no money-making potential involved, make-believe has disreputable or decadent connonations. That's why most adults practice it, if at all, in the bedroom.
Martin: What the hell's going on?
Frasier: Clive is Daphne's old boyfriend. She trying to let him down easy by pretending she's married to Niles. [...] It might be best if you just excused yourself. This is a very complex situation requiring quick thinking, improvisational skills, and a knack for remembering details.
Martin: Gee I never used any of those skills as an undercover cop.
Sitcom characters are perhaps the most accessible of all fictitious personalities — barely bigger than life — so it doesn't seem so childish to see yourself in them. It's fun to recast shows from Gilligan's Island to Sex and the City with your friends and family, and a quick poll of "Which one is Samantha?" doesn't have the nerdiness of a weekend playing Dungeons and Dragons.
And they often carry the game of make-believe to extremes, something that few of us are ever brave (or foolish) enough to try. This kind of plot can be challenging to the viewer: When watching "The Two Mrs. Cranes," should I imagine myself as Niles Crane pretending to be married to Daphne, or should I be David Hyde-Pierce playing Niles Crane pretending to be married to Daphne? Do I imagine how I would improvise as Niles or as Hyde-Pierce?
Frasier did several farces about deception and mistaken identity, but the fourth-season opener "The Two Mrs. Cranes," penned by Joe Keenan, is its most elegant charade. Every regular character gets a new identity as a result of the fiction that Daphne is married and thus unavailable to her "layabout" ex-fiancee (Scott Atkinson) from England, who wants to restart their relationship. Niles and Martin (John Mahoney) get upgrades, with a gleeful Niles getting to wantonly kiss Daphne (Jane Leeves) and Martin quite unnecessarily claiming to be an ex-astronaut.
Daphne, I noticed in the phone book, your surname still is Moon.
Niles: That must be an old book. Now she hyphenates. It's Moon-Crane.
Martin: I remember the first time I ever drove a moon crane. Damn near rolled it into the Sea of Tranquility.
Meanwhile, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Roz (Peri Gilpin) are forced to act as a married couple, despite Frasier's disgust with the whole scheme and Roz making no attempt to hide her attraction to Clive. And Daphne regrets starting the whole thing when she discovers that Clive is now a successful businessman.
The tower of lies grows ever taller and more precarious, as Roz and Daphne try to flirt with Clive while staying in character. But all the regular characters apparently accept the first rule of improvisational comedy: You can't "negate" what someone else says. (Saying, "That's a lie!" is just not kosher.) So Roz and Daphne manage to trap each other simultaneously:
Roz: More wine, please.
Daphne: Oh, are you sure that's wise, dear? Remember that blackout you had last month? (laughs) What am I saying? Of course you don't.
Niles: That's what I love about her, her sense of humor. (to Daphne) Cookie, darling?
Daphne: No thanks. (looking at Roz) Some of us do look after our weight.
Roz: Now, now, you have to keep your strength up. You are eating for two.
Clive: (to Daphne) You're having a baby? Well, when were you planning to spring that news?
Daphne: We don't like to bring that up. It's a sore point around here, what with my sister-in-law being barren and all.
Niles: Now, now. It's not her fault. (always eager to score a point against Frasier) You see, my brother is impotent!
This is Frasier at its peak: witty, impeccably plotted, and with characters who are both absurd and relatable. Whenever I see this episode, I think of how much fun it would be to play-act in this kind of situation. But since I don't have any spare Clives to throw away, it will probably remain a fantasy.
• Eddie the dog's five-second appearence in this episode more than justifies his regular presence on the series.
• Clive's "You are the most appalling family I've ever met!" reminds me of the pre-Frasier Jane Leeves saying, "You're horrible! Horrible! All of you!" at the end of the Seinfeld episode "The Contest."
• WKRP in Cincinnati did a less complicated version of this plot in "I Do, I Do...for Now," in which Jennifer pretends to be married to Johnny in order to shake off a persistent suitor from her home town.
• Club Parnassus, a website by Evan Waters (one of those fiery Mexican Evans, no doubt), reviews the early seasons of Frasier. Of "The Two Mrs. Cranes," Waters writes:
...this is crazy business, and the increased complexity of it is a sign of a shift in the show. When Frasier started out, stories tended to be simple, almost Spartan, uncomplicated by subplots and tangents. We didn’t even get into farce until Season Two. Now the show can hit the ground running, expecting the audience to know the characters enough that we laugh at the incongruity of their situation. [...] the density of information needed to make the farce work is delivered at a good clip, and the pace builds from there.
• Your smutty highbrow reference (and most glaring plot device) of the episode:
Frasier: Roz, listen, I'm going to the opera tonight. You didn't happen to remember to bring my...
Roz: Oh, your opera glasses! I'm so sorry, they completely slipped my mind.
Frasier: I wouldn't really mind, if you hadn't borrowed them just to ogle that bodybuilder that moved in across the street.
Roz: Hey, I've just looked once or twice. It's not like I copied his name off his mailbox, so I could look up his number and call him while he was in the shower, so I could watch him cross the room naked to answer the phone in front of the picture window. That would be wrong.
Frasier: Look, I want them back. I refuse to squint through Pagliacci while you're trying to watch "The Magic Flute!"
• @weinmanj tweets "BUT WHAT ABOUT CLIVE'S TERRIBLE ACCENT?" But he adds in a subsequent tweet, "Honestly, I don't mind the accent. It adds to the old-fashioned theatricality." Update: See Joe Keenan's response and the backstory on how Scott Atkinson was cast here.
• Frasier is on Netflix streaming and a bowldlerized version now airs on the Hallmark Channel, with words like "ass" and "whore" edited out. (Who watches Frasier but is offended by double entendres?) I don't know what Hallmark does with "The Magic Flute" — or this:
Daphne: He was very sweet, and he had the most gorgeous eyes you ever saw.
Daphne: Oh, yes, that too.
BTW, if you speak German, let me know how they handle that exchange below. Niles seems to be saying "Und...?" ("And...?"), and I don't think that's a homonym for "butt" in German (but there's still a titter on the laugh track).