Second Look: Frasier Season 1 Episode 6 – “The Crucible”

Frasier The Crucible

Frasier Season 1, Episode 6 “The Crucible”
Written by Sy Dukane & Denise Moss
Directed by James Burrows
Aired October 21, 1993 on NBC

“The Crucible” is an interesting microcosm of Frasier‘s many different identities across its 11-season run; while it is the first episode to not feature a Marty/Frasier-centric third act, it certainly continues the trend of early episodes in finding avenues to explore Frasier’s life long before he appeared on Cheers, which often dip into explorations of Crane masculinity. That’s all fine and well – unfortunately, it’s also an episode previewing some of the hackier tendencies of lesser Frasier episodes: there is a lot of Kelsey Grammar ham in this episode… and it’s not exactly in service of some deep, resonant emotional arc, which makes the whole endeavor feel a bit superfluous by the end.

It also continues the trend of early Frasier episodes and their apparent affinity for a barebones plot, though “The Crucible” does a better job of keeping characters like Roz and Daphne closer to the drama at hand with Frasier’s impromptu party (even if the pinot noir is far too stagey). After Frasier finds out he’s purchased a forged piece of art, he unsuccessfully tries to get a refund, and seeks revenge; in terms of plot, it is equally straightforward and unremarkable, which gives reason to why Grammar turns up the hammy Frasier schmaltz up to 11 for the episode’s duration.

Frasier The Crucible

Of course, Frasier would often lean on the performative qualities of its cast to great effect through the years; in “The Crucible”, it lays bare just how barebones every aspect of the episode feels. Relying entirely on a single external conflict, “The Crucible” mostly just shrugs its way through 23 minutes, offering nothing but heightened melodrama as Frasier realizes there’s nobody out there to help him get his money back from a shifty art dealer (played by longtime character actor John Rubinstein).

But strangely, the episode ultimately is about Niles and his sense of pride, of all things; when Frasier brings a brick to throw through the art gallery’s window out of anger, Niles pulls up in his Mercedes to remind Frasier they are “better” than that. While the scene is a great showcase for David Hyde Pierce to start establishing the strange creature that is Niles Crane (outside of being extremely dismissive of his ‘delicate’ wife, of course), there’s really not a lot the episode has to say about its own events or characters; just that Frasier is willing to subject himself to any level of embarrassment to be accepted into the upper crust of society, which is a plot point many later episodes would touch upon, to varying degrees of success.

Here, Niles’ sudden release of frustration (in the form of throwing Frasier’s brick for him) is more abrupt than meaningful: however, the scene does establishes the Crane’s brothers willingness to listen to each other, which is an important Frasier tenet. Even though their dynamic is a competitive one based on insults and one-upping each other, Crane men take what they tell each other to heart – and that support does offer the episode something in the way of emotion, even if it is muted and contained to the episode’s final 45 seconds.

Frasier The Crucible

Personally, I’d really like to think “The Crucible” is a repudiation of police forces as devices for the rich to exact power and influence over society (Marty plays a joke on Frasier, who thinks the Seattle Police Dept. has a Fine Arts Forgery department to help him get a refund); but that’s more than a stretch, especially since the episode ends with Niles smashing the art gallery window and not being charged with a felony for it.

What it does aim for isn’t neatly extrapolated from the episode’s events, but at least feigns toward something deeper Frasier would occasionally tap into (often for purposes of mockery, but here its at least a bit more measured). Frasier, as a series built on Frasier’s Freudian philosophies, often found focus in exploring the formative adolescent years of the Crane boys, and how it defines them as adults today. In “The Crucible”, Frasier and Niles’ humiliation they felt at being “different” is ultimately what the episode is examining, something that’s clearly affected them their whole lives.

Though they’ve always been able to exercise their intellectual superiority over their foes, being unable to exact physical (or even karmic) forms of vengeance and exert their dominance is something that’s always limited them – which causes a lot of emotional dissonance, particularly in the light of who their father was, and how he wishes they always behaved. Their discussion outside the art gallery, while focused on Frasier’s behavior in the moment and Niles’ traumatic experience, is really conveying something about the how both siblings and traumatic experiences can influence the development of character in people; clearly there are times when Niles and Frasier are uncomfortable with their inability to take control of events, and how they find resolve in each other is a meaningful reveal, even if it’s one the episode abruptly uses as a misdirection for plot resolution.

Frasier The Crucible

Regardless, it does ends on a hilarious note; after Frasier exposes the nicknames Coach gave his brother, Niles throws the brick through the window himself, and the two drive off, bringing the episode to an end (we later see Frasier hanging the forged painting above his toilet over the closing credits). We’ll always be slaves to certain traumatic experiences in our life; and while being swindled out of art challenged Frasier’s sense of masculinity, Niles’ horrible experience defined it for him at a young age, and leads to a much more complex, layered resolution than the initial, more superficially comedic events of “The Crucible” would suggest.

Though its shift from seemingly empty comedy to resonant emotional moment is unbelievably jarring (especially visually, moving from the many bright interior sets to a dark Seattle street corner), I dig where “The Crucible” ultimately lands, and how it suggests resolution sometime comes from within, rather than the machinations of the universe providing it to us. Regardless of what precedes it, there’s no denying the powerful image of Niles throwing the brick through that window, and for a moment, taking control: it says a lot about the tension he lives with (both from his general personality, and the anxiety of his marriage), and ends the strange, uneven “The Crucible” with a spectacularly satisfying bang.

Grade: C+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • A summation of Daphne’s thoughts on what happens before death: you walk down a dark hallway, suddenly get all the jokes you never got, chuckle, then die.
  • Frasier, upon Roz’s arrival at the party: “Oh my goodness Roz, you’ve got a neck!”
  • Frasier has to stop his father from showing house guests pictures from bloody murder scenes. “She said, aren’t these Swedish meatballs the messiest things you’ve ever seen? And I said, matter of fact, it is not.”
  • Daphne’s opinion of Martha showcases Jane Leeves’ mastery of punch lines: “Quite frankly, I don’t think that woman bathes.”
  • “I’m not leaving until I get a refund!” Cut to inter title “AFTER HE LEFT…”
  • This week’s caller? Robert Klein, whose most recent acting credit is I Think You Should Leave.
  • After smashing the window, Niles throws cash out of his wallet at the broken glass on the sidewalk. “We may be barbarians, but we pay for our pillaging!”

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