Frasier’s Eighth Season Fails at Self-Improvement

While we’ve long known that the titular psychiatrist in Frasier is plagued by neuroses, in Season Eight, his troubles are probed beyond comedic effect.

David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee
24 October 2000 (US)

The good doctor is left reeling in the final episode of Frasier‘s eighth season. 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. 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) – in Season Eight, 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 worldwide for 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 of 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 his 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. 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. To expose Frasier’s 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 task, 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 to be. He appears needy, almost relaxed, briefly free of pretension.

RATING 7 / 10