Second Look: Frasier Season 1, Episode 24 – “My Coffee with Niles”

Frasier My Coffee with Niles

Frasier Season 1, Episode 24 “My Coffee with Niles”
Written by David Angell & Peter Casey
Directed by James Burrows
Aired May 19, 1994 on NBC

Set entirely in Cafe Nervosa, Frasier‘s first season finale is not only an unexpected bottle episode – it’s also the show’s deepest (though hardly only) foray into cinematic homage, translating the iconic 1981 film My Dinner with Andre into something the sitcom could use to resolve the first season. Though one might expect that to include a lot of Frasier and Marty – but the latter only features in about five minutes of the 22-minute episode, leaving much of the heavy lifting to be done with Frasier and Niles, and their own respective arcs through the season. And boy, does it pull it off; there’s really nothing else in the series quite like “My Coffee with Niles”, an impressive (and impressively restrained) season finale that may just be the single best script of the entire series, which is all based around a single question that Niles asks Frasier early in the episode: “Are you happy?”

After a first season of increasingly shallow installments, “My Coffee with Niles” returns Frasier to the deeper explorations of the early episodes, focusing on each character of the main cast and reflecting on the conflicts Frasier‘s mostly played for humor throughout the first season. Unlike most sitcom season finales with big plot twists and loud moments, “My Coffee with Niles” is more a reflection on Frasier’s first year in Seattle, rather than planning for whatever might come next. Instead of trying to hook audiences with something to talk about all summer, “My Coffee” revisits the various tensions explored through the first season – and to great effect, an incredibly prescient reminder of why audiences would want to tune in for a second season four or five months later.

Frasier My Coffee with Niles

It’s really a surprising change of pace; Frasier‘s ability to handle the grind of a long sitcom season has been incredibly inconsistent, relying on superficial gags and hacky physical humor in moments of creative strain – particularly in the back half of its freshman season whenever it leaned away from the intergenerational conflicts of Marty and Frasier. “My Coffee with Niles” throws its own episodic structure out altogether, isolating Frasier and his brother on the coffee shop’s neutral ground, so the two could prod each other about their lives – and in the process, take a moment to reflect on their own.

The construction of “My Coffee with Niles” is impressive, beginning with its framing, built around Frasier’s interactions with the poor Nervosa barista who has to return Frasier’s coffee four times before he’s satisfied with it. Her presence is a key building block for the ultimate payoff – which, working backwards, comes from the question Niles poses, the one Frasier continually gets distracted from answering when other characters show up at the cafe (or at one point, when the brothers move inside after it starts raining). When Frasier finally answers whether he is happy or not, he’s alone at the table for the first time in the episode, turning a recurring gag into a wildly satisfying moment for Frasier Crane – and, though unknown at the time, one of the few bright spots he’s given through the series.

Of course, “My Coffee with Niles” is probably best remembered for what it does with Niles. When trying to deflect attention away from the question of his happiness, Frasier asks Niles whether he is happy with Maris, and whether he’s in love with Daphne. His answers are the most sobering things Frasier ever offers (save for its continued torture of Frasier’s romantic life). Niles admits that him and Maris are like “old friends,” and that he’s never felt passion for her like he’s felt for Daphne, even though it’s something he swears he’ll never act on (at least, until his wife goes off the rails – but I’m getting ahead of myself). In one of the show’s more touching, tragic moments, Niles admits that he’s never experienced true joy in his life: at best, he can say he’s content, a distinct choice that frames everything about the episode around it.

Frasier My Coffee with Niles

Impressive enough is how well Frasier and Niles’ arcs throughout the season are addressed in “My Coffee”; consider how it integrates Marty, Daphne, and Roz into this story in varying degrees, and the achievement becomes even more remarkable. Though Roz and Daphne’s thin characters are exposed a bit here – it’s basically “Roz can’t find love, but loves getting laid!” and “Daphne’s British sensibilities are odd!” – but Frasier really brings the season home with one last reconciliation between father and sons in its final scenes, a poignantly messy resolution that lean on Frasier and Niles’s imperfections as children – but also put on display of the season’s central thesis, about the healing power of family and camaraderie for scarred people in a cruel world.

At first, Marty’s crankiness seems to be enhanced just to create some tension in the episode; it is later revealed that he’s mad because his sons forgot his birthday, in their ever-present focus on the man they see in the mirror every morning. Even though it’s kind of a major thing to forget, Marty eventually concedes he missed enough of their birthdays, he really has no reason to be mad about it. Again, “My Coffee” is exploring how happy its characters are, but using Marty’s frustration as a way to convey how connected these three are to each other, and how their happiness is ultimately defined by their reunion in Seattle.

After the brothers meekly apologize, the tension diffuses in a way unseen in the entirely of the 23 episodes preceding it: the three quickly agree to have dinner later (at a German restaurant, of all places), and that’s it; though their shared residence remains a prickly, unresolved tension destined to last until the end of their lives, Crane love is strong – and for someone who has spent a full year trying to reset his life, is something someone can build a new foundation on.

Frasier My Coffee with Niles

As the episode ends and everyone leaves Frasier in the cafe, he finally realizes that yes, he is happy, despite the nagging feeling he’ll be alone forever and end up like his father. He is happy to have found his family again, to find a career where he feels meaningful,- and for a moment, he gets to enjoy that, knowing he has a family as complicated and eternally tortured as he is. And in the end, isn’t that all we’re looking for in our friends and family, is to provide that foundation for us to find our own path in life? Beyond that , all we can do is enjoy what we have, and embrace the brief moments of clarity and resolution that the world throws at us – and of course, enjoy a nice, quiet decaf, no-fat milk, never been around a sprinkle of cinnamon Zimbabwe latte on a rainy day when we get the chance.

“My Coffee with Niles”, which is written more like a one-act play than a multi-camera sitcom episode, smartly doesn’t marry itself to the structure of its homage, but the intent; and as a self-reflective episode of comedy, Frasier‘s first season finale is an episode unlike any to follow it, a beautiful 23 minutes of distilling down the young sitcom’s many elements into its purest form (it’s also exponentially subtler than other episodes of the series). It’s also just a good, expectation-subverting episode of television, and just about the perfect ending to close out the high-profile spinoff’s incredibly bombastic, occasionally ambitious, and consistently uneven first season.

Grade: A

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Niles’ thoughts on Roz: “She’s kind of comely, in a back alley sort of way.”
  • Roz: “I’m ecumenical… I embrace men of all faiths!”
  • Niles asks Frasier if he would consider dating Roz; though Frasier mostly shoots down the idea, he cops to checking out her breasts whenever she wears a certain top, a quintessentially 90’s answer.
  • David Hyde Pierce delivers an all-time spit take when Frasier asks him if he’s in love with Daphne.
  • Niles delivers one more zinger to Frasier’s career, calling him “psychiatry’s answer to the drive-thru window.”
  • When Niles casually mentions a man is good-looking, he starts to panic. Frasier chastises him: “it means you are a gay man!”
  • Marty playing blind to get his dog into Cafe Nervosa is classic – he doesn’t even hesitate before putting on the act.
  • “He’s tough as nails on the outside, and on the inside… spikes.”
  • Frasier mentions being old and alone and moving in with Frederick… I mean, he’s not totally wrong.
  • Marty: “What do you guys talk about in here?” Niles: “Oh you know, sports, chicks, monster truck rallies.”
  • After a (unexpectedly lengthy) set of delays… that marks the end of Frasier season one reviews! I’ll wrap up season coverage with an official episode ranking later this week; if you’d like to see coverage of season two, leave a comment and let me know!

Want to share your thoughts? Join the conversation below!