The Hard Way
In the final episode of Frasier‘s eighth season, the good doctor is left reeling. A night with his new girlfriend, Claire (Patricia Clarkson), ends when he wakes with a start, following a sex dream about another woman. He’s alarmed because, while Claire seems perfect for him (appreciating fine wine, food, and philosophy), the other woman is loud and trampy Lana (Jean Smart). Frasier calls the one woman who gets him, his ex-wife, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth). “Do you think I know how to be happy?” he asks her. “Sure,” she responds. “You just like a challenge. You’ve never been one to take the easy way.”
This summarizes the season (new to DVD in an extras-free package). While we’ve long known that the Seattle psychiatrist is plagued by neuroses stemming from his patrician sensibilities—shared by his younger brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce)—this year his troubles are probed beyond comedic effect. Following a brief detour into Niles and Daphne’s (Jane Leeves) romance, the season finds its primary arc in “The New Friend”, when Luke (Gary Cole) arrives and sends Frasier onto his introspective path.
Luke and Frasier’s relationship shows the doctor to be desperate for validation and respect from those he perceives as having what he desires—confidence. Luke appears smart and cool, sails a boat around the world in search of adventure, and makes a great impression on women, including Frasier’s producer, Roz (Peri Gilpin). Luke is soon exposed as a two-timing sleaze, but Frasier refuses to reconsider their friendship, even if it means lying to Roz. His deception is the first in many wrongheaded steps he’ll take in trying to emulate Luke.
One of these steps has Frasier ruining his dream of broadcasting from Seattle’s Christmas parade because of his raging jealousy of his fellow presenter, Dr. Mary (Kim Coles). He won’t work with Dr. Mary because she’s a “pop” psychologist without a degree or need of a script to be funny and warm on air. Instead of taking a few lessons from the spirited woman, Frasier publicly humiliates himself. He continues this pattern in “Cranes Unplugged”, when he battles with son Frederick (Luke Tarsitano) over a family camping trip. Frasier wants the boy to bond with his dad and grandpa (John Mahoney as Martin), while Frederick just wants to hang out with the other kids at camp. Frasier’s inability to comprehend this desire makes his insensitivity seem almost pathological.
All this bad behavior seems headed toward a climax, or at least a confrontation. And in “Frasier’s Edge”, he sits down for a session with his mentor, Dr. William Tewksbury (Rene Auberjonois). Having learned that he will collect a Lifetime Achievement Award at a radio awards ceremony, Frasier pays his former teacher a visit, and winds up crying in a stairwell. Essentially, Frasier has realized that such an award means his career will come to an end, and he has had no life outside it. In an attempt to expose Frasier’s own hidden truths, Tewksbury has the doctor analyze himself, as though Frasier were one of his own radio callers. Things heat up as Tewksbury pulls Frasier up on every psychiatrist “tactic.” Frasier explodes, saying he doesn’t know what the caller (Frasier) wants.
Tewksbury asks why that would lead him to “bury him in psychiatric exercises,” at which point, Frasier throws his hands up: “Because that’s all I have… I’m sorry, caller, I can’t help you.” Tewksbury surmises that Frasier has retreated to a false sense of “safety” allowed by psychiatric “objectivity” and “distance.” It explains his love for radio psychiatry (no actual patient to face), and his relocation, away from his ex-wife and son. This episode is the last of the “struggling Frasier” arc, and sets the stage for his subsequent “unwinding,” at least a little bit. He attends a community college course in mechanics, produces Shakespearean theatre, finds he enjoys tutoring Lana’s dopey son (Brian Klugman), and goes on dates with a waitress (Charlotte Ross) and a “weirdo” (Illeana Douglas), both seeming opposites of his “type” (Claire). Though he falls short during each of tasks, it appears at last that he’s seeking a different way to be.
The problem with this self-improvement storyline is that it cannot succeed. A healthy Frasier is not the star of this series. And so his self-repairing will start all over again with Season Nine. But it’s an intriguing illusion of a crossroads. Arrogance stripped away, Frasier looks momentarily like the regular guy he strives so hard to be. He appears needy, almost relaxed, briefly free of pretension.