Life isn’t easy if you’re Frasier or Niles Crane.
Well, it’s not easy in a self-perceived sense anyway.
Armed with firm ideas on what constitutes a life well-lived – the right seats at the opera/favourite restaurant/major event where everyone will see you, the best food and wine, an apartment with a view and a profession held in high regard – and snobs to the core, the brothers Crane feel that any deviation from these well-established ideals constitutes a diminution of their life in every sense of the word.
To the rest of us, of course, watching in wry amusement, their’s is a silver spoon world, one in which all the rare and good things in life are showered in rare and multitudinous abundance.
Somewhere in the middle of these quite divergent worldviews, lies a vein of purest comedy, one that the superlative sitcom Frasier, which ran from 1993-2004, mined with sparkling wit, intelligent observation and unwavering sense of the absurd and the amusing.
And one in which “High Holidays”, which aired on December 9, 2003, a scant six months before the end of the series itself, sits most comfortably, making gleeful use of the Crane brothers insecurities, vanities and occasional ability to see life as it really is when push comes most firmly to shove.
In this case, the pressure came from different places for each brother.
Frasier, ever eager to climb a little higher in what he refers to as the Seattle “demi-monde”, is flattered when a very attractive woman with a delectable French accent, Natalie Blanc (Musetta Vander) – he and Niles are so smitten by it that they practise pronouncing various French cheeses in her voice before chiding themselves, like naughty school boys, for their “mischief-making” – from the Seattle Tourism Board asks Frasier to front a new campaign for them.
He is enormously flattered, of course, but a little less so when it becomes obvious that he wasn’t their first, or gasp, second choice, a fact made painfully clear when Natalie rather awkwardly says “No, you weren’t second”.
Still, the campaign will supply that much needed currency in Frasier’s world, recognition and attention, and so he agrees to be a part of it, even sucking up the fact that Natalie wants Eddie, the dog which belongs to Frasier’s dad Martin (John Mahoney) to join him during filming.
Convinced, despite many knock backs that he is catnip to the ladies, Frasier asks Natalie to join him for drinks one night, to which she agrees although it’s obvious to everyone but Frasier that she’s being polite and nothing more.
All this is happening of course while Frasier’s newly Goth-ed son Freddy (Trevor Einhorn) is in town for a visit with his friend Andi (Marisa Guterman), a fellow Goth and his girlfriend who monopolises Freddy’s time to Frasier’s great chagrin.
Naturally, this being an episode where perceptions, opportunities and good intentions seldom play out the way Frasier expects, nothing quite works out as planned – Eddie dominates the campaign with only Frasier’s dulcet tones emanating from the dog, Natalie ditches him as soon as she can do so politely, and Freddy doesn’t want to to go the Garlic Festival, a movie or anything else on Frasier’s itinerary which hasn’t quite kept pace with his son’s move into the difficult teenage years.
Only the final scene, where a newly-dumped Freddy and once more scorned Frasier find some common ground makes up for what has been a less than ideal Christmas.
Niles, meanwhile, stung by Martin’s assertion that he never rebelled in any way , shape or form – “Never happened Niles. Your mother and I kept waiting for it.” – decides it is high time he “sips the sweep nectar of rebellion”.
Naturally, even as he tries to evoke a spirit of teenage “devil-may-care, cructh-grabbing [brazen]” rebelliousness that was never his in the first place, he is painfully and hilariously over-programmed and stuffy, carefully ordering pot from Roz (Peri Gilpin) which comes in the form of an illicit brownie made by her neighbour, methodically researching marijuana terminology (all of which he feels compelled to use) and ordering a taxi to transport him to Frasier’s when he is high.
He even plans ahead for the “Munchies” during which he will pair, in a way only rebellious people making a point to their father can (hence why he comes over to Frasier’s where Martin lives), Chilean sea bass with an “aggressive Zinfendel”.
But as is the way of the Cranes, it is all too stage-managed, too filled with back-ups and fail safes to be any kind of true rebellion, with Niles thumbing his noise at society only ever occurring in his fevered, all-too-limited imagination.
He doesn’t even get high, thanks to a comedy of errors at Cafe Nervosa where Martin ends up consuming the pot brownie – he ends up getting good and toasted and the scenes where he is combining BBQ-flavoured chips and pudding, wondering what a “dog army” is are priceless and being freaked out by Eddie’s apparent new gift for speech (a lovely sight gag involving Frasier) – and replacing it with a benign, all-too-normal one from the naked good selection at the cafe.
Niles “crispyness” then is all in his head, and you’ve never seen a more let down individual that when Frasier points this out to him.
His only consolation? That he got his cop father high.
Accidentally of course but it happened and that is enough for Niles.
The pleasure of “High Holidays”, which takes places at a “magical time of year” when Frasier rather ruefully observes “… the Great Wall of China and my apartment are the only two man-made structures visible from space” (Martin decorates with Christmas junkie over-dedication), is the way it affectionately but with pinpoint satirical accuracy, plays off the delusional ideas of both Crane boys that they are other than what they are.
It manages to playfully combine everything that’s appealing about Frasier – the easily-pricked pomposity and over-confidence of Frasier and Niles, situational sight gags, richly-crafted characterisation (from which the humour springs rather than awkwardly set-up scenes) sizzling bon mots and a poignancy and warmth that underlay it all, never overplayed but always present.
It may not be Frasier’s dream Christmas but it’s a stellar festive episode of Frasier that, much like the holiday itself, is a bundle of hilarious contradictions, misunderstandings and perfectly-placed heartwarming moments.