Frasier Season 1, Episode 3 “Dinner At Eight”
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired September 30, 1993
At some point, every good comedy has to come to terms with its own protagonists. Seinfeld openly recognized its leading foursome were assholes, Cheers spent dozens of hours contending with Sam Malone’s sordid past – hell, Community spent its entire third season proving how horrible everyone we love can be. Few of them are willing to do so in their third episode, however; and though both “The Good Son” and “Space Quest” point out the… shall we say, prickly sensibilities of the Crane brothers, “Dinner At Eight” dives headfirst into what makes the men of the Crane family tick, and begins to shed light on the generational dissonance between them in fascinatingly uncomfortable ways.
It’s particularly impressive early on in these first three episodes to watch Frasier shift its voice from comedy to drama, from the hammy bravado of Frasier’s disgust at Marty’s favorite restaurant, to the trio’s eventual realization that maybe what underlies their interpersonal conflicts is the only character trait they all have in common – stubborn pride, the irrational kind passed from father to son through time immemorial. Though Frasier is certainly a series willing to indulge its actors, the ability to take that premise (the Crane children wanting to bring their “lumbering polyester monster” father into their upper crust society) and its theatrical, physical performances, and spin that into a meaningful story about human connection is difficult one to master – but for a show with a single hour under its belt, “Dinner At Eight” displays a remarkable creative confidence and expansive emotional tenor.
In an episode where not a lot else is going on (save for Niles meeting Daphne for the first time, where Frasier begins pulling at the threads of the ‘happy’ Niles/Maris marriage), “Dinner At Eight” is intensely focused on building out the Crane patriarchal dynamic – and about bringing voice to the invisible weight of Hester’s death, and how that changed their family. One can tell by how dismissively Roz’s dating story is told and forgotten where the episode’s attention lies; if it’s not Niles staring at Daphne, “Dinner At Eight” is at the Timber Mill, with a nine-minute climactic scene that effectively runs the gamut of Frasier‘s emotional palette in one expertly-crafted scene.
Frasier and Niles fail to recognize the true purpose of why they’re taking him out, of course, which is the genesis of the third act’s big conflict; they’re really doing it for them, and their selfishness shows through as the dinner scene begins to develop. There’s certainly plenty of humor watching the Crane boys eat at a blue-collar steakhouse, but the scene really begins to pull at the rift between father and sons, especially as they berate the waitress, menu, food, and surroundings right in front of Marty. Slowly, the one-liners and throwaway gags begin to give voice the true rift between generations in the Crane family; Niles and Frasier’s love for the finer things has turned them into snobs, people whose holier-than-thou attitude can ruin a night out – and whose insistence on trying to control their surroundings reveals their deep-held insecurities about themselves.
They’re immature, condescending, and incredibly obnoxious the whole time – which, ostensibly, was supposed to be a dinner where they reconnected with their father and tried to find the common ground lost between them. But between Frasier moving across the country, Niles marrying a woman his father can’t stand, and Hester dying, there’s a lot of unspoken trauma between their trio of adorned baked potatoes – and despite being two well-qualified psychologists, neither can handle broaching the issue of their missing matriarch, and what it has done to reveal the cracks and scars at the foundation of their family. Marty understands he is different than his sons – but he also understands they are as stubborn as him, probably realizing the evening was a lost cause once he asked them to step outside their comfort zone, if only for his sake, for a few hours.
It reveals more about the damaged relationship between father and sons than the first two episodes combined tried to explain: aligned closer with their mother, Marty felt isolated from the family, the simpleton who didn’t fit in – especially after Hester died, when the woman who would enjoy a ball game and a hot dog with him (and would indulge in opera and French cuisine with her sons) was gone. Her death seemingly severed the only thing connecting the three of them together (besides their last name and calf muscles, according to Niles), a rift that weights heavy as the dinner at The Timber Mill continues.
The biggest surprise is where it ends: after growing frustrated and embarrassed by the behavior of his sons, Marty leaves dinner before dessert arrives (“But the mud pie!” Niles screams after him). Ashamed, he tells them how Hester never made him feel stupid or simple, knowing when to shut her mouth and just enjoy something because it made him happy; the boys are unable to do that, their lack of empathy bringing to light just how deep the cracks in their relationship are, and how revealed they’ve become since Hester died, and Marty moved in with Frasier.
But this is third episode – given how important this conflict has been established to be, it would be a copout for them to realize “oh, we’re just all stubborn – we’ll do better!” to hug it out and find resolution. Marty simply leaves, and Niles and Frasier end the episode dealing with their failures (and again, embarrassing behavior – what a pair of assholes those two can be), promising each other to sit through a long, unpleasantly greasy dinner, punishing themselves for disappointing their father – a meaningless gesture that will only satisfy their need to find an easy resolution before tomorrow’s morning paper arrives on the doorstep.
What “Dinner At Eight” underlines here is unspoken and wonderful: the two of them still aren’t enjoying their dinner at all, again only doing it as self-inflicted penance for what they did wrong. There’s no resolution in “Dinner At Eight” because Niles and Frasier still haven’t learned anything – heck, the last joke of the episode involves the potato on the table, a line of humor Frasier instigates. The two of them have been spoiled and changed by their Le Cigar Volant lifestyle: smartly, the writers refuse the Crane children the smooth resolution the sitcom format typically demands, the episode concluding with them suffering silently as they chew their meal over the closing credits.
Though a quiet ending, it is a rather bold statement for a spin-off in its third episode to make, and sets a tone for the first season of Frasier as a slightly serialized story with a meaningful conflict at its core, something that goes beyond “Frasier’s divorced middle-aged energy.”
In addition to feeling much more lived in in its early scenes (thanks to improved radio scene material, and the introduction of the Niles/Daphne dynamic), the deep conflicts alluded to in the final act firmly establish solid emotional arcs for the season as a whole – and also serve as a wonderfully clever tease of the wittier, more cohesive form of Frasier to come as it would find its voice, and start to really explore its themes of self-reflection and generational healing. It’s an imbalanced episode, sure, but one deliberately designed to be so in its script; and though not quite a “bar raising” episode in the traditional sense, the strong voice and bold creative choices of “Dinner At Eight” in its final moments is an intriguing foundational step forward for the sitcom.
- I mentioned it above, but the Niles/Daphne courtship begins in full force this episode, with Niles drooling over Daphne in the extended scene they share together in Frasier’s living room. Your mileage may vary on how “charming” his immediate desire to kick his wife under a bus is.
- Niles’ drink of choice at the Timber Mill: Stoli Gibson on the rocks, with three pearl onions. Not two, not four. He is so insufferable in this episode.
- His steak order is equally hilarious: “Seared on both sides, and pink in the middle. Not a true pink, but not a mauve, either. Bear in mind, the slightest error either way, and it’s ruined.”
- Marty: “Niles, your country and your family are to die for. Your food is to eat.”
- Niles buys Daphne Devonshire clotted cream as a bit of a gift… so random, but speaks to the strange way Niles processes the world and people in his orbit.
- Frasier, about Daphne’s ‘abilities’: “Shy’s psychic. We’ve decided to find it charming.”
- Niles and Frasier share not one, but TWO high fives in this episode – something I’m confident does not happen in the series ever again.
- I would never, ever claim a steak off a beef trolley. Never. Though the Crane brothers are absolute douchebags in this episode, I gotta agree with them on this one. Also, if a restaurant cut off my tie, my dinner would be free – what in the fuck is that about?
- This week’s caller, Pam? None other than legend Patti LuPone.