Paramount // 1997 // 553 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // February 16th, 2005
Roz: When was the last time you were actually with a woman? It seems
like almost a year.
Frasier: Oh, it has not been that long! I mean, that is a laugh. Ha! The last time was...uh...let's see...well, the tree was still up...
The groundbreaking comedy series that made wealthy, pompous asses into lovable everymen returns for a stellar fourth season. Settle in with a cup of espresso and prepare for over nine hours of some of the finest television comedy to have hit the airwaves in the '90s.
As Season Four of Frasier begins, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) is separated from his infamous, invisible wife, Maris, which means that he spends a lot of time at Frasier's apartment until he moves into a swanky new bachelor pad of his own. But just as big a change in the Crane men's lives is that Martin (John Mahoney) gets a new girlfriend: lively, flashy Sherry (Marsha Mason, in an Emmy-nominated recurring role). Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) is still seeking romance, but he doesn't seem to find it this season, due in part to the presence of Sherry, who seems to jinx every promising date he has and becomes a thorn in the side to the Crane brothers and even to Daphne (Jane Leeves). The closest Frasier gets to romance this season is a recurring erotic dream about his mincing colleague Gil Chesterton and a lucky streak during which he has three dates over the course of a single weekend, none of which goes as he hopes or expects. Frasier even loses a gorgeous blind date to his colleague Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe, who defies natural law by falling in love (in one of the funniest episodes of an exquisitely funny season). By the end of the season he is so depressed at being conspicuously single that he tries to become more spontaneous, leading to a meeting with an attractive cellist (guest star Linda Hamilton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to Mexico.
Season Four sees this show at a peak of comedy writing. There's the joy of seeing recurring characters like the soulless agent Bebe Glazer (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Frasier's glacial first wife, Lilith (the incomparable Bebe Neuwirth), who makes a guest appearance on a standout Thanksgiving episode in which she and Frasier pay a series of increasingly desperate visits to the admissions director of the posh school to which they hope Frederick will be admitted. (I can't help but wonder if this episode's structure is a deliberate echo of the brilliant Cheers episode in which Diane and Sam repeatedly show up on the doorstep of guest star John Cleese, whose verdict on their relationship doesn't satisfy Diane.) The introduction of Sherry is also an important ingredient in the success of this season: Her appearance both sparks the show with energy and provides an excellent vehicle for comedy. Just as, at the start of the series, Martin and his Jack Russell, Eddie, acted as irritants to the fussy Frasier and thus galvanized a lot of the comedy, the introduction of Sherry serves the purpose of shaking up the Crane household and introducing a new series of conflicts and challenges. Sherry is a delicious character -- warmly impulsive and unselfconscious, with absolutely no sense of decorum, restraint, or what the Crane boys would consider class -- and Mason brings her to life so well that we can understand both why Martin adores her and why his sons practically weep at her approach. (The show's costume designer must also be commended for helping to create the character of Sherry, with her bright, garish outfits that clash with the muted, subdued palette of Frasier's apartment.) Sherry even comes into conflict with patient Daphne, catalyzing an outstanding episode ("Daphne Hates Sherry") in which Daphne leaves the apartment after a spat with Sherry and takes refuge in Niles's apartment. Between Daphne's desire to feel wanted, Seattle's hot spell, Niles's perpetual yearning for her, and even the Tennessee Williams-inspired title cards, the situation plays deliciously with our hopes that Niles and Daphne will find romance together.
That ongoing almost-romance, another of the series's greatest strengths, is still in a stage of anticipatory tension in this season, another reason Season Four stands above some later years in the series. While keeping the romantic tension going (particularly in episodes like the delightful season opener, "The Two Mrs. Cranes," in which Daphne pretends to be married to Niles to fool an ex-boyfriend), Season Four also manages to keep developing the relationship between Daphne and Niles; episodes like "Daphne Hates Sherry" and another standout entry, "Mixed Doubles," advance their story while avoiding the pitfall (which has spelled disaster for other television romances) of resolving the tension entirely. In the latter episode, Daphne's breakup with her boyfriend makes Niles decide to tell her of his feelings for her, but Frasier urges him to reflect on the decision overnight -- during which time Daphne meets and begins dating a new man, one who adds insult to injury by being a dead ringer for Niles, right down to his manner of ordering coffee. The resolution to this episode is bittersweet yet appropriate, a shining example of how touching this usually hilarious comedy can be.
This season also boasts one of my all-time favorite episodes, "Ham Radio," in which Frasier decides to celebrate KACL's anniversary with a production of a live radio mystery play called "Nightmare Inn." The performance of this radio play under the auspices of director Frasier is a comedy tour de force, from Roz's novocaine-inflected speech to Bulldog's dyslexic girlfriend to Niles's rotation of differently accented characters; the competition is stiff, but I think Edward Hibbert as Gil Chesterton walks away with this episode, as he resorts to increasingly creative and ruthless ploys to insert his favorite monologue into the play despite Frasier's efforts to cut him off. Along with the priceless leap year episode from Season Three, this is probably one of the show's best episodes, a small classic of comedy writing, directing, and performance.
That being said, there are practically no duds in this season. The episode "Roz's Krantz and Gouldenstein Are Dead" isn't very memorable apart from the presence of guest star James Earl Jones, but the only episode I consider truly expendable is "The Unnatural," in which Frasier faces the prospect of disappointing his son Frederick by performing badly in a softball game. Even here, it's not the episode itself so much as the presence of the chubby-faced, smarmy little urchin who plays Frederick that irritates me. For some reason this child actor has always grated on me, and I get restless whenever he's on screen. Fortunately, apart from this episode, he makes only one other appearance this season, and that a much less prominent one (in the Thanksgiving episode, where he falls afoul of a series of mishaps).
One of the reasons Frasier's writing is so superior to that of most (if not all) other sitcoms is surely writer-producer Joe Keenan, whom I think of as the series's unsung hero. Viewers familiar with Keenan's irresistible comic novel My Blue Heaven (which led to his being hired for the show) and its equally diverting sequel, Puttin' on the Ritz, will recognize his distinctive style in the Frasier dialogue. Keenan writes like a combination of P.G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, and Waldo Lydecker from Laura, and his extraordinary gifts as a writer and, eventually, producer for Frasier have undoubtedly contributed immeasurably to the show's distinctive flavor. My only regret about Keenan's contributions to Frasier is that they seem to have curtailed his fiction writing; I still yearn for another Keenan novel to hit the shelves, but at least I can enjoy his writing, albeit in a different medium, through these DVD sets. (And fans of the series who hunger for more of that uniquely erudite, bitchy, and perceptive comedy now that Frasier has ceased production should check out Keenan's fiction.)
Audiovisual quality for this boxed set is uniformly fine. The picture is clear and free of obvious dirt or defects, and for the most part the stereo audio mix is bold, well balanced, and clean. In an early episode I noted some background hiss and unevenness in the distribution of sound between speakers, but this seems to have been an isolated case.
The lack of extras for such an acclaimed and long-running show is distressing. Even if there isn't a single soul among the cast, creators, and writing team with the leisure to record an episode commentary or two -- a contingency I find doubtful -- I don't see that it would have been at all difficult to toss in some deleted scenes, a gag reel, or even an insert with episode summaries. (The episode titles are often so uninformative that such summaries would be extremely helpful; readers uncertain as to whether their favorite episodes appear in this season may find it helpful to consult the TV Tome episode guide, linked in the sidebar.) As glad as I am to see this series available on DVD, I feel like the show is getting short shrift by being presented in a barebones set. It's like serving up a latte without that sprinkling of nutmeg.
Fans of this excellent series will definitely want to own Season Four, in which everyone concerned seems to be working at the peak of their powers. Even viewers who didn't faithfully follow the show from beginning to end will find that this season stands wonderfully on its own. It demonstrates all the qualities that made Frasier so popular with critics and audiences alike. Enjoy!
Sure, they can be pompous, prissy fussbudgets. But the Crane brothers just want what all of us want -- love, respect, career fulfillment, and reservations at Le Cigar Volant. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2005 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 553 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Verdict Review of Season One
* DVD Verdict Review of Season Two
* DVD Verdict Review of Season Three
* DVD Verdict Review of Final Season
* TV Tome Episode Guide for Season Four