Ninety percent of the adult characters on situation comedies can mark off one of two boxes under “Marital Status”:
( ) Married forever, never to divorce, no matter how often the spouse billed first in the show’s credits embarrasses the second-billed spouse, or how many times the second-billed loses his/her temper with the first.
( ) Single indefinitely, having several romantic entanglements with Special Guest Stars each season, with only one or two lasting as long as three or four episodes.
Kelsey Grammer’s alter-ego Frasier Crane, whose eponymous series ends May 13, clearly checked off the second box — only discovering what the promos call “the love of his life” five episodes before the end of the show's 11-year run.
His brother Niles is another story.
Hook-ups and tune-outs
Redefining characters’ relationships during the run of a series has always been risky, a minefield from which few have emerged in one piece. The textbook case was the “Mary Tyler Moore” spin-off “Rhoda,” in which the sassy single title character got married, got divorced, and got killed in the ratings.
“Cheers” was one of the few series to make it work, with Sam and Diane hooking up at the end of the first season. After the show grew into a major hit, they broke up at the end of season two (opening the way for the introduction of the character of Frasier, who tried to elope with Diane at the close of season three).
The soap-operatic season finales continued for the run of the series. Diane left and Sam sold the bar at the five-year mark, Sam and Rebecca got together at the close of season eight (or was it nine?), and the series ended with Sam’s decision to stay with his true love: the bar.
When "Frasier's" creative team developed Niles' character, with his henpecked marriage to the never-seen Maris and his unrequited infatuation with Daphne, the whole dynamic was awkward and uncomfortable. A change seemed inevitable, and I was among those who wanted it soon. They couldn't possibly try to maintain this state of non-equilibrium indefinitely, could they?
The Importance of Being Niles
“Frasier” was blessed with deft writing and a light touch that wisely limited the Niles/Daphne story arc to one or two side-jokes per episode and a couple episodes’ focus per season.
But it was the comic skills of David Hyde Pierce that made it work; the role of the little brother who was more Frasier than Frasier could have easily become an object of scorn and pity. Pierce’s performance made Niles into the funniest character on the show, an easily-deflated stuffed shirt who was also a lovable loser. If he could turn the act of fainting at the sight of his own blood into a fine example of solo slapstick, he could make unrequited love into a teenage crush in a straight-laced grownup’s body.
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Meanwhile, Jane Leeves was left with the thankless task of being oblivious to his attraction; her best comic moments occurred while relating to all the characters except Niles.
But the writers took an excruciatingly long time to develop the storyline. Maris first threw Niles out in season three, and Niles first backed away from telling Daphne his feelings early in season four. By the end of that year, Maris filed for divorce, and it seemed that something was about to break. But the storyline stayed in the background until the middle of the sixth season, when they tossed in a major-league irony: Daphne fell for the divorce lawyer Niles hired to finally free himself from Maris.
Just over 150 episodes after Niles met Daphne, she finally learned of his feelings for her (secondhand from an over-medicated Frasier, of course), just as Niles had started to put Daphne behind him and take up with — more irony — his ex-wife’s plastic surgeon.
Finally, “Frasier” ended season seven and started season eight with an eight-episode arc that, saw the two characters barely escape from their other relationships before — or after — committing matrimony, resulting in the decidedly non-Crane-like image of the happy couple escaping in a Winnebago.
Reality often interferes with long-term TV storylines, and “Frasier” had to deal with Jane Leeves’ real-life pregnancy when her character had just found her true love, but was several plot twists short of a wedding. So, Daphne gained weight and went to a fat farm while Leeves took maternity leave (not the worst handling of a pregnancy in recent sitcoms, but far from the best). It took until the beginning of season 10 for wedding bells to finally ring; consistent with the long difficult courtship, Daphne and Niles ended up going through three ceremonies.
After the final climax of nine years of struggle, Daphne and Niles, the married couple, settled into two seasons of relative ease. A health crisis for Niles was resolved in three episodes (but a year later, father Martin’s health crisis was resolved in one).
The omnipresent shadow of Maris was finally lifted in a story arc in which she was accused of murder and fled the country, but not before one last humiliation for Niles, involving the very public display of a very embarassing picture.
The final season started with Niles' typically comic over-reaction to fears that he may be infertile, only to be told by Daphne that she was already pregnant. This time, Jane Leeves’ real-life pregnancy was perfectly timed to parallel her character, providing the couple with a piece of the series finale action (although the only real suspense is how many times the extremely squeamish Niles will lose consciousness during the delivery).
The couple dealt with jealousy, doubt, being rolled out of bed and other more conventional married-couple issues, but never ceased producing laughter. The result was all the better for not waiting until series' end to bring the couple together for good (unlike certain other sitcom characters on another show that starts with “F” and ends with "-riends").
Niles and Daphne can now check off the Sitcom Marital Status box of "married forever," or, to use a more traditional term, living happily ever after.
I know mine is not the most popular viewpoint. At JumpTheShark.com, Niles and Daphne’s relationship has earned more than half the votes for being the point at which “Frasier” began to go downhill.
But how could anyone who has spent a half-hour a week with these characters for over a decade deny them a happy ending? Even with plot points that may be worthy of criticism (fat farm?), and even if it was not intended from Day One, “Frasier” ended up giving us one of the best affirmations of the power of love in television history. And yet it rarely if ever sacrificed the comedy to do it.
On the other hand, that episode where a parrot got stuck in Niles’ hair was just dumb.
Wendell Wittler is the online alias of a writer from Southern California
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