Second Look: Frasier Season 1 Episode 11 – “Death Becomes Him”
Frasier Season 1, Episode 11 “Death Becomes Him”
Written by Leslie Eberhard
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired December 2, 1993 on NBC
After a salvo of ambitious opening episodes, Frasier spends a few episodes wading in the shallow end of the sitcom pool with “Selling Out” and “Oops!” – a perfectly expected development for any 24-episode season, and one that helps set the tone for some of the episodes to follow. “Death Becomes Him” is, in a way, all of the elements of these early episodes smushed together: anchored by an integral Marty/Frasier exchange, Frasier‘s eleventh episode indulges in both its lighter comedic elements and its deeper character explorations, perhaps the first episode of the series where Frasier feels fully realized (well, almost – there’s still not enough Roz!).
Though “Death Becomes Him” is far from the most remarkable episode of the first season (often existing in the shadows between “Beloved Infidel” and the next episode, “Miracle on Third or Fourth Street”), it provides a blueprint the series would ride to 37 Emmy wins during its 11-season run. Written by Leslie Eberhard (who would later write for City Guys, one of many underrated teen shows in the TNBC lineup; if you know, you know), “Death Becomes Him” is full of trademark Frasier elements – some still being established in the series canon, like Niles’ wine knowledge or Marty’s reluctance to be proactive about his health.
More importantly, “Death Becomes Him” fully understands what elements need to exist for Frasier to be great – and that keeping it simple is the key. The plot is incredibly simple; after Marty’s new doctor unexpectedly dies, Frasier is thrown into an existential panic. It seems hardly enough to fill 23 minutes of television, but “Death Becomes Him” enriches each scene with conversation between the anxious Frasier, and the other people in his orbit – first in his father’s apartment, then at the deceased doctor’s shiva (where we learn Frasier took nothing away from his ex-wife’s Jewish heritage, another sign of the narcissism driving his every life choice).
“Death,” however, doesn’t approach this with the specificity of previous episodes relating to personal stories and conflicts in the Crane family; it’s simplified to the point Marty just screams out the moral of the episode to Frasier halfway through. This is an episode about enjoying the simple things in life, through and through – an idea Frasier would often contrast with Frasier’s obsessive approach to everything in life for comedic effect, rather than reaching for poignant dramatic resolution.
Though Frasier and Marty’s late-night conversation about death is certainly meaningful (especially when Marty talks about overcoming his fear of dangerous moments on the job), it is smartly designed not to provide the resolution Frasier is looking for in the episode. Confined to his apartment by the structre of the episode’s second act, his obsessive qualities manifest in such interesting ways around his family; after letting everyone in the house claim all his items in case he suddenly dies, Frasier’s attention turns to the deceased’s health, tracking down his grieving widow to try and find a scientific answer for something that can never be measured.
Marty tries to tell him not to obsess, and it seems “Death Becomes Him” is grounding itself once again with father and son – until it makes the ingenious decision for Frasier to reject that mentality, sending him off to the doctor’s shiva for answers on the meaning of life (though as the widow’s daughter smartly points out, he may have better luck if his obsessions are over death rather than life).
The shiva itself is really the highlight of the episode, showing Frasier‘s fine tuned skills at creating a world out of nothing, and reveling in Frasier’s inability to react to it. We get a number of rich details about the doctor’s life from his widow (mostly about his healthy lifestyle), some hilariously subtle asides about the Jewish faith’s fascination with death – and of course, when a random woman walks up to Frasier and gives him her number to close the episode, as a hilarious reminder that when you give up and let the universe take control, hot chicks will show up instantaneously (but hey, the man embraced the tenets of living a life untethered from expectation and religion – he deserves a win).
There are no big answers or revelations for “Death Becomes Him” to offer, and in a way, it almost makes the episode richer. The sentiment it does offer is quite simplistic – live life, rather than react to it – but the casual way it’s worked into the final scenes of the half hour creates that critical ideological bridge between audience and writer, and between viewer and character. We’ve all had those paralyzing moments of smallness where we realize our lives are inevitably going to have no meaning; that’s the contradiction of life, a frightening nuance many of us are unwilling to accept, instead finding solace from the unknown in the texts of religious books, allegiance to the randomness of the universe, or wherever else we may find our existential peace. The point of “Death Becomes Him” is not how we arrive to that moment, but more how we exit it: only once we’ve ceded dominion over our own fate, can go on and actually live.
It’s a simple revelation, and one we don’t need to pat ourselves on the back for. As Frasier makes clear, sometimes allowing ourselves to fall to the unseen whims of the universe can lead us to new and exciting places. That final moment, as amusing as it may be, is really the cathartic touch the episode needs, a hopeful note that beautifully balances out the nihilistic undertones of the unseen doctor’s death. In every scene, its muted simplicity is its greatest asset, an episode that handles a very Big Question with an inconsequential, yet meaningful answer. That seeming lack of resolution is really the sound of Frasier unlocking the key to its own success, finding balance between the light and heavy in what will be remembered as a “throwaway” episode, but one with great implications for the show’s future.
- Marty doesn’t like his doctor because he keeps tongue depressors in a model colon on his desk. Seems a bit far for a guy who said “if I’m bending over, I want to see wingtips between my feet.”
- Niles’ leering at Daphne does get a wee bit creepy in this episode.
Frasier, calling out Niles: “Pump iron?… Niles, you don’t even pump your own gas.”
- Frasier, to Marty (who is reading a Cosmopolitan in the doctor’s office): “This is not an oral exam. Marty: “You should see the second question.”
- To relax himself as a child, Frasier would recite Puccini’s operas.
- Niles needs to calm down on the seminars he’s holding: “I need to make it to my abandonment class… I’ve already been a no-show twice this week.”
- Frasier thinks Dr. Newman will be good for his father, because of the art he hangs in his office and the places he vacations. “A Lichtenstein? He sounds perfect!”